Saving the Past

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Leonard Davis stands in front of a wagon
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A two-bottom plow
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A horse-powered grinder
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Allis-Chalmers silage chopper

Stepping onto the farm of Leonard Davis in South Central Kansas can be compared to a walk through the last eleven decades of the previous millennium. Leonard’s farm is located in an area of our county in which few roads exist, and if you weren’t familiar with the territory, you would swear it is totally devoid of population. His homestead is completely surrounded by trees, and if you aren’t provided directions which are very precise, you likely won’t find it without sitting in the road and honking your horn for attention (folks have become lost in that area in the past). But Leonard is not a recluse. In fact, he is one of the most outgoing people you’ll ever be privileged to meet, always willing to help someone or to provide information -especially information concerning horses and antique, horse-drawn farm equipment.

My acquaintance with Leonard goes back about thirty years or so, and he and I have visited about antique farm equipment a number of times. So, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Leonard took time off from his schedule (cows calving out in the pasture, haying equipment to prepare for the first cutting) and took me on a three hour tour. He showed me more antique implements than I was able to count correctly, losing track at 105 complete implements, when I disturbed a wild turkey hen nesting a clutch of a dozen eggs. The machinery that needed it has been restored, but, Leonard says, ‘Paint and fancy decoration require too much time.’ There are horse-drawn sickles, plows, planters, disc harrows, orchard discs, stalk choppers, cultivators, and a few items whose function it would be a challenge to determine without explanation. In this assortment are items built by the more well known manufacturers -John Deere, Oliver, International, Allis Chalmers, etc. Manufacturers such as Sandwich Mfg. Co., Dain Mfg Co. and P&O Canton are represented, as well as smaller Kansas companies from Great Bend, Stafford, Kingman, Pratt, and others. These small firms were in business in the late 19th century through the first part of the 20th century, and the equipment manufactured by them is fairly rare, since it was only sold in a localized area.

Leonard inherited some of this equipment, and quite a bit of it was purchased at auctions in order to ‘keep the junkmen from turning it into scrap iron.’ He says that he can’t remember which was left to him and which he purchased. He uses this equipment to ‘keep interesting old ways alive,’ and enjoys every minute of working with it, tinkering with it, and visiting about it. In his opinion, older machinery was built with quality and utility in mind, and companies and people took great pride in their finished products. If you look closely, you can see variations in bends in axles and variations in other components, personal stamps of the people who made them. On some equipment built by smaller firms, where you can see imperfections in cast iron parts showing, it’s likely that someone hastily constructed a mold in order to provide a single component, using sand which was of a fairly coarse grain. This doesn’t mean that the castings are poor, it just shows that those operations were dynamic in their outlook, weren’t afraid of trying something new, and were willing to create a tool that was needed. It’s even possible that a company may have built only a single implement of that type at a customer’s request and this implement would probably have been a close copy of another manufacturer’s product, the mold made from a component ‘borrowed’ off that implement. Nowadays, few firms would consider accepting the challenge of attempting to create a mold in-house in order to provide a cast component for a single implement, or even for a small production run.

Parts sources are a concern for a lot of folks who endeavor to conserve, collect or operate antique equipment. Leonard, on the other hand, has some incomplete machines around the place, as well as his fully assembled and functional equipment (in the rafters of one of his buildings are more threshing machine canvasses than I’ve ever seen at one time, some are still white and unused). This somewhat redundant equipment can sometimes provide needed components. He also builds some of his own components, and has the local welder/blacksmith occasionally create or repair a needed piece.

On our tour around the lot where most equipment is kept, almost all of the implements which we inspected, although rusted, and probably in need of some lubrication for sickle drives and on axles and rock shafts, were actually in pretty good condition, considering their age and obvious past usage. Very little time and effort would be required to restore any of these items to what may not be classified as pristine condition, but highly usable. Leonard doesn’t just let this machinery sit in a fence row with trees growing up through the frameworks. Most equipment is moved around at least once a year, inspected and, at least, raised and lowered several times, levers are operated, and quite a few items are used occasionally in progress of farm work.

Leonard also has six draft horses which require exercising frequently enough that lessons in commands and pulling with another horse as a team won’t be forgotten. If a horse has a memory lapse or is new to harness, Leonard has constructed a trainer which consists of an A-frame made of wooden poles, with the legs of the ‘A’ mounted on wheels and a pivot at the top of the ‘A.’ The horse is hitched between the legs of the frame, while the driver perches on a seat mounted behind the horse, and ’round they go. If the horse is too frisky, the driver can stand on a plank which is dragged behind in order to provide a heavier load and some braking action.

Exercising and training his horses also provides a great excuse for Leonard to use his equipment. When he has time (or just the ambition or inclination) he will hitch up a horse or a team, depending upon the work planned, and head for the field. His machinery collection matches all seasonal uses, from spring tillage and planting, through harvest in the fall. Using his teams, he has been known to gather cornstalks with a binder and shock them for winter feed. This has never been one of the easiest tasks to be performed on a farm. A binder ties the stalks together, but then drops them on the ground. You still have to pick them up and stack them in shocks. The fact that these shocks also provide shelter and food for various small varmints and occasionally a coyote or two appear to please, rather than to annoy him. Leonard, like any good farmer, appreciates the life which surrounds him, including the creatures which compete with him for the crops which he cultivates and produces.

In most small farm communities reside quite a number of folks who keep old equipment around, and I believe that their reasons for this are about the same as Leonard’s. It helps them to remember older values that they believe do not now appear to be prevalent in our modern society. It also helps the rest of us to remember the tremendous amount of physically hard labor which was invested in the settling of the western plains and the rest of this country. Some collect tractors, some have wagons, most have old tractor-drawn tillage equipment sitting around their farms which they don’t use, but also can’t bear to part with for one reason or another.

Leonard Davis, however, is the most enthusiastic conservator, collector and operator of antique equipment I have had the privilege to know. The difference in our ages is only about nineteen years (he is seventy two, and I hope that when I reach that age, my fitness matches his), but his knowledge and experience concerning old methods and equipment far surpass that of mine or anyone else I know. Leonard still uses most of his implements on his small, 320-acre farm. He grinds grain for his horses and fowl almost exclusively by hand, only using his large Sandwich grinder a couple of times a year for whole corn. His life appears to be intentionally slow-paced. He produces enough income to satisfy himself and doesn’t worry about what the rest of the world thinks of him. His enthusiasm is infectious and makes you want to try hitching up a team and have him teach you what he knows, and, in my case, creates a desire to begin freeing up rusted levers and bolts, repairing plowshares, rolling disc blades, sandblasting and painting equipment, in order to present some pieces of history built long ago by American craftsmen, to those people who have small knowledge of individual accomplishment and handwork.

Jack Raphael operates a welding/manufacturing company in Central Kansas.

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