Zagray Farm Museum: A Living Link to the Past

Zagray Farm Museum preserves brothers’ old iron collection.

| March 2014

Zagray Farm Museum sends a very bad message to packrats. Formerly owned by three bachelor brothers, the 200-acre complex in Colchester, Conn., fairly groans beneath the weight of lovingly preserved old iron, much of which is put through its paces during shows put on there by the Quinebaug Valley Engineers Assn. (QVEA).

Tractors, all manner of tools and machinery, a machine shop, sawmill and even an 1866 cupola furnace salvaged from a foundry are among the relics amassed by brothers Stanley, Harry and Willie Zagray — all of who apparently shared a disinclination to part with anything, ever. Now owned in a cooperative joint venture between the QVEA and the Colchester Historical Society, the farm is a living museum showcasing the rise of mechanization in agriculture, construction and industry. “We try to maintain the brothers’ interests,” says Mark Maikshilo, QVEA past president.

The museum produces three shows a year. Demonstrations showcase an 1800s sawmill, planer and cordwood saw, vintage construction equipment, plowing with oxen or tractors, stationary power and blacksmithing. The Zagray brothers’ machine shop gives a remarkable look at machine tools dating to the late 19th century.

The heart of the farmstead

The oldest part of the farm shop building was built before World War II. Stanley Zagray worked as a machinist at Pratt & Whitney through the war years. By about 1950, when he began working from his home shop, the brothers had expanded the shop. “They were very industrious guys,” Mark says. “They had a turbine they used to channel their own power for electricity from a brook nearby. It wasn’t enough to provide electricity for the whole house but what they got, they got for free.”

Wood stoves heated the shop. A lifetime’s accumulation of smoke coated the walls with a smudge so thick that the brothers used it as a sort of blackboard. Notations, calculations and words of wisdom they scratched into the smudge remain visible today.

Early on, club members thought the machine shop might offer a resource available to members who could work there to produce their own parts. But practicalities soon proved that impossible. “The electrical system is a disaster,” Mark notes. “There are light cords dangling over machines and 3-phase is supplied with extension cords.” Safety was a major concern, as were skill levels. Few if any members were truly well-versed in operation of century-old shop equipment.