The Model Prisoner

Follow along with a Maryland inmate who passes the time by immersing himself in model-building from 1970 Chevelle 55’s to John Deere.

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by Leslie C. McManus
Robert Stickel has built models of a carousel, cars, tractors with implements and motorcycles. “Once I made a double-wing airplane,” he says. “I needed to take a break from tractors.”

Maryland inmate passes the time by immersing himself in model-building

It’s not unusual for Robert Stickel to pour hundreds of hours into each of the intricately detailed model tractors he builds. As a prisoner in a Maryland correctional facility, time is the one thing he has in abundant supply.

Now 60, Robert’s been in and out of prison several times over the years. “I never did serious harm to myself or anyone else,” he says. He’s been an inmate at a Maryland prison since 2008; more years will pass before his release. Until then, he pushes back against the weight of time by building models of antique farm equipment. “It gives me something to do,” he says.

In prison, Robert does his best to keep busy. He’s taught himself to read and he’s completed the University of Maryland Extension Service Master Gardener program. He works as a gardener at the 3-acre prison compound from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. As he tends to vegetable gardens, greenhouse plantings and flower beds, he can pretend he’s somewhere else. “Sometimes when I’m gardening,” he says, “I think about being on a John Deere tractor.”

Still, afternoons and evenings drag on. Some Sundays, he starts working on his models at 9 a.m., scarcely taking a break until 10 o’clock that night. He avoids the cafeteria, opting instead to buy food at the commissary and heat it in a microwave oven. “I stay to myself,” he says. “I was raised on a hog farm; I don’t like being around a bunch of people.”

He started building models as a kid, using dime store kits. Today, he builds models out of boredom. It takes 250 hours to produce basic models; he might put more than 400 hours into a more complex piece. “It doesn’t take long to get to 250 hours if you sit down and work 10 hours a day,” he says. “But I don’t pay attention to time. I can’t afford to.”

‘We always fixed anything that broke’

Robert had an early introduction to tractors, growing up on a farm in southern Maryland. “We had a John Deere 60 that my granddad bought new and a 1936 Model D that we called ‘the old D,'” he says. “We used the Model D to pull a 12-foot disc and run a hammermill to grind feed for the hogs. Whenever I heard that tractor running, I would run to climb on. I remember sitting, all bundled up, holding onto the crankcase breather. I’d watch the front wheels wobble back and forth as we drove through the plowed fields.”

At age 10, he learned to start the old D on his own. “I remember opening the relief valves and pushing the throttle lever halfway and choking it,” he says. “Then cranking it over to compression stroke, putting both hands on the flywheel and my right foot on the rear wheel and pull, hoping it would start on the first try.”

Robert’s earliest memories are filled with the sounds of tractors and trucks. “My mother and grandmother could not keep me in the house if a truck or tractor were running somewhere outside,” he says. “I would rush to jump on. I am sure I must have been in the way, but luckily, the men didn’t seem to mind. They just let me come along.”

He describes himself as mechanically inclined, a skill learned on the farm. “We always fixed anything that broke,” he says. Later, he worked in construction and helped restore antique cars. “I’m a pretty good metal worker,” he says.

Models include moving pieces

Robert’s models feature functional steering and other moving parts. Wheels turn; sprockets work. On his Dain tractor, he made the chains that roll around the sprocket. Turn the rear wheel on the Waterloo Boy, and the fan turns. “On the Happy Farmer, to make the steering wheel turn, I put a little extension on it,” he says. “There are 54 pieces to one sprocket in each Happy Farmer wheel. Each wheel on the John Deere 8010 is made of 100 pieces. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make these work.”

Within the tractor category, Robert’s created a niche of John Deere products. “I’ve made five Gold Leaf Model D’s and two regular Model D’s, a Dain and three or four 1918 Waterloo Boys. I’ve made a 4010 tricycle with a cab, 3-point and five-bottom plow and a 4430 with cab,” he says. He’s also produced Fordson and McCormick-Deering tractors, a 1930 V-16 Cadillac Roadster (with golf bag and clubs), Model T Fords and a 1957 Mack 1000 plus parts. He put more than 400 hours into the Mack, which features all removable parts down to the frame. On a recently completed Kubota, the backhoe and bucket work.

When he produces duplicates, like the Model D’s, they’re all basically the same size with slight variations. He produces patterns for some components. “The next time I make that tractor, I don’t have to rethink it all,” he says, “but there are still a lot of little pieces you have to make.” Design is a slow process, one requiring use of a protractor and forms. “I work on it until it looks right to me,” he says. “The smaller the model is, the harder it is to make. I made a Cub Cadet 100 rider, and that was real hard.”

His comfort zone is tractors dating from 1960 to 1980. Early tractors can be a challenge if they have a simple, primitive appearance. “If there’s not a lot of detail, it’s hard to make it look good,” he says. Nor is he tempted by new models. “I don’t think I could get interested in making a new tractor,” he says. “They are ugly to me, and it’s hard to copy that rounded sheet metal. I’d probably get aggravated.”

Creativity fueled by resourcefulness

A model-maker behind bars practices his craft with a set of tools and materials another artisan would scarcely recognize. “If I weren’t in prison,” Robert says, “I’d be using 20- or 22-gauge metal and a soldering iron.” Instead, he scavenges cardboard backs from legal pads to make rims, gluing layers together to create a stiffer material. “I’ve gotten used to working with what I have,” he says.

To produce kingpins, he deconstructs cracker boxes, carefully peeling off the glossy surface film coating. “Then I flare the ends and cut pieces 1/8 or 3/16-inch wide to make pins,” he says. Thinner cardboard is used for hoods; thicker pieces are used to form sidewalls. The inner core from a roll of masking tape makes a handy inner rim for a tire. “Getting the wheels so they don’t wobble,” he muses, “that’s the hardest part.”

Each radiator has 132 hand-formed holes. “It takes a lot of work to make those screens,” Robert says. “I take a big pin and poke 11 holes across and 12 down. They’ve got to be equally distributed. Then I ream each hole with a sharp pencil. Glue helps keep the holes open. I push the pencil through and widen them as go. After I paint the radiator, I have to poke the holes again to reopen them.”

Inmates are allowed to use their wages to purchase art supplies via mail order, but even that requires resourcefulness. “You can’t get John Deere green,” Robert says, “and you can’t get oil-based paint.” Sharp tools are largely off limits, as is anything mechanized. “I don’t use anything that would get me in trouble,” Robert says. “I try to be discreet; I don’t call attention to myself.”

Losing track of time

Logistics are also complicated. Cells are small with little space for storage of materials or completed models. When he finishes a model, Robert takes it to the prison library where he is allowed to store (three at a time) in a display case. When the display ends, he can fit three or four into a box that he mails to his uncle for safekeeping. Once they’re shipped out, they exist only in his memory. “I’ve been trying to get pictures taken of them,” he says, “but getting somebody to do that here is almost impossible.”

Still, he has his fans. “A lot of people here have taken an interest in the tractors,” he says. “Sometimes there are four or five guards in my cell at once, looking at my models. And the warden likes them too.”

When he starts new projects, Robert occasionally works from memory, but he also relies on photographs and magazines.” I just finished a 1917 Model B Happy Farmer with an umbrella,” he says. “There was a picture of one in Farm Collector.” Soon he’ll tackle a 1919 Moline Universal Model D and a 1966 Farmall 1206; maybe even a Bates Steel Mule. He’s guessing he produces eight to 12 models a year, but if he’s lucky, the details slip through his fingers.

“That’s how I survive in here,” he says. “I try to lose track of time and not think about home.” FC

For more information: Robert L. Stickel, #362-745-297669, 13800 McMullen Hwy. SW, Cumberland, MD 21502.

Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at:

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