If the Harvard School of Business concerned itself with the preservation of vintage farm equipment, it’s focus would be tightly trained on the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum (AGSEM) in Vista, Calif. The museum’s programming and activities provide a detailed case study of how such operations should be run.
A firm commitment to education, heavy emphasis on recruitment, and innovative approaches to fundraising set AGSEM apart. But there’s more to this success story than a coherent mission statement. Take a collection of more than 20,000 items (ranging from rare documents to a Corliss steam engine with a 19,000-lb. flywheel); Toss in a location on 40 acres of rolling farm ground; Watch a happy army of volunteers “working” daily with vintage farm equipment, and you begin to get an idea of a rust man’s holiday.
“The thing that’s made it work well here is that we walk a fine line between making it fun for the volunteers, and serving the public,” says Rod Groenewold, AGSEM’s director.
Picture a 40-acre site where volunteers have the run of the place: They raise crops (using the museum’s vintage farm equipment), restore and maintain old equipment, put on shows and threshing bees, give tours, teach everything from mechanics to weaving, and host group events. And they do it fulltime.
“Volunteers are on site, working, all the time, every day,” Rod says. “Some of them keep motor homes here year ’round.”
A big part of AGSEM’s attraction is the unique exposure to the permanent collection. The sheer variety of pieces – and the chance to work with all of it at any time – works like a magnet to draw in some 600 dues-paying volunteers.
“In other parts of the country, most museum pieces are painted up like candy, and put behind ropes where you can’t touch them,” Rod says. “Or, it’s a big show: Everybody brings their stuff, it’s all out there operating, and then at the end of the weekend, they take it all home. There’s so much diversity in our collection, and most everything you see here, stays here.”
That diversity is a mixed blessing.
“Most museums have a much narrower focus,” he says. “They’re specifically designed for agriculture, or construction equipment … We have a wide enough collection to start three good museums. It wasn’t by design; it just happened. Just about every museum starts out with people that are interested in specific things. We’ve got people here interested in a variety of things. It’s all a reflection of their interests.”
Those varied interests converge on two points: Education and recruitment.
“A museum is by definition an educational facility,” Rod notes. AGSEM has put a high priority on educational programming, which spans every age range. How do they do it?
“Look at all the toys we’ve got!” Rod says, with almost boyish glee.
School groups visits the museum almost every day during the school year. During “School Days,” a five-day period held annually, an additional 1,000 students visit the museum. Countless volunteers give special tours and demonstrations that week.
“It’s a unique situation here,” Rod admits. “There are not a lot of opportunities like what we offer in San Diego, so it’s a good place for field trips. We see a lot of kids get off the bus and look amazed: It’s a half-mile to the next house, and they’ve never seen anything like that. We get a lot of kids who don’t have the foggiest idea of what a farm is. But once we get the kids here, we get ’em back.”
But that’s only part of the educational programming at AGSEM. The museum is next door to the Guajome Park Academy, a California charter school for grades 6-12.
“We helped found that school,” Rod says. “I’ve been on the school board since the school was in the planning stages. We just wanted to try a closer partnership with a school.”
The result? Students from the school next door are involved in all aspects of the museum’s operations.
“We have kids working with the weavers, learning woodworking – they built our last couple of hayracks – learning mechanics, you name it,” Rod says.
Additionally, internships are offered in museology, collections management and small business administration. Internships are supervised by volunteers, and are available on both credit and non-credit basis to high school and college students. Adult education programs – most notably blacksmithing – are also available at the museum.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Rod says, with some understatement.
The museum staff has been fairly crafty at using that opportunity to recruit enthusiasts of all ages. Among the volunteers are three generations of various families. That reflects a concerted effort to keep the past alive.
“Some of our volunteers are reaching a high median age,” Rod says. “So we work very hard to get younger people involved. There’s boys ages 13-14, for instance, and all they want to do is work on stuff, so we keep some old beaters out here for the kids to work on. The kids really can’t hurt them. When they’re done with a piece, we can part it out if we need to. But first we try to get ’em in and get ’em interested.”
While many worry about the next generation of collectors, the museum’s biggest challenge, Rod says, is getting young people involved – and not just with their own collections.
“That’s a real concern with a living history museum. A tractor can be out in the trees for 50 years, and you rescue it and restore it, and it’s pretty solid,” he says. “But if you lose the knowledge to operate that tractor, that’s what is really important.”
The museum is aggressively promoted through out Southern California, and many outside groups hold special events and activities there, further widening AGSEM’s scope. Marketing will always be a big part of the mix.
“There’s a lot of competition out here,” Rod says. “And it’s increasingly difficult to sell a rural venue to an urban society.”
So far, a resourceful approach to funding has worked. AGSEM officials have ferretted out grant money, donations and other non-traditional sources of income.
“I always say it’s easier to raise money for way ward children and dogs than it is for rusty iron,” Rod says. “But we look for folks who are interested, for people who have some tie to the industry. We’ve found that the closer to home you get, the better. The city and county have been very kind to us; the county gave us a 50-year lease for $1 a year.”
And then there’s the star factor. When Hollywood needs a piece of vintage equipment, AGSEM answers the call.
“We just got a contract for a movie called ‘Pearl Harbor’,” Rod says. “They’re going to use a lot of twenties farm equipment in the early scenes, and some of our construction equipment in a later scene.”
Film work translates into money in the bank for the museum, and more unique opportunities for volunteers.
“We’re pretty tight on the contracts … we kind of circumvent the union, because no one there’s certified to run antique equipment,” Rod says. “So the volunteers get to operate the equipment, and they like doing those jobs … they get paid as extras or ‘consultants’, and sometimes they get to see the stars. The only down side is that it’s not revenue you can really budget. It all depends on what’s in production.”
The museum was formed by the California Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association in 1976. Earlier this year, that group merged with AGSEM.
“It’s been a merger of two groups,” Rod says. “One had the membership, and one had collections. It’s been a good marriage.” FC
For more information: The Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, 2040 N. Santa Fe Ave., Vista, CA, 92083; located between I-5 and I-15 off SR 78; Melrose Avenue north to Santa Fe Avenue; turn right to the museum. Phone: (760) 941-1791 or (800) 5-TRACTOR. Online: www.agsem.com.