Tractor drives are typically thought of as pursuits for seasoned hobbyists. But at the Rust ’N Dust Antique Tractor Caravan in central Michigan, the sounds of children laughing and playing offered sweet accompaniment to the deeper tones of old iron. Held in early August 2012, the caravan drew 45 tractors, 50 enthusiasts and more than a dozen kids ages 4-17.
Launched in Hanover, Mich., the 9th annual tractor caravan set out to cover more than 100 miles in two days. Participants formed a caravan that stretched a mile and a half as they rolled along back roads through five counties at a leisurely pace of about 10 mph.
“This is my seventh trip,” boasted Sully Irish, 10, Jerome, Mich. “It’s pretty cool to see all the different tractors,” he added while climbing onto his 1951 Oliver 77 Row-Crop, a gift to him from his great-grandfather, Don Blakley, a long-standing member of the Rust ’N Dust group. The tractor was given to him on condition that he continue going on the tractor caravans, something he gladly agreed to. A parade seat and an umbrella mount were recent additions by his dad, Levi, who also handled the driving.
Sully’s sister, Amber, 14, and cousin, Caleb Brink, 10, Jerome, also came along this year. “It’s my first trip and so far the scenery has been my favorite part,” Caleb said at the end of the first day.
Another group of cousins along for the two-day adventure included Alec Balfour, 13, Jackson; Shelby Hewlett, 14, Grand Rapids; and Jes Hamlin, 17, Jackson. Their grandpa, Bill Hewlett, is the caravan’s organizer. “This is my first time,” Shelby said. “I’ve heard about all the past trips and it’ll be fun.” Jess, who’s off to college this fall, is on her sixth tractor drive. “My sister and I went all the time,” she said. “I like spending time with Grandpa.”
John Reed, 12, Adrian, Mich., is an old hand at the tractor caravan, having participated in four others. Accompanying his granddad, Harold Finegan, Jonesville, Mich., he drove a 1951 John Deere Model A. The vintage tractor sported a pair of custom cup holders John designed. “John helps me all the time,” Harold said. “He’s good with tractors and helps me work on them.” The Model A pulled a large wagon outfitted with a yellow canopy and chairs so family and friends could come along.
Joining the caravan from Chelsea, Mich., was Michael Staebler, 15, and his father, Jeff. Michael missed the first Rust ’N Dust caravan but otherwise has perfect attendance. “I’ve been on every caravan since the first one,” he said. “I really enjoy driving and riding tractors.” Like many other participants, the Staeblers also pulled a trailer that doubled as an enclosed camper.
Caravan veterans Alex Sackett, 18, and his cousin, Michael Donihue, 16, brought tractors from the family farm near Hillsdale. Each on their eighth tractor drive, the youths are well versed in the old iron hobby: Members of their extended families own 23 tractors. Although the cousins attend different schools, they live on the same parcel of land with the tractor barn situated between their houses.
“Grandpa started me with the group, and I enjoy it,” Alex said. “I’ll be driving our 1951 John Deere R, which tops out at about 14 mph, but my favorite is the ’47 B. It’s smaller, but it goes like heck.” Michael brought a 1953 John Deere 50 Row-Crop. “This will probably be the slowest tractor in our group,” he said. “It only goes about 12 mph.” After high school he’s thinking about studying to be a mechanic, as he enjoys working on tractors.
Savanna Keck, 16, Hillsdale, met up with the group on the second day at the site of the overnight camp. This is her third tractor caravan. Her father, Glen, did most of the driving so she could focus on what she likes most about the trip: “Seeing the sights.” The Keck family owns 33 tractors, mostly Olivers; her favorite is the Oliver Super 66. “I just really like old tractors,” she said.
Members of the Rust ’N Dust group make it a priority to get kids involved in events like their annual caravan. The younger generation is crucial to the survival of the old iron hobby, they say, particularly when it comes to preserving traditional skills.
“Even now, when you go into most dealerships, they don’t have qualified mechanics who know about old tractors like my 2-cylinder John Deeres,” said Mike Donihue, Hillsdale. “They’ve got no clue on how to fix them, because they’ve already got a plate full of learning in front of them about the new computerized tractors, which is their bread and butter. I grew up with these old tractors and I know how important it is for my grandsons to know how to work on them.”
It also helps young people connect with America’s agricultural tradition. “It’s important for kids to stay involved with these antique tractors,” Levi Irish said. “It really shows them the heritage of farming, from where it came from to how it is now. A lot of kids nowadays just see the giant tractors. But spending a day on one of these old tractors, or working in the field, really gives them a feel for the land.” FC
For information on the Rust ’N Dust Antique Tractor Caravan in 2013, contact Chairman Bill Hewlett, (517) 563-8646; or the Hanover-Horton Area Historical Society, Heritage Park, 121 Tefft Street, PO Box 256, Hanover, MI 49241; email: HHAHS@frontier.com.
Thomas Gilpin is a freelance photojournalist based in Hanover, Mich. He also owns Byerly Photographic Studio/Gilpin Studios. Contact him online at Byerly Studio.