Engineers and Historical Society Pull Together to Create a Farm Museum
Cooperation is the fuel that feeds most human relationships, and in the old-iron world, cooperation among organizations can also lead to wonderful opportunity. In Colchester, Conn., a cooperative joint venture between the Quinebaug Valley Engineers Association (QVEA) and the Colchester Historical Society created the Zagray Farm Museum, a 200-acre farm where the past now comes alive. What was once just another farm along the road between Colchester and Amston is now home to New England´s premier machinery museum.
The Zagray Farm Museum takes its name from the family that donated their farm to the cause. "Three brothers, Harry, Wilbur and Stanley Zagray grew up here," explains QVEA President Mark Maikshilo. "In 2001, when Harry was the only one left alive, he gave the place to the historical society."
Because the Zagray brothers wanted to protect their father´s farm from development, the gift came with a conservation clause. Essentially, the farm was to be preserved in its then-current state as green space and historical homestead site.
The QVEA was born in the winter of 1992, when friends and old-iron enthusiasts gathered to talk about engines, tractors and heavy equipment. Mark can´t remember whose idea it was to form the club, but with 26 founding members, the QVEA incorporated in 1993. "Our first summer gatherings were held in conjunction with the Norwich Auto Show," Mark recalls. "That first year we had about 10 tractors and a few engines, but we generated a lot of interest." In time, as the QVEA membership grew, so did their exhibit. Ultimately, the auto show´s management asked the group to find another place. The nearly 10-year-old club was in a bind.
"Our connection with the Zagray farm was really fortuitous," Mark says. "We needed a place to call home, and the historical society needed someone to help them manage their new property." But when club members first looked over the Zagray farm, they were a bit overwhelmed. "The Zagrays collected just about everything," says QVEA member and museum volunteer Dave Chester. "One brother liked farm equipment and the other collected construction stuff." To say that there was a ton of junk scattered all over the farm would be a gross understatement. "There was so much iron everywhere, we had no idea what to do with it all," Mark recalls. "And the machine shop, foundry and sawmill all needed considerable attention."
Undaunted, the QVEA membership, then several hundred strong, pitched in. Thousands of person-hours later, the QVEA had organized enough iron to have quite an auction. "We found the remnants of over 50 Farmall tractors on top of all kinds of bits and pieces," Dave says. But that wasn´t really the most interesting part."
In a story approaching legendary proportion, Mark explains that while cleaning up the iron around the old farmhouse, he pulled up a piece of rotted canvas and found a sink covering an old pail and surplus military ammunition box. "The pail was full of dirty plastic bags," Mark says. "When I looked inside the bags, I found piles of $20 bills." When the organization members finished counting it all, Mark´s discovery had yielded more than $50,000.
And though the club did the right thing and returned that cache of cash to the Zagray estate, they were allowed to keep a small percentage, which they plowed back into the museum.
Once the excess iron was cleared out, the QVEA turned its attention to getting equipment running, repairing tools in the foundry and machine shop and revitalizing the Zagrays´ old sawmill. After what must´ve seemed an impossible task, in 2003 the QVEA invited the public to a series of events culminating in their 10th annual summer show. "Our association with the Zagray farm has changed everything we do," Mark says. "We have more members (about 500), more variety and more opportunity for demonstrations now than ever before."
Turning into the farm during the QVEA summer show is like turning the corner into a different world. At one end of the site, the farm´s foundry and machine shop bustle with demonstrations of fire and metalworking. In other areas, vintage machinery is put to the test. Interspersed throughout it all are hundreds of exhibitors ready to show off their stuff, and put it to work.
Rod Nosal of Lebanon, Conn., shared his 1915 1-1/2 hp New Way air-cooled engine at the 2005 summer show. Rod found his engine in remarkably good original condition. "I honed the cylinder and cleaned up the rings," he explains while turning the engine´s flywheels to start it. "The valves were good too, so I just lapped them." Once he had the old engine running, all Rod needed to do was touch up the paint and build a new cart.
Rod´s New Way is unusual in general because it is equipped with an air box and fan to direct the cooling flow over the cylinder, and its crank turns counterclockwise. It is also unusual as a New Way because its cylinder extends horizontally rather than vertically from the crankcase. Designed to power butter churns, washing machines, corn grinders and similar equipment, the little engine cost $77 when new.
Bob Hanna brought several very nice Ford tractors to the 2005 show, including one very rare 1959 Model 541 Offset Workmaster. This tractor, based on the Model 741 row crop, was unique to the extent that its engine and driveline were offset to the left of the tractor´s centerline by several inches, but the operator´s station remained centered between the rear wheels.
Ford was late in coming with an offset design in 1959. By then, International Harvester had made the offset configuration quite popular with its ongoing line of Culti-Vision tractors that first appeared in 1939. For the most part, offset tractors were specifically aimed at the precision cultivating market and continue to find duty on tobacco, vegetable and other tender-crop farms.
"When I got the 541, it was a complete basket case," Bob says. "It had been left outside for about 20 years by its original owner." Once Bob got the tractor home to Portland, Conn., he went to work. "It wasn´t that hard to do the mechanical work," Bob explains. "The tin was shot and since the fenders are different than on any other Fords, I had to re-fabricate them." Bob counts the 541 among his favorites, although with a total of 25 Ford tractors in his collection, he says finding a favorite isn´t always easy.
Popeye and Ryan Vertefeuille keep their nicely restored 1937 International Harvester No. 15 hay press at the Zagray Museum and look forward to taking it out during shows and special events to demonstrate. "We found it in a New Hampshire barn and then it sat around at our place for about 10 years," Ryan says. "But the restoration went pretty smooth."
Bringing the old bale maker back to life required meticulous cleaning and plenty of checking, but it was not abused during its life: Its bearings were all intact, and since it had been stored inside, there was minimal rust. At the 2005 show, the hay press was belted to the QVEA´s Farmall Regular and the two men showed the crowd how it was done.
Cutting wood for timber and heat has long been an important part of life in New England. Petroleum-powered hand tools that made the task easier are QVEA member Tom Maikshilo´s passion. This Colchester, Conn., man is particularly interested in chainsaws — and the earlier, or odder, the better.
"When I retired I wanted something to do," Tom says. "I liked saws so I started collecting Malls." Mall, as one of the early and versatile saw makers in this country, made many different styles and models of chainsaws, but Tom quickly expanded his collection to include other brands.
By Tom´s best recollection, he has some 200 saws representing about 30 different brands. "It gets to be a little work to drag them to the show," Tom admits. "So I only brought 60 this year." And while Tom´s forest of saws was quiet during the show, he says most of them would run with a little effort.
One really striking aspect of the Zagray Farm Museum´s machinery collection is that it includes many pieces of large construction equipment. At least one of the Zagray brothers was very interested in heavy equipment — so interested that he collected what he could and converted a portion of the farm into a small sand pit where the equipment could be worked. For example, the club owns a pair of vintage four-wheel drive Hough Payloaders, including one dating to the early 1950s. One serves duty with a fork attachment on the loader arms, while the other is more conventionally equipped with a bucket.
Numerous crawlers from makers such as Caterpillar, Cletrac and International Harvester also call the museum home. A quick glance around the pit reveals any number of pan scrapers, shovels, heavy trucks and even road graders.
While much of the construction equipment is club-owned, some is member-owned. "As members, we are lucky to be able to keep the larger machines here," says Dave Chester. "They´re safe here and you don´t have to haul them anywhere to play with them."
During the summer show, QVEA volunteers run regular shuttles back to the sandbox, where the big attraction is the huge 1953 Northwest Model 80D shovel. This monster of a track-mounted cable digger is powered with a venerable Murphy diesel engine that obligingly belches black smoke into the tree canopy overhead when stripping gravel from the cliff face in front of it. Machines such as this were once found in smaller mines, pits and quarries around the country, where they ruled supreme until the advent of hydraulic excavators and front-end loaders.
Interestingly, some of the largest mining shovels in operation today, though incredibly sophisticated by comparison with the Northwest, still employ winches and cables to run the shovel.
The fruitful partnership between the QVEA and the Colchester Historical Society, and the success achieved with their seasonal events, has led to an aggressive development plan that will expand the Zagray Farm Museum´s role as an area attraction and historical preservation authority. For example, several original Zagray homestead buildings are slated for restoration, including the dairy barn, machine shop, foundry and sawmill. Plans also include construction of a series of buildings to house QVEA machinery and engine collections. The partners also intend to vigorously develop the museum´s potential as an educational facility, with an emphasis on working displays. FC
For more information:
-Zagray Farm Museum 2006 Summer Show, July 15-16; Ed Bezanson, (860) 442-5182; www.qvea.org
Oscar Hank Will III is an old-iron collector, freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. (717) 337-6068; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org