Varied farm relics celebrate a golden era of American agriculture.
Gate latchers are among the random items in Steve's collection.
Steve Renz stands solidly in today’s world. He depends on computers, smartphones and advanced farm machinery. Despite that – or perhaps because of that – he is also completely captivated by the past.
A farmer in Superior, Nebraska, Steve has spent a lifetime gathering fine relics that celebrate the history of American agriculture. Including everything from gate latchers to buggy rein holders, windmills to horse-drawn implements, lithographs to cast iron seats, his collection salutes an era now lost to the dust of time.
Some collectors fall in love with a line of engines or tractors. Others are caught up by early technological processes, like that found in steam engines. Still others gravitate to specific items – hog oilers, tools, memorabilia. Steve’s collection is not easily categorized, but much of it is centered on the artistry of the past: the elegant detail of early industrial design, all the more remarkable for its application to the hardworking business of farming. “For me,” he says, “a lot of it has to do with eye appeal.”
Steve traces his interest in antique farm pieces to his college years. “My roommate and his family collected old stuff,” he says, “and my parents did, too. My dad never traded anything off.” Steve got his start simply enough, collecting coins and stamps. “It’s called a disorder,” he muses, with a smile.
By the mid-1990s, he’d begun to specialize. “It really started with seats,” he says. “But after I got so many, it got harder to find the ones I was looking for, or they cost more.”
The injection of ornate design into a utilitarian cast iron item drew him in; the enormous number of seats produced for implements created a galaxy of unique tantalizing possibilities. Steve became a serious collector, but in recent years, he’s tightened his focus. “I’m down to 250 seats now,” he says. “I like to display them if I can. If I have too many to display, it becomes boring.”
An active member of the Cast Iron Seat Collectors, Steve collects traditional implement seats as well as the smaller round seats found on check-rowers. “The round seats are nice because they’re kind of a crossover to the Corn Items Collectors,” he says.
Indeed, displaying the items is a big part of his hobby. Steve has created artful displays of his collectibles to enjoy in his home and to share with others at shows. In his travelling display, which is cleverly constructed to be both portable and yet visually compelling, copies of old ads lend context. “I try to have something to show what the piece went on,” he says.
Through careful research, he finds illustrations showing a particular seat or toolbox on the appropriate implement. Laminated photocopies are paired with display pieces. Formed of barn wood, his travelling display helps people make the connection between a visually attractive relic and the actual horse-drawn implement it came from.
In the home Steve and his wife, Phyllis, share, high-level negotiations have established official display zones. The walls of those rooms are covered with attractive groupings of seats, windmill weights, weather vanes, signs and memorabilia. Some collections are shut away behind closed doors; this one is seen and relished.
Bigger pieces, of course, remain in storage. An early corn planter manufactured by A.C. Evans Mfg. Co., Springfield, Ohio, is the prize of his collection of horse-drawn implements. Manufactured by Evans in the 1880s for agents Parlin, Orendorff & Martin Co., Omaha, the planter was available as a unique combination piece: planter and combined drill/check-rower.
Preserved in very fine original condition, the planter came to Steve via another collector who bought the piece solely for its round seat (the one used in check-rowing). Once that man had the rare seat, his interest in the implement vanished. Steve wasted no time in adding the planter to his collection. “It’s a very rare piece,” he says. “You just don’t see things like this anymore. It’s a survivor.”
The planter is complete with its original seed plates and chain. Although it was equipped with a check-row seat (the small round seats were designed to hold a young boy who’d activate the seed drop at the appropriate point in the check-row operation), the piece was likely shipped as a drill-type planter, Steve says.
A sulky plow manufactured by Morrison Mfg. Co., Ft. Madison, Iowa, is another fine original. “I don’t think it was ever used,” Steve says. “I have a feeling it was set aside to be used for parts.” Likely dating to the 1890s, the piece is missing a wheel but still bears surprising amounts of original paint.
A Buckeye mower is in equally good condition. The ground-driven piece, complete with oil can, appears to be fully functional. “If I had horses,” Steve says, “I think I could go to mowing.” The last patent on the piece dates to 1862.
His Clark’s Cut-Away plow/disc would have been a useful implement in Nebraska, Steve says, where the soil is predominantly hard silt or clay. “When I was a kid, we used one-way plows and multi-disc plows,” he says. His Clark’s is complete with all the options and a scraper. “Farmers often added weight to penetrate and keep the blade in the ground,” he says.
Education makes the difference
Great collections are not built overnight. “I started like most people,” Steve says. “I wasn’t buying high-end stuff. I learned about seats from other collectors. It’s just part of the process.”
That said, resources can make a real difference. “When you go to an auction, you need to know what’s rare and what isn’t,” Steve says. “If you’re collecting seats, you really have to buy a book like Cast Iron Seats of the World. I know I’ve paid a lot of money for a common seat. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll make that mistake.”
He’s gotten the best results through transactions – trades and purchases – with other collectors. “That’s where you find uncommon things that you don’t find at auctions,” he says.
The Internet, on the other hand, requires careful navigation. “It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities for collectors,” Steve says. “But there are still a lot of fakes. Clubs and organizations related to your particular field of collecting are a valuable resource. Become familiar with old rust and how to recognize it. When in doubt, refer to relevant books or guides. With windmill weights, for instance, you need to know what the proper sizes are. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.” FC
For more information:
Email Steve Renz at
Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn.: Annual membership dues of $30 may be sent to Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn. Secretary Charolette Traxler, 40874 231 Ave., Le Center, MN 56057. Check out the group’s Facebook page at The Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn.
Cast Iron Seats of the World, Book VI, published by Cast Iron Seat Collectors, 2016; 328 pages. Contact John Catchings, 3524 Jefferson Twp. Pkwy., Marietta, GA 30066; email: email@example.com; (770) 587-4004.
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector.
Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.