Michigan couple's antique collections put it all together.
"We didn't know what it was, but we knew we had to have it," Bob McCausey explains while rolling an ancient, horse-drawn tobacco transplanter out of the shed. "We found it near Pall Mall, Tenn., on one of our trips through the U.S. 127 Corridor Yard Sale." That event, now in its 19th year, has become a virtual Mecca for collectors, but Bob and his wife, Jo, have many other sources.
The Mulliken, Mich., couple has been collecting together for as long as they can remember, and though they search for different things, they support one another's efforts. Bob enjoys making old machines work perfectly and look beautiful, but he is particular, and likes them to be fairly complete from the beginning. Jo finds fascination in wooden and stoneware vessels, and other farmhouse objects, but they have to be in nice condition to get through the doors to the house. Both are drawn to well-weathered pieces, like the tobacco setter, which they put back to work by innovatively installing them in their yard.
"I started painting many years ago because I wanted it done right," Bob explains, pointing out that the castings on his 1949 John Deere Model AW are perfectly smooth. "I might have gone a little overboard on this one, but I like a smooth finish." The 1949 AW isn't the first tractor he ever painted, but it was the first that he really went all out on, and it required some creative repairs to get it running.
"I bought it from a guy who had overhauled the engine, but he couldn't get it to run," Bob explains. "It had new pistons, new rods, a new crank and everything, but it wouldn't run." The tractor had been parked for quite a while when he negotiated the purchase, but it was still loose. "It took me a while to figure out what the problem was," he says. "Turns out the cam was out of time with the crank." Bob took care of that problem by removing the engine's flywheel and timing cover, and carefully removing the cam bearing with the aid of a cutting torch.
With the bearing gone, there was sufficient clearance to move the camshaft gear away from the crankshaft gear just enough that they disengaged. Bob then rotated the crank and cam independently of one another until the timing marks were aligned, and he reengaged the gears, installed a new bearing and buttoned up the engine. "I still needed to do some work on the governor and the ignition system before it would run right," he says.
Once the tractor was mechanically sound and free of leaks, Bob prepped it for paint. The sheet metal was all there, but it was a little rough and required a good deal of straightening and repair. Along the way he also decided that he was going to take every nub off of every casting and make the tractor smooth. "I spent about five months grinding castings and taking care of the sheet metal," he says. "And then it took about another month of sanding, priming and blocking before I painted it." Bob chose authentic John Deere paint for the project, and finished with a new set of tires.
"I had so much fun with the Model AW, that I went looking for another project," Bob says with a chuckle. "I found it in a garage, and like the AW it was complete, but not pretty." His new project was a tiny crawler called a Mighty Mouse, built by the Mead Specialties Co. in the late 1950s (see Farm Collector, April 2003). "The Mighty Mouse ran great so I played with it for a while first," Bob says. "Then I tore it down and gave it the works." Since the mighty little crawler was mechanically sound, he cleaned and straightened components, and prepped them for paint. "It looked so pretty when I was finished that I hated to drive it at all," Bob admits. His solution was to fabricate a pint-sized aluminum trailer to haul it on, and it hasn't been off the trailer for a few years now. "I start it up now and then and work the hydraulics to keep it up," he says. "But I just can't bring myself to mess up those tracks by driving it."
Among Bob's other fine finishes, two in particular stand out: a 1939 John Deere Model L, and a Fairbanks-Morse 3-hp engine he believes to be a 1913 model. Bob found the engine in Traverse City, Mich., and thought it looked like an interesting project. "I had never done an old stationary engine, so when I saw it, I had to have it," he admits with a laugh. "It's my first and only engine." Like many of his projects, the Fairbanks-Morse was complete when he obtained it, but it was completely apart - and putting it together was a learning experience.
When it came time to mount the engine on its trucks, Bob opted to replace the aged oak. "I found a beautiful wild cherry log at a sawmill, and bought it," he explains. "I took it over to a friend's house and we cut the timbers." Bob used the original oak from the trucks as a template and applied the same care with finishing them in a way that would be satisfying and beautiful. "I thought the color of the cherry would go nicely with the green of the engine, so I finished it with clear (varnish)."
As collectible as the John Deere Model L has become, Bob's 1939 was facing a most uncertain future when he discovered it. "I was visiting with a guy who built homemade tractors, and found it in his basement," he explains. "He was going to scavenge parts from it for his projects, but I talked him out of it." Once the deal was struck, the Model L had to be winched out of the basement. It too was relatively complete. Once Bob had the Model L back together and running, he spent untold hours prepping it for paint, and making it quite beautiful again.
"I put so much time into those projects that I don't do many of them," Bob explains. "I enjoy the mechanical work, but I really like to give them a fine finish." Jo agrees that while Bob's finishes are the finest around, he doesn't feel compelled to refinish everything they find.
Jo isn't certain how she first got interested in storage vessels, butter churns, spinning wheels and other practical pieces that provide links to the past. "I think I got the collecting bug in part from garage sales," she says. "I saw interesting and decorative things, and brought them home." Jo's passions have included old bicycles, tools and galvanized metal objects, among other things, and she often found ways to incorporate her finds into a perennial garden or border planting. Later she brought nicer, more delicate pieces into the house.
"I am really into firkins right now," Jo says. "These were once used at the farm to store bulk supplies like sugar or lard." The containers are constructed of tapered slats bound with bent wooden hoops in a manner reminiscent of a barrel, which is no surprise since the word firkin comes to us from the Middle-Dutch vierdekijn, defined in the late 1300s as a fourth of a barrel. Unlike most barrels, however, the firkin's sides are straight, though the vessel's diameter tapers, with bottoms wider than the open tops, and removable lids. Although it is difficult to date unmarked firkins, they are considered to be relatively primitive early American (or older) containers and are most valuable when found with their lids and wooden bails intact.
Jo is also interested in early stoneware vessels, particularly jugs, and containers with rounded sides. "I don't keep very good track of the makers," she explains. "I collect the pieces that catch my eye." Jo particularly looks for salt-glazed jugs and jars with blue embellishments, and she uses the pieces as a significant part of the décor in her house. "I like to display these things around the house," she says, lifting a dasher from one of a neatly arranged trio of stoneware butter churns in the corner of the kitchen. "Dusting is a real chore, but it looks nice."
A glance through the door leading from the McCauseys' kit-chen to their living room reveals a museum-like space adorn-ed with even more vintage vessels, primitive wooden bowls, utensils, toys and a pair of beautifully preserved spinning wheels. "I am fascinated by spinning wheels," Jo explains. "I think they are beautiful." She collects two kinds of wheels - a foot-treadle horizontal bobbin and flyer model, and a larger wheeled horizontal spindled wool wheel. Although neither device has been put to work in the manufacture of yarn from farm-fiber in recent years, the fact that they once did, and that they survived intact, is testament to their once important place in the homestead.
Jo isn't certain where her collecting passions will lead her next. Today she is focused on candle molds and rocking horses, but that could change tomorrow.
Despite divergent collections, Bob and Jo are fully supportive of one another's passions. Each looks for items that might be of interest to the other, and both appreciate the efforts of their partner. And better yet, the two manage to combine their interests with certain pieces.
"When I bought the old auger wagon, I didn't know what I was going to do with it," Bob explains while pointing out the solid rubber tires on the wooden-wheeled relic. "We decided it would look nice in the yard." Knowing that exposure to the elements would be hard on the farm-built, oak-sided wagon box, and that if left open, it would collect leaves, which would rapidly destroy the auger mechanism and floor, Bob oiled the wood, and built it a roof. The wagon now provides a perfect backdrop for an interesting old poultry feeder and several other artifacts in one of Jo's perennial flower beds.
A careful look around the McCauseys' yard reveals many such displays, and some in the making. A delightfully dilapidated foot-treadle-powered grindstone looks perfectly at home in front of a backdrop of Bee Balm, and a 1950s vintage factory-errand bicycle bearing a decal of the Perfect Circle Co., a maker of piston rings, looks just right leaning on a fence that also supports several galvanized metal fuel cans. In one corner of the yard, a small island of flowers seems to sprout from an old cistern pump and barrel, while in another a well-worn grinding stone rests easily in a bed of hostas, shaded by a large maple tree.
One of the McCauseys' more recent discoveries, the horse-drawn tobacco transplanter, is the next likely major addition to the yard. "We really didn't know what to do with it, but it was too interesting to pass up," Jo explains. "We haven't decided whether to fix it up, or put it in the yard."
The tobacco transplanter consists of a large metal water tank in front of a planting shoe that opened the soil wide enough to hand-place tobacco seedlings. Water from the tank gave the newly placed seedlings a fighting chance, and the closer gently collapsed the furrow on tender roots. A driver, leaning on the front of the tank, controlled the horses and the flow of water, while two people seated on either side of the shoe set the seedlings in the furrow. "It's hard to imagine spending a day sitting in those seats," Bob says shaking his head. "It had to be hot, dusty and uncomfortable. And while Bob has thought about trying to restore the relic, he and Jo agree that it would make a perfect focal point for that "new" flower bed.
The McCauseys aren't sure whether they will participate in the Route 127 Corridor Yard Sale this year. If they do, they will surely discover items of interest in their travels. "We always find something," Jo says. "But we never know what it is going to be." Bob agrees, adding that it may be time to get rid of some of their collection to make room for more. Should that be the case, there is no doubt they will find some way to meet in the middle to put it all together.
- For more information:
Bob and Jo McCausey, 8680 Eaton Highway, Mulliken, MI 48861; (517) 649-8862.
World's Longest Yard Sale, Aug. 4-7, 2005: (800) 327-3945; www.127sale.com
Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and 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. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org