Vintage wagons tell story of Minnesota State Prison Industries
Collectible farm equipment produced in prison industries is a pretty narrow niche, but it’s a perfect fit for a man with a strong nostalgic streak for the equipment of his childhood and a passion for his home state’s history.
In a sense, Kirk Affeldt grew up among antique machinery on his family’s Wykoff, Minn., farm. But it was no museum: The antique machinery there was still very much in use. “With 120 acres,” says Kirk, an elementary school teacher, “we never had large equipment or new equipment. There was really no need of newer and bigger and better machinery, considering the size of the farm we had, so I grew up with stuff that we knew how to operate and work on. We had a fairly complete line of machinery to keep overhead costs low and weren’t buying new equipment all the time.”
In fact, until Kirk’s father retired from milking cows, the family continued to use a mounted corn picker. “We had to be one of the last two or three corn-picking families in southern Minnesota,” he says. “But that was our main harvesting machine. The neighbors had combines and stuff, but on our operation we had a mounted New Idea 319 corn picker.”
In more recent years, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Kirk to keep antique machinery in mind as he worked on his tree farm. When he spotted a Minnesota State Prison Industries 130 flare wagon at a local auction, he bought it. The 130 designation refers to the wagon’s capacity (in bushels). “The gear hoist and box were in good shape, and it looked like a good wagon,” he says. “I used it primarily as a way to haul and distribute wood chips for my tree farm.”
Kirk used the flare box wagon on his farm for five years. Then, at another farm auction, he came across a Minnesota State Prison Industries 1472 barge wagon. “I had never seen one before,” he says. “I didn’t know they made Minnesota barge boxes, and I didn’t know they made wagons that big. I bought it off the farm estate of a retired farmer who died. His son said his dad bought the wagon brand new back in the early to mid-1960s, so it had always been on the farm; it was their primary farm wagon used for hauling corn and oats. He told me it had never been outside in the rain. He said, ‘During harvest in August, at the end of the day (Dad) reminded one of us to put the wagon in the shed.’ I thought this wagon would be kind of handy to help with the corn picking practice, or play time as I call it, that some friends and I do every fall.”
Kirk says “1472” describes the size of the box — 14 by 7 feet — but he doesn’t know what the final digit refers to. Kept mostly in a shed, the wagon had been used to haul sawdust. “Whoever had it kept it in great shape,” he says, “because it still has the original hoist and running gear, and it’s one of the few barges I’ve seen that still has the original new implement tires on it.”
The 1472 needed a face-lift, so Kirk began to research color schemes. “The base color was red, with some black and yellow,” he says, “but there was no clue whether it might be Massey red or IH red or John Deere yellow or industrial yellow.”
The wagon has some unique features, including a tin plate with a silhouette of the state of Minnesota, and a small star with rays indicating Stillwater’s location. “I always thought the red wagon with yellow lettering and the blue plate looked good and was kind of unique,” Kirk says. “Because I taught Minnesota history, I have a soft spot for Minnesota pieces and I end up buying stuff like this. It spurred me to do more research, which led to buying a second barge box, a 1062. Sometime I’d like to find the 1262.”
Eventually Kirk tracked down the man who’d bought the remaining farm equipment inventory when the prison ceased production of those items. The man’s memories of that experience were vivid. “While previewing the equipment, he said it provided some of the scariest moments of his life,” Kirk says. “It was like a scary movie: dark, dingy, cavernous areas with no lights, filled with sounds of mice and rats scuttling around, and the creaking and groaning of stones.”
The presence of an armed escort added to the tension as the prospective buyer was led into rooms filled with boxes of bearings and rake teeth, parts bins full of components for 5-foot horse mowers, and unsold parts and pieces dating to the early 1900s. That man told Kirk that the prison had regularly received overrun and discontinued parts, paint and other supplies from upper Midwest agriculture manufacturers, so when they painted, they used whatever red or yellow paint they had on hand.
“From his materials and information, he said my wagons should be orange, not red,” he says. “But mine were definitely red. Maybe a farmer or implement dealer requested red barge boxes. Or maybe the prison ran out of orange paint and used whatever was available.”
Kirk primed his wagons with two good coats of oil-based primer, then spray-painted them with two good coats of harder and more durable enamel designed for implements. “It’s a process that takes time,” he admits.
Recreating the wagons’ original lettering was a challenge. “My research showed that everything was stenciled or screen painted: no decals,” he says. “So I did chalk rubbings across the existing lettering to get the size and correct font style.”
And it did not help that random fonts were used. “There is stenciling, lettering and numbering on different places on the wagons, the sides and backs, which used larger letters and smaller letters, then a slanted italic on the sides, different from anything else,” Kirk says. “‘Minnesota’ and the model number are on the back of the cross member, in yet another font style.”
“I would have thought that everything would have been easier to work with if the fonts and lettering were all the same size,” he muses. “But it looks nice, I’ll give them that, and it probably made life easier for them. They sure weren’t thinking about me back then.”
Kirk traced the chalk rubbings and put them on tag board for the final stencil. “It was a good winter project,” he says. “I found out the larger box, the 1472, was unique, because it had this metal plate with the Minnesota logo on it, while the 1262 barge box, all the flare boxes and manure spreaders have the Minnesota logo with a sunburst showing Stillwater. If I find a 1262, I hope it will have that logo fairly intact so I can do a stencil for that one.”
Kirk is still on the hunt for Minnesota implements. “I know of a couple of 1262 barge boxes, and I’d like to get one of them so I’d have a trifecta,” he says. “But neither collector is willing to sell them right now.”
He found some old manuals and materials at a Minnesota dealership liquidation sale. One referenced a 510 barge box — 5 feet by 10 feet, a smaller barge box — but he’s been unable to verify accuracy of the reference. “It might have been a typo in the book,” he says. He’s also been unable to date his wagons, as none of the literature he’s found contains date references.
He’d hoped to come across photos of prisoners assembling machinery or loading it on rail cars for shipment. So far all he’s found is dead ends. “I only have one photocopied picture of an old barge wagon,” he says.
He’d like to find one last barge box for his collection. “The only reason I have these wooden boxes, really, is nostalgia for my corn picking days as a kid. Another farmer and I run three corn pickers in the fall and tell people to come down and take a look, to remember how it used to be. I have friends in other states who pick corn, and they use gravity boxes. They say my wagons must be a bugger to unload. It is a lot of work, but it’s kind of unique to pick three or four acres a year, shell the ear corn using a Minneapolis corn sheller, and kind of remember how to do that,” he says. “It’s a good time for my dad and me to have farming and bonding time and reconnect in that way.”
In talking with a friend who collects New Idea and Farmhand pieces, Kirk discovered they had the same view of the Minnesota machinery — essentially, that it was of top quality. “My dad remembers the Minnesota hay loaders selling as equal to the International Harvester and John Deere hay loaders at times,” he says, “and he thinks the Minnesota hay loader actually outsold those because it had metal parts, while the others had wooden parts and deteriorated more quickly in Minnesota.”
The Minnesota barge boxes were heavier than those built by competitors of the day, Kirk says. The main beams were a solid 4 by 6 inches with crossbeams measuring 4-1/4 by 4-1/4. “It was almost rough-sawn size,” he says. “When you look at the grain of the wood, you can see how it was very straight grain wood and study how it aged. I still think they were made second to none in using hinges and hardware and supports for side pieces.”
Only one piece of wood on his wagons had to be replaced, but Kirk gave each wagon a complete paint job. “You can see typical wear and tear,” he says, “and less sun fading in places where people had put extra sideboards on top where they protected the sides from weathering and aging.”
Kirk enjoys the unique history of the Minnesota wagons. “Besides that, I like the looks of them,” he says. “My favorite machinery growing up was IH because that’s what we used, and these red barges add to that. They are a piece of Minnesota and farming history. I get a kick out of how people at shows say that this is something they’d never seen before. They’ll smile, and want to hear stories of where it came from, and information that I knew about the line. So in a small way I feel like I’m preserving the history of the prison farm equipment and farm history. I’m saving a little of the past, I guess.” FC
For more information, contact Kirk Affeldt, 304 Pine St., Cannon Falls, MN 55009; phone (507) 649-1364; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.
Read more about the Minnesota State Prison Industries in Prison Industries Have Long History in Minnesota.