Colorado man recreates farm of his youth in an open air museum filled with old farm machinery
It all started with a vision. Otis Mellenbruch bought eight acres in the pines above Rye, Colo., in 1963. Scraps of old farm machinery on the property gave him an idea. The idea became a vision. The vision became an obsession.
Today, Otis' eight acres are an open-air museum containing thousands of machines, implements, tools and gadgets, tastefully arranged under the trees and in four sheds built for the purpose.
"I wanted to have a complete set of equipment that a well-equipped farmer in the corn belt of northeast Kansas would have had in the 1920s," he says. "I've pretty well got it."
Otis has a gift for understatement. He could equip 20 farmers to the hilt.
There are tractors, harrows, plows, planters, headers, shockers and threshers. Burr-grinders, oat crimpers, gas engines, grindstones, saws and wagons round out the collection. A 3-foot cast iron kettle sits on its original stand. A horse-drawn hay tedder, used to fluff wet hay lying on the ground, sports a plaque reading "Property of State Prison." He started with a single sheet of 4x8-foot pegboard to display his collection. Now, you can stroll his eight acres and never be more than 20 feet from an antique.
Born in Fairview, Kan., in 1914, Otis grew up through the transitions from horse power to steam power to gasoline tractors. All three technologies are represented in his collection. He started out helping on his Dad's custom-threshing crew when he was 8 years old. His job was to operate the hand-clutch, putting the steam tractor in and out of gear. He had to lift himself completely off the floor of the tractor, pulling with all his weight to move the clutch.
"In those days, you did things younger," he says.
Before they had the steam engine, his father and brother did custom threshing with a 16-horse team.
"We did anything to make a little money," he says.
Some of the tools and implements at Otis' place are similar to those he used 70 years ago. He found many of them around his childhood homes in northeast Kansas.
In the 1920s and 1930s, he helped his Dad train young horses pulling a single-row wheel curler just like one lined up in a row of horse-powered implements. He remembers that when the horses approached a little standing water on a cool spring day, they would try to jump over it, jerking Otis and the curler off the ground and creating havoc.
"I just hated that thing," he recalls.
Lined up near the curler are horse-powered ditchers, cotton planters, corn planters, harrows, cultivators, listers, plows, a potato digger and a sod cutter, complete with a straight-edged shovel for slicing the sod in lengths.
"It's all you need to build a house," Otis says.
He has two horse-powered well diggers.
There's a wild contraption nearby with room for six horses to push a grain header. The driver, Otis points out, rode behind the pushing horses on a 20-foot boom culminating in a tractor seat riding on a "crazy wheel." A four-horse Van Brundt grain drill is an impressive machine, as is the horse-powered road grader. If Otis has a specialty, it might be horse-powered stationary machines. He comes by that interest honestly. Before he was born, his parents moved their first house four miles using a horse-powered winch. Yes, he has one of those, too.
There are a couple of corn shockers, each equipped with two seats, one for the driver and one for the person tying the shocked corn in bundles. Horse-drawn hay balers provide a reminder of just how slow and difficult farmwork could be before the power of steam and fossil fuels was harnessed.
He has cast iron walking plows more than 150 years old, some of them fully restored. His 1877 miter saw was built by the same Stanley company which is still famous for its tools today. A horse-powered beet seeder from the 19th century was built by the Deere company.
In the sheds are mind-boggling varieties of tools, from a 19th-century blacksmith's trip-hammer mounted on an oak beam to a decades-old version of the all-in-one tool that includes a brace-and-bit, a screwdriver and a monkey wrench. Dozens of antique traps line the walls. He has specialized wrenches and blacksmith's tools of every shape and size, plus a cornucopia of stock-related accessories from bull-blinders to a whipple tree.
"You've probably never heard the song, 'The Old Gray Mare, She Pooped on the Whiffle Tree,' have you?" he asks a visitor.
As you wander Otis' property, he recalls stories connected to individual pieces of equipment. In fact, nearly every piece of equipment has a story attached to it.
The left-handed, wooden-beam cast iron plow was found in an old corncrib on the Indiana homestead of Otis' great-grandfather. A wheeled cultivator with steel rims and hubs was found buried in Nemaha County, Kan. A small dumping wagon, probably used to harvest root crops, has been specially outfitted with hoops and a tarpaulin cover. Otis takes it to shows billed as "The Mother-in-Law's Conveyance to Oregon."
The hay carrier is from his grandfather's barn. A Papec silage filler remind Otis of the summer he spent cutting silage on 40 drought-stricken Kansas farms when the dead corn wasn't good, for anything else. He worked straight through the summer and sold his original machine on the last day he worked. He bought his next one 50 years later as a collector's item.
One of Otis' favorite stories concerns a Rumely gas engine based on an Olds design. He found it in Kansas, literally grown into a tree, high off the ground and embedded in the wood.
"We cut the tree down and sawed it out," he says. "I guess they just leaned it up against the tree, and the tree kept growing."
Otis likes to demonstrate his collection at shows, sharpening knives or running his steam-powered sawmill. With the Front Range Antique Power Association, he's exhibited at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo 17 years in a row. He sponsors a picnic to show off his collection at least once a year.
His collecting has necessitated countless trips for the Mellenbruch family back and forth on Interstate 70 between the Colorado Rockies and the corn belt, often pulling a flatbed trailer. Of course, they weren't always prepared when they found a valuable item. Otis recalls hauling the sled curler from Kansas tied to the top of a Ford sport coupe.
"We really got some looks on that trip," he says.
What Otis doesn't know about his collection is how big it is. Asked how many individual implements he has, he starts trying to count off the individual pieces: "12 tractors, about 30 engines, maybe 20 plows; no, more than that ..." Then he gives up.
Through all of it, his accomplice has been Virginia, his wife of 63 years. She is an energetic person, just five years his junior, and shares a mild case of his collector's obsession. Their home is warm and roomy, with just a few antiques and collectibles here and there. In a guest bathroom, a beautiful set of stock bells rests on shelves. High on one wall, there's a complete, flawless set of hand hay-cutting tools more than a century old.
"Those are mine," Virginia says.
Otis jokes that his family initially resisted his passion for collecting. He says he asked them to buy him antiques as presents, and he'd get shirts instead.
"Finally, I told them, 'When you come back from my funeral, you can make out the darndest sale bill you've ever seen.' From then on, for Christmas I got antiques. Of course, we have to buy them cheap, because I never sell anything."
As it turns out, though, Otis and Virginia's son, John, and three grandsons are all budding collectors and restorers of farm antiques. Each of them brings a special expertise to the hobby. John has been welding since he was 14 years old. The grandsons include an engineer working for Cummings Engine, an MIT Ph.D. engineer and a machinist. It looks like the Mellenbruch collection is destined to grow.
"My son can't wait for me to get through so he can take over" the collecting operation, Otis laughs. "My daughter-in-law wants me to eat alfalfa pellets and live forever." FC
Bryan Welch is the publisher of Farm Collector.