Forty-two feet from where they'd left them, Gary Bradford and Ralph Shroyer found their trailer and truck. Very little looked as it had when they had left. The words 'Antique Express,' so neatly painted on the side of the trailer, were twisted. The trailer and truck looked as if gigantic hands had begun to wring them out like a dishrag. As Gary and Ralph began to pick through the rubble, however, they found that the tools and parts that had survived the years had also survived the tornado. Most old iron fans will remember the Xenia, Ohio, tornado. On Sept. 20 of last year, the F-4 ranked twister swept through the town, demolishing 250 homes and businesses, taking the time to cut a swath of destruction through the Greene County Fairgrounds, where the annual Old Timers Days show was being held.
A year later, gear heads from all over were back on the grounds, showing off their vintage farm equipment all over again.
A year later, Gary and Ralph have also returned to showing off their collection. The new trailer, 'Antique Express II,' holds even more of their collections of tools than its predecessor, so, not only have the two men returned to the hobby in a relatively brief period, they have returned with a display that's bigger and better than before.
The two men began displaying their collections together last year, not too long before the tornado.
Friends for 14 years, the two men farm and work in their shops when they're not going to shows. They both used to raise livestock - Gary raised steers and Ralph kept hogs - but, as Ralph says, they 'quit that' when they 'started playing.' If what they do is play, then they've gathered plenty of toys. Close to 1,070 different pieces of equipment are on display in their trailer.
Gary began a pulley collection that has become one of the country's largest. It all sort of happened by accident, he says. 'When I started out, I was going to collect nothing but wood pulleys, but it just started snowballing.'
Today Gary's snowball of a collection has become an avalanche. He has about 800 different pulleys, with 300 on display in the trailer. He has other interests, but people know him as the 'Pulleyman' and that's the subject on which he focuses.
Ralph's collection is a bit more eclectic. Starting with carpenter rules, pulleys and block planes, he has moved on to snagging wrenches, salesman's samples, hay hooks and farm machinery (which he leaves at home). He strays even from the farm, collecting old harpoons.
The two men enjoy traveling to shows together and sharing their small pieces of farm history with others. 'You'd be surprised,' Gary says, 'how many people don't know anything about this stuff.'
In addition to showing their collections at shows, the men often take the trailer to nursing homes. Gary says that you can just see the residents' eyes light up when they show them their collections, especially when they run across a former farmer who sees something he remembers. Best of all, the men like introducing children to the equipment about which they know nothing.
When asked about what it costs for them to travel to all the shows they travel to each year, they wave off the question, saying that, whatever they may spend, it doesn't add up to the joy they get out of passing history on to another generation. 'It's costly, but we enjoy it,' Gary says. 'Ralph had one boy in the trailer recently who was really interested in this stuff.'
'This boy,' Ralph says, 'was in there over a half hour. We talked about what he saw and all the things he'd seen in his schoolbooks about pulleys. It's times like that that we're paid back.'
Another way the two men are paid back is in the knowledge they gain about their hobby from the people they meet at shows. Oftentimes they meet people at the shows who actually used the equipment that they have on display. 'We gain all the knowledge of people who are fairly well on in years,' says Gary.
Some of their odder pieces do need some explaining, too, and these have become some of their favorites as well. For example, a hay hook that Ralph acquired has a cutting bar on the back for cutting bale straps. 'I think you'd have to be darned careful if you were using that thing to keep from cutting your hand open,' Gary says.
Each man does, of course, have favorites among the pieces in his collection. For Ralph, it's a salesman sample hay baler. 'It was made in 1890. It's plated and has the horsepower unit in the trailer,' he says. 'Very few people mistake these kinds of samples for a toy, because they look like parts that actually work.'
Gary's current favorite item is a Janeway pulley that he found in Florida. 'I doubt you'll ever see another one,' he says.
The trailer has also been a good place to learn about new directions in which they can take their collections. Gary's recently branched out even further than before, venturing (at least figuratively) north of the border and collecting Canadian pulleys. 'They made some really fancy ones up there,' he says. 'The Beatty was a nice one made up in Canada.'
Ralph says that he's always meeting people who help him find new wrenches. 'I like the ones that are a little oddball: B.F. Averys, Lacrosse. Things like that.'
And while they've gained knowledge, they point to one final benefit of traveling with the Antique Express II. 'We've made some permanent new friends who we've met inside our trailer,' Ralph says.
Gary says it's easy to make friends with the people he meets at these shows. 'You're going to find people who are jerks everywhere - there are so many different types of people collecting so many things nowadays. All in all, though, there's not a better bunch of people than the ones you'll meet at these shows.'