Hay carriers and sileage choppers. Pulleys and shelters. Cattle stanchions, seed corn graders and burr mills. The intricate mechanical devices that once filled barns to the rafters are nearly lost to time, forgotten or discarded. But Roger Elliott wages a unique crusade to keep the past alive. His 'barn on wheels,' a regular display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, helps people understand simple, essential functions of old-time farming.
'We do a lot of teaching here,' says Roger, a retired farmer from Libertyville, Iowa. 'Even people who know about this stuff are curious about it. It's important to do this; you've got to get involved in it, or it's going to fade away.'
The traveling barn traces the branches of the Elliott family tree. Members of three generations help with the display, which in its construction and contents echoes back two generations. Built in 1993, the 30-foot trailer is clad in barnboard and tin from Roger's grandfather's barn. The floor boards are made from lumber milled from Roger's dad's place. 'It has my granddad's hay track in front, and dad's in back,' Roger says. Large 'windows' invite a breeze. A bench in front of one window was Roger's mother's favorite perch at shows; vintage license plates nailed high overhead are from his father's collection. A center path is flanked by burr mills, a seed corn grader, a stationary engine and other pieces of old iron. A line shaft runs overhead; pulleys hang from the ceiling.
It is as close to an old barn as many folks are likely to get. 'A lot of people have never seen anything like it,' says Stephen Elliott, Roger's grandson.
But it's nearly all that Roger's known. 'My dad was a custom baler,' he says, 'and as a kid, eventually I graduated to driving the tractor on the baler. We'd go from farm to farm, putting up hay.' When he and his parents attended a show after he'd come home from the service, Roger suggested that they bring an exhibit. 'So the next year, in 1971, we brought an International LA 1 1/2 hp engine and some Maytags.'
In the decades since, both Roger's family and his collection have grown. Today his clan includes three children and 10 grandchildren; many lend a hand at the Mt. Pleasant show. They also play a role in deciding the display's make-up. 'One year we brought a hay hoist,' Roger recalls. 'It was a three-man operation to run that. It weighs about 500 pounds. It was a lot of work; it really took up all our time. But they weren't too excited about doing that again.'
'I'd like to build another trailer,' volunteers Roger's son, Harry. 'Then we could have a sheller with an elevator dump to a fanning mill, then go to the grinder and bag birdseed. It'd show the progression from ear corn to the finished product. And we have some windmills and pumps from grandpa,' he notes. Adding those to the display, he says with a smile, is part of 'the five-year plan.'
The Elliott display took on a hay theme just a few years ago. Roger collects Louden hay equipment, which was manufactured in Fairfield, Iowa. Harry is a fan of Myers hay equipment from Ohio. For years, the family lined up hay carriers on the ground outside the display. But two years ago Roger and sons built a display rack as sturdy as an ox.
The hay carriers on display are but a part of the family's collection.
'We have more at home,' Harry says. Roger says they've found all the easy ones. 'Now I'm looking for the ones used in round barns,' he says. Generally, the carriers are intact when he finds them. When they're not, he tries to find the original pulley that went with the piece. He also looks for trips and stops. 'Those are the hardest parts to find,' he says. 'They're smaller, easier to lose. A lot of people collect carriers, but most don't collect the separate parts.' He's also looking for track for hay carriers. 'There are at least eight different kinds of track,' he says. 'I have four. I haven't been very successful in finding all eight. I just enjoy the challenge of finding this stuff. And then there's the enjoyment of talking to people.'
The display invites those conversations, as well as hands-on activity. 'We have a what-is-it table,' Roger says. 'My dad started that. We kind of work on a consensus opinion of what those things are.' The table holds perhaps three dozen pieces of old iron - tools, small implements, devices - that are regularly rotated in and out. 'The older guys really like it,' Roger adds.
Often an old sheller is set up for children to crank. 'We try to get the kids involved,' says Roger's wife, Norma. 'One time an 84-year-old woman came up and wanted to crank it. She said she remembered using one like that when she was a kid.'
A gravity bean cleaner is another popular piece. Beans dropped in the top are rapidly sluiced away from the chaff. A small crowd gathers to watch the elegantly simple piece at work. 'It has no moving parts,' Roger says, 'but people really like it. They've never seen anything like it. People are interested in this stuff. They don't all know how it worked or what it was.'
The Elliotts are always on the prowl for new additions to the display. 'It's getting kind of hard to find some of this stuff at sales,' Harry says. 'There are just so many people looking for it.'
'The main thing I've found out is you have to go to a lot of sales,' Roger says. 'And you have to be lucky, be in the right place at the right time. A lot of it is getting so high-priced. Hay carriers used to be reasonable. Now you're competing against companies like restaurants that put this old stuff on their walls. But you ought to be able to start out with carriers priced $5 to $20. It just depends on how many people are at the sale.'
The Elliotts continue to unearth treasures at auctions, on the Internet and at flea markets (Norma is a fan of the latter). They enjoy the hunt, they enjoy tweaking the display and they especially enjoy the payoff: The bonds made strong by old iron. 'See that young kid and that older gentleman conversing?' Norma asks as she watches two strangers become acquainted at the show. 'You just don't see that very often ... except around here.'
For more information: Roger Elliott, 1775 223rd Street, Libertyville, IA 52567; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org