When arrangements were made for me to view Kenny Walthes’ collection of antique farm equipment and interview him for an article in Farm Collector, they were conducted by a third party. It was an unusual approach, but I was busy – so when a mutual friend booked the date and provided directions to Kenny’s home in rural Illinois, it made it easy for me to just show up and go to work.
When I arrived on a warm summer morning, I was a bit early. Nobody was around, so I took in the outside displays, including a whimsical grouping of old signs, windmill fan and a ground-based cupola. Shed doors were open and a few pieces were outside, including a clover huller in stunning original condition.
At that point, the only thing I knew about Kenny Walthes was that he was said to have a phenomenal collection. That morning, everything I saw as I snooped around affirmed my mental image of Kenny as a man in his early 70s whose collection reflected the kind of knowledge, discipline and patience that are only amassed over decades.
Half an hour in, I was still the only person on the property. As I returned to the house to knock again, I passed a sandpile full of enough farm toys to satisfy the population of a mid-size elementary school. “What a terrific granddad,” I thought. “The kids must live close enough that they get over here a lot.”
Have you ever been dead wrong?
The face of the future
As it turns out, Kenny Walthes is barely halfway to 70. He was apparently born with knowledge, discipline and patience, and the toys in the sandpile belong to his kids, who range in age from 4 to 10. And so it was that I spent the first hour of the visit with my mouth hanging impolitely open, trying to take in the improbability of this young man’s very fine collection, one that would be the envy of many twice his age.
First things first: Kenny did not inherit the collection or a million dollars. He did, however, inherit a nearly unstoppable work ethic. As director of operations for a St. Louis area roofing company, his days routinely begin at 3:30 a.m. and end 15 or 16 hours later. “I didn’t play video games as a kid,” he says. “I was always taught to be outside.”
The collection is more to him than a lot of old things. Kenny has a deep appreciation for the history of each piece, and for the connections he’s made as he builds the collection. He counts elders in the hobby as close friends. “I’ve learned so much from them,” he says. “I listen to them; I take a lot of notes. Sometimes I even record them and write it all down later.”
He’s found antique farm equipment enthusiasts to be a breath of fresh air. “I like the people in this hobby,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent will explain how a thing was used or lend a helping hand when there’s something to load.”
Some of you worry about the future of the hobby. Stop worrying: Kenny Walthes, and other young people like him, are the face of the future.
“I just had it in me to collect”
Kenny’s dad had a keen interest in antique farm equipment, and that rubbed off on his son. “Where we lived, there was a farm sale every Saturday,” he says, “but my dad worked Saturdays. So, when I was 12 or 13, I started going, buying stuff that cost little or nothing, things like fanning mills that I could afford.”
His mom dropped him at the sale. Later in the day, he’d hit up a neighbor for a ride home. On arrival, he would find something less than full enthusiasm for his latest find. “Kenny,” his dad would say, “we don’t need any more fanning mills. The loft is full.” “Those fanning mills are still in Dad’s hayloft,” he says, smiling at the memory. “He’s still stacking hay around them.”
He’d help his dad and granddad cut hay, put corn in a crib and grind corn. “I don’t know what drew me to it,” he says. “My granddad had a New Idea corn sheller with galvanized sides, and I wanted it from the first time I saw it.” Today, that sheller is part of his collection.
At 13, he bought a 1947 John Deere Model A for $500 using money earned mowing yards. “It was in really rough shape,” he recalls. “I bought it from a guy a mile down the road and we had to pull it home.” He poured work into the project, but between the expense of restoration and mechanical aptitude not equal to the task, tractors were not a good fit for him.
“I just had it in me to collect,” he says. “When I was about 25, I really started getting more serious about collecting. I had a good job and I could afford to start a collection, and I had a building.”
A preference for good originals
Kenny knows what he likes. “It’s got to be original,” he says, “and I prefer to get pieces that are in great shape.” If they’re also unique and untouched by would-be restorers, that’s a plus.
He will restore a piece if there’s good reason to. “I have bought a few pieces in rough shape,” he says. When he brought home a one-of-a-kind veterinarian’s wagon, for instance, it was in poor condition. “But I knew the history of it,” he says, “and it was something I really wanted to save.”
Built by a craftsman and used by a local veterinarian (“Dr. Leu, Mascoutah, Illinois”) as he tended to livestock on area farms, the wagon today looks as it must have when it was new 120 years ago. Amish craftsmen conducted a complete restoration from the wheels up. Rich black paint and elegant pinstriping create what must have seemed a cutting-edge piece of professional equipment in 1900.
Kenny applies a clear coat to seal and preserve original pieces (whether they’re wood or metal). The clear coat also brings out the piece’s color and lettering. He’s also used a home brew of turpentine, boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits.
A good steward
The collection includes a walking plow still in the crate, a seven-beam scale, a wooden lathe, toolboxes, grinders, nubbers, corn items, a Keystone dropper corn planter, shock tiers, fodder and fanning mills, wagon and buggy brakes, cast iron implement seats, seed sacks, signs, tools, plows, planters, pumps, hog oilers, shellers, a horsepower, bean separator and stationary gas engines – and much more.
If a piece is on wheels, Kenny’s onboard. He has an old milk wagon, at least one manure spreader, farm wagons by several builders, a rural mail delivery wagon, a Birdsell clover huller, the veterinarian’s wagon, a baker’s wagon and a railway freight and baggage wagon.
Like the veterinarian’s wagon, the railway wagon is completely restored and shines with a coat of bright yellow paint. The milk wagon, a recent acquisition, is original. During its first week in his collection, the wagon’s broken-out doors and windows have already been repaired. “You’ve got to do that kind of thing right away,” Kenny says, “or it doesn’t get done.”
It is a telling observation by a man who works long hours and who, with his wife, Christine, is raising three kids. “It’s getting easier to collect as the kids get older,” he says, “and going to auctions is my favorite pastime, but I don’t always get to go. Sometimes my wife will go or I’ll place an absentee bid, or a friend will call in a bid for me.”
Rescuing a relic of the past
With auction finds piling up, Kenny knows he needs another building. “I just keep adding shelves in these sheds, and hang things from the walls and rafters,” he says. “I like a cluttered look; it gives good eye appeal, especially when you have unique original items that catch the eye.”
His Marseilles-Adams corn sheller, built by Marseilles Mfg. Co., Marseilles, Illinois, more than holds its own in that environment. In Springfield, Missouri, buildings on the final 90 acres of what was a 400-acre farm in 1865 were being torn down to make way for a subdivision. Alerted to an interesting old relic there, Kenny rescued the brute of a sheller with an after-market elevator built by Parlin & Orendorff.
“We had to take the roof down to get the elevator out,” he says. “I would think it had been built onsite, to run on a line shaft.” Patent dates on both pieces date to the 1870s. Some 150 years later, the sheller and elevator remain in very good original condition with clearly visible original lettering.
Every piece in Kenny’s collection tells a story. “I look at them and remember how I acquired them and the work I put into them,” he says. “Some, like planters, have handwritten notations of when the crop was sowed. On some of the wood pieces, the spot where the grain flowed through is rubbed smooth. You can see all the different things people did.”
Recruiting the next generation
Kenny is quick to admit that his family is a big part of his hobby. He’s doing his best to get his kids – Pearl, 10; Estelle, 7; and Otto, 4 – interested in antiques. “My goal is that hopefully all of them, but at least one of them, will continue my collection,” he says, “even if it’s just to open the shed 10 times a year to show the collection.
“They come out to the barn when I’m clear-coating a piece,” he says. “They call it ‘juicing’ and they want to be in the middle of it. In the summer, they are very involved with it. They help me wash pieces and hang things.”
He does his best to keep it light. “I don’t want to make it a job for them,” he says. “If they want to help, I always find something for them to do. I want them to be involved; I hope they start collecting.” All of the kids are regulars at auctions. “Otto, who’s 4, was just at an auction with me all day long, and he hung in there,” Kenny says. “Of course, I had to buy a lot of hotdogs and pieces of pie.”
I asked if he thought he’d ever burn out on antiques. “No,” he said. “It’s actually getting worse. I really need another building.” He smiled as he recalled the late Verlin Heberer, a legendary collector in his own right, who was fond of saying that the person with the biggest auction wins.
“More and more, I’m the youngest person at the auction,” he says. “I hope this stuff will be worth something someday, but that doesn’t really matter. I love this hobby and I enjoy being part of it.” FC
For more information: Kenny Walthes, (618) 407-2428.
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.