The groves and fields of Tulare, Calif., are lush with produce much of the year. But each April, a parking lot just outside of town is the area's top producer, growing a bumper crop of antique farm equipment.
Held April 17-18, the California Antique Farm Equipment Show drew more than 600 exhibitors of everything from Aermotor engines to Yuba tractors. Now in its seventh year, the event emphasizes the Central Valley's agricultural heritage. A production of the International Agri-Center, where the event is held, the Tulare show presents a huge variety of tractors, engines and equipment.
Show organizers offer a full schedule: there's a greased pig contest, tractor pulls, entertainment, draft horse demonstrations, oxen and mules; a slow tractor race and daily equipment parades. But the real draw is the equipment, displayed bumper to bumper in a huge parking lot.
An orderly grid of chalk-line squares puts early crawlers next to a fleet of Fordsons with mirror-like surfaces. An International Harvester collector group sets up camp down the road. Stationary gas engines, steam engines, old industrial equipment and garden tractors are scattered throughout. Rust cozies up next to fresh paint; used-and-abused originals are side-by-side with lavishly restored treasures. Cross a not-to-be-missed show with a swap meet, throw in a dash of football game tailgating party, and you begin to get a sense of the Tulare show.
The equipment tells a dozen stories. Some of it – like the Field Marshall tractor made in England – is a collector's prize, brought to the show as a novelty. But much of the equipment relates a story unique to this nation's leading agriculture state. There are orchard tractors, tractors designed for specific crops, and track-type tractors of every conceivable size, shape and design.
Like much in California, H.G. "Herk" Bouris' Minneapolis 35-70 threshing machine is a transplant. Herk, a Menifee Valley rancher, speculates that it came from the Dakotas.
"You never find tractors like that out here," he says. "In the High Plains, it was all sod. Horses wouldn't break it.
"There were maybe 10 companies that made tractors that big," he says. "They started around 1910. But by 1920, most of the land in Montana, the Dakotas, and Minnesota was broken. The market for the big tractors went to pot."
Shortly after he got the tractor, in 1990, Herk and his crew completely dismantled it. The cab was missing.
"We went to Rollag, (Minn.) and saw one like it there," he says. "We took pictures and measurements, and had one made."
The deck was rotted, the engine was "in real bad shape," but the running gear and gears were good. After radiator repair and engine work, the Minneapolis was ready to be reassembled.
"We started in January of '91, and we were done by May 15," Herk says. "Two guys worked on that thing every day."
Vintage California tractors are increasingly hard to find, Herk says. "So much of the machinery out here has gone to the scrap heaps, and steel mills in World War II," he says. But one that escaped is especially dear.
"I have my dad's tractor, a 1927 Case 12-20," he says. "He bought it new, and when he sold the farm in 1959, he just drug it up, and set it under a tree. In the early 1980s, I restored it.
"The last tractor I'd ever get rid of is dad's."
An equally rare, but much smaller, piece is Lou Northcote's Toro Lawn Master.
"It's one of just 12 known of," says her husband, Cliff. "And it has the lowest serial number (No. 33). It's really rare."
The Toro, originally used with three reel mowers hung on it, dates to the early 1940s. It still has a brass plaque identifying it as property of Los Angeles County.
"We found it in the parking lot here a year ago," Cliff says. "We wanted something my wife could drive."
Fortunately, the Toro was in working condition, because there are no parts available, Cliff adds.
"I didn't do too much to it," he says. "I offered to paint it, but she likes things left original."
Engine collectors also make the trek to Tulare. This year's show drew several one-of-a-kind pieces: Delbert Fidler, Redding, Calif., brought a 4 hp Doak, "Serial Number 1." The Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif., sent a Holt Caterpillar engine built for the U.S. Army in World War I. The same engine used to power the 120 hp Holt Caterpillar tractors was used in wartime to move heavy artillery. Of 676 tractors built, two survive. The Vista museum's piece is the only known remaining power unit engine. An 1895 Rider-Ericsson hot air pumping engine, shown by Steven Gray, Atascadero, Calif., is a crowd stopper, as are the huge Schilling Spice Company engine, a tree-sized industrial drill, and a 60 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel.
The daily equipment parade is another big draw at Tulare. From the beginning, when show and parade dignitaries glide by in vintage cars, to the end, when massive oxen lumber past, this year's installment rolls along for something like 90 minutes.
Tractors pass by in pairs while the announcer gamely struggles – to the delight of the crowd – to keep notes and vintage equipment synchronized. It all adds up to a positive experience, says Doug Peltzer, 1999 show chairman.
"We don't have a show if we don't have exhibitors. Exhibitors are the heart of the show," he says. "And spectators make it financially possible to carry on."
In that spirit, show officials do their best to keep exhibitors happy.
"They don't like to see a lot of restrictive rules, they want to feel welcome, and they want to feel like they can drive their equipment all over the showgrounds," he says, "whether it's a crawler or steel wheels or whatever."
The Agri-Center (a nonprofit organization) also produces the California Farm Equipment Show and International Exposition and the Western Dairy Expo. Visitors to next year's antique equipment show will be among the first to view a new educational facility, set to open by February. The initial phase of the $7 million project will consist of a learning center, museum and cafeteria open to the public and school children. More than $2.2 million has already been raised through grants and donations. Peltzer is confident that the goal can be met.
"We have just eight salaried people here," he says. "But they're backed up by something like 700 volunteers. It's been intriguing, and very educational for me, to see how dedicated this community is to this organization." FC
California Antique Farm Equipment Show: International Agri-Center, mailing address: PO Box 1475, Tulare, CA 93275-1475; 4450 S. Laspina Street, Tulare, CA 93275; (559) 688-1751; (800) 999-9186; Fax: (559) 686-5065. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Tickets@farmshow.org; website: http://www.antiquefarmshow.org.