For sheer spectacle, there’s nothing like an enormous, sprawling tractor show. But don’t underestimate the appeal of a small local show. Hometown shows have their share of gems, and there’s nothing the local folks would rather do than show them off.
The Southeast Kansas Gas Engine & Tractor Club’s annual show is a classic example. Held the third weekend of June in Pittsburg, the show offered a surprising mix of antique farm relics big and small wrapped up in a bear hug of warm hospitality. Adding a celebratory touch to the club’s 25th annual show, a bluegrass concert was held on the lawn Friday night. Other special events included a rolling pin contest, women’s skillet toss, a car show and baling demonstrations.
Kenny Wilson, Carl Junction, Mo., is a big fan of collectible garden tractors — and that’s pretty understandable, especially once you hear his story. “When I was growing up, we mostly farmed with horse power,” he recalls. “We had a truck patch and it kept us kids busy, pulling weeds and picking off potato bugs. Mom canned all summer. The house would be super hot all summer, but if we wanted to eat that’s what we had to do.”
The advent of walk-behind garden tractors — like those built by David Bradley Mfg. Co. — was a major leap forward. “It was such a big boon to the farmer,” Kenny says. “David Bradley had no trouble selling those. They were economical; just about anybody could afford one.” Equipped with a 4 hp Briggs & Stratton engine and 16-inch wheels, the early walk-behind unit was also easy to handle. Kenny recently acquired a walk-behind David Bradley unit. It is scheduled for restoration in his shop, and if an already completed David Bradley Tri-Trac is any indication, it will be a gem.
The Tri-Trac is a remnant of the era when Sears, Roebuck & Co. owned David Bradley Mfg. Co. Produced from 1954-’57 by David Bradley at Sears’ behest, the Tri-Trac was an idea after its time. “They just didn’t go over,” Kenny says. “If they’d made them before or during the war, they would have sold a lot of them. There was a big demand for garden tractors then because everybody had a ‘victory garden.’ But by the 1950s, the troops were back home and they were farming on a big scale.”
The Tri-Trac had a 6 hp Wisconsin engine and a bore and stroke of 2-7/8 by 2-3/4 inches. Sears offered 10 pieces of equipment for the Tri-Trac. “Those are hard to come by now,” Kenny says. The Tri-Trac had forward, reverse, neutral and a speed changer; it weighed 894 pounds. “It was heavy compared to its competitors,” he says, “but it was relatively easy to turn.” A versatile unit, it also had an adjustable front wheel to accommodate row widths from 48-72 inches.
Kenny’s Tri-Trac was in good condition mechanically when he got it. Even the tires — US Royals — are original. “I got lucky,” he says. “It had always been kept shedded. I had a lot of good hours restoring that Tri-Trac. Once you get one done, you say you’ll never do it again, but you always do.”
Among the most popular collectible garden tractors in the country, David Bradleys are a breeze to load in a pickup. “I take it to a lot of shows,” Kenny says. His collection also includes a Jacques Mighty Mite, a Shaw (built by Shaw Mfg. Co., Galesburg, Kan.), and a Haney built in Philadelphia.
The Pittsburg show had another Sears connection with its featured engine: the Hercules line. Hercules Buggy Co., Evansville, Ind., renamed itself Hercules Gas Engine Co. in 1912. In years to follow, Sears marketed a nearly identical line of Economy engines.
At Pittsburg, collector Jamie Gull, Girard, Kan., showed one of each. His 1919 Hercules 5EK nearly required spectators to don sunglasses or be blinded by a gleaming restoration. “I wanted to ‘slick up’ one engine, so I worked with a neighbor who does car restorations,” he says. “He guided me through the prep process. I used a hand grinder with a sanding disc. I didn’t go after the pits, just the bumps. It was hours of grinding.”
Next, Jamie used two coats of spray-on filler/primer and his buddy applied four coats of single-stage urethane paint. The resulting high gloss literally stops traffic. “I take it to a lot of shows,” he says. “Kids walk by and then they wheel around for a second look. Some of the old timers are not so keen on that kind of restoration. They like to see the old engines in their ‘work clothes.’ But the younger generation likes it. I tell people ‘That’s my miniature.’ The miniatures they make of gas engines are always so shiny. But I can’t afford one of those, so I tell people this is my miniature.”
Jamie already had an Economy engine, so he was familiar with the Hercules when he got it. A previous owner had converted the engine to spark plug ignition, but Jamie wanted the correct configuration. “I had to find an igniter and a magneto,” he says, “but I was lucky.” When he got it, the Hercules engine wasn’t running. He had to put shims in the piston rings, make a lot of new pins and put bushings in. The Hercules and other engines from Jamie’s collection are semi-permanently installed on a custom-designed trailer with sidewalls that fold into awnings, making a shaded show display a snap.
Years ago, Loren Erwin collected engines and tractors. Today the Webb City, Mo., man has turned his attention to fantastical tabletop displays of perpetual motion. One display at the Pittsburg show was reminiscent of an amusement park. Powered by a cordless drill’s power unit, miniature stair steps rise and fall. A rotating disc suggests a Ferris wheel. A chute made of wire flows through it all like a roller coaster. When a barrage of gleaming ball bearings is released, the display seems to create its own energy as balls stream, shoot, bounce and tumble along a carefully designed path.
At another tabletop display, it’s all business. Toy trucks powered by a belt sander’s gearbox toil endlessly on a jobsite where work never stops. With intricate timing, the course flawlessly accommodates a steady flow of ball bearings. Trucks move forward and backward, buckets dump loads, lifts kick into action as the balls move through a series of shafts, stairs and ramps.
Loren works on the displays at night, “when I can’t do anything else and I can’t sleep,” he says. He estimates he has 120 hours in the construction display; perhaps 90 hours in the amusement park. Design of each display was a work in progress. “I just go until I stop,” he says, “or until I run out of room.”
It’s pretty easy to feel like Gulliver when viewing Andy Smith’s display at the Pittsburg show. Rising to just about knee height were a Case pull-type combine, a McCormick-Deering 15-30 tractor and a Ford Model T pickup. The quarter-scale pieces are intricately detailed and all run. They are the work of Andy’s late grandfather, Allen Smith.
“It was a hobby for him,” says Andy, who is president of the Southeast Kansas Gas Engine & Tractor Club. “He worked as a maintenance man at a printing shop but this was his hobby.”
Growing up during the Great Depression, Allen only rarely had a store-bought toy. Like others of his generation, he made his own toys. In midlife, a visit to a threshing reunion rekindled memories of his boyhood on the farm and the pleasure of building something with his hands. For more than 40 years, beginning in the 1950s, crafting working scale models of antique farm equipment was his passion.
Using little more than a farm welder and a small turning lathe, Allen created the threshing machine, tractor, combine and pickup truck as well as a 50 hp Case steam traction engine, an Aultman-Taylor 30-60 tractor, an eight-bottom plow and a Caterpillar 60 crawler. He averaged 600 hours on each.
Perhaps Allen’s greatest joy came from sharing his hobby. A notebook Andy compiled bursts with newspaper articles on Allen and his masterpieces. Newspaper editors are not given to hyperbole, but at least one could not resist. “Allen Smith is a genius,” one article began.
The business card starts innocently enough. Below the name, address and phone number, it reads: “Collector of old gasoline engines. Tractors. Winchesters.” Turn the card over and there’s more. “Model trains. Machinist’s calipers. Wood bit braces. Old clocks and all other trumpery.”
Joe Winter, Richards, Mo., is a man fascinated by literally endless relics of the past; his business card barely scratches the surface. At the Pittsburg show — where he was show chairman — he displayed an enormous collection of unique butter churns. “I’m more interested in acquiring churns that are different than I am in run-of-the-mill pieces,” he says. “When Shirley and I are out looking for gas engines on country farmsteads, if we stumble onto a churn, we’ll try to buy it. Then we start looking for something different.”
Joe was a youth of 13 when electricity came to his family’s farm in rural Missouri in the years after World War II. He well remembers the chore of churning butter by hand. “It’s like my mother used to say,” he recalls. “The best part of the good old days is that they’re all gone.”
Many churns didn’t survive the passage of time. “A lot of farmhouses burned,” he says. “They were built of wood, and they burned wood in them. A lot of times there was no fire department right there and no way to put a fire out.”
Sitting under a pop-up tent, Richard Shannon, Little Rock, Ark., was quick to explain that he has antique tractors at home. But trucking, he allows, is a lot easier when you’re hauling antique apple peelers and cherry pitters. He and his wife, Kathy, displayed an interesting selection of restored peelers and pitters dating to the mid-1800s.
Happy to demonstrate the archaic tools, he popped an apple on a fork that was part of the device. Literally before you could count to three, the apple was completely peeled. “I like anything that has gears,” Richard says. “I’m just fascinated by the mechanics of it.”
Among the peelers was one dating to the 1860s made by Sargent & Foster, Shelburne Falls, Mass. That company gained early fame for its “quick return” model. The peeler’s mechanism is driven by a worm gear; the peeling arm is under spring tension designed to follow the apple’s profile. Once the apple is peeled, the arm — no longer in gear — snaps back to the starting position.
Richard’s collection includes a canning device that compresses a lid onto a tin can. “My dad told me that they used to have canning houses (essentially a community canning operation) during the Depression,” he says. “People would bring the produce they’d raised and use machines like this to can it. It’s what kept some of them from starving.” FC
For more information:
— Southeast Kansas Old Time Gas Engine & Tractor Club show, June 20-21, 2014.
Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.