Ninety-year-old Don Lanford has turned vintage cast iron seat collecting into more than just a hobby – it’s his mission.
In fact, Don has traveled the globe in search of rare and unusual seats to add to his collection, including Wales, Russia, China and Australia.
Yet, Don’s dedication to seat collecting has also carried him across America in search of hard-to-find seats. Just last year, the Austin, Texas, collector endured a grueling 28-hour bus ride to purchase a choice cast iron seat at auction for a friend and fellow collector in Wales.
After years of patient seat hunting, Don’s got the colorful collection to show for his efforts. Today, he owns about 600 cast iron seats – probably the largest collection in Texas. Don’s seats are all from vintage horse-drawn implements, except for one tractor seat. Few duplicates are found in Don’s collection, but he keeps a couple around to trade with other collectors.
A family affair
Don caught the itch for cast iron seat collecting after his brother, Rex, took up the hobby. Don began collecting cast iron seats in the 1950s, but didn’t become a serious collector until after he retired in 1990. “That’s when I first joined the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association and started collecting a little more in earnest,” Don says.
The duo maintained a farm equipment sales and repair business for years, and began accumulating seats from repair jobs that came into the shop. Don can’t recall which seat he collected first among his massive and colorfully painted collection, but a Peters (Type 1) No. 824 seat was one of the original seats he collected. Rex found the seat in a field while on a pheasant hunting trip, and when Rex died in 1981, his wife gave Don the seat. “I’ve hung on to that seat because it has sentimental value,” Don says.
A Blanket, Texas, native, Don mounted most of his seats on wooden A-frames atop a flatbed trailer, which he stores outside the family business. Seats also line the business’s exterior walls and serve as antique ornaments that often draw the attention of customers.
Don’s most prized possessions reside indoors in the lobby, however. There, he proudly displays two racks of his most rare – and most valuable – seats. Many of the seats in this special collection have international origins, providing a peek at farm history and culture from countries such as Germany, Holland, Norway, France, Sweden, England, Australia and New Zealand.
Rare and unique
Don owns one pre-war German seat, which is particularly rare because most were melted and made into munitions during World War II. The seat is a Jacobi Hennef No. 573, which is rated a 10 in John D. Friedly Jr.’s Cast Iron Implement Seats V. “I don’t know of another anywhere,” Don says.
He paid $425 for the German seat at a collector’s auction in 2000. It’s difficult to estimate the seat’s worth, Don says, because it’s likely one of a kind. Bud Porter, newsletter editor for the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association, agrees the market price for the Jacobi Hennef seat hasn’t been set, but adds that it’s probably worth more than $500 at auction today.
Value for all farm collectibles is relative, and people often ask Don what the average cast iron seat is worth. “Well, what’s a cow worth?” he often replies. “It depends on a lot of different things, like its condition and origin.”
Some of Don’s seats are rare and quite pricey, and others are more common, worth under $100. In fact, Don bought many of his seats for less than $100 – and some are worth two or three times that today.
The highest-priced seat Don has ever seen sold was a Sunrise Evans Planter No. 996, which sold at an auction for $7,000. The seat was rated a 10, and because two men wanted it, the price kept climbing.
“Seats are just like other antiques,” Don says. “Their worth depends on how much you want it.”
Yet, Bud Porter explains that the Evans price wasn’t indicative of the prices paid for typical cast iron seats, and the price only climbed so high because the two collectors battled for the seat at auction. In this case, the seat sold for far more than the entire implement from which it came: The Evans seed planter sold at a later auction for about $3,500.
The promise of wealth or making high-dollar sales isn’t what draws Don to search for rare seats. He shares a great love for the hobby and enjoys learning the history behind the antiques. For instance, Don owns two Massey Company seats, No. 665 and No. 666, and a Massey-Harris Company seat, No. 659. These seats aren’t particularly rare, but demonstrate the merger of Massey and Harris into one company. Massey-Harris later merged with Ferguson Company and formed one of the largest farm implement firms in the world.
Practically speaking, Don says, seat collecting can be easier than toting around other, bulkier collections. “When you get to be my age, you don’t want to carry around the whole tractor from show to show,” he says with a smile.
And Don’s not the only one who has a passion for seat collecting: Networks of collectors both here and abroad are growing. In America, a small group of seat owners formed an association of cast iron seat collectors in 1973, and started a newsletter as a venue for correspondence.
The Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association now has about 600 members in the U.S., Canada, Wales, England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Don is a devoted club member, and he says it’s a great way to buy, sell and trade seats and meet other collectors
Like most antiques, cast iron seats are more valuable in pristine condition. Yet, years of neglect or exposure to the elements can cause these beauties to break or crack. The first step Don takes to restore his seats is to weld the breaks and cracks in the pattern. An experienced welder, Don says his repairs are often difficult to spot.
“I usually have to point them out to other collectors because I’m not trying to deceive anyone,” Don says.
Next, Don removes excess rust from the seats with steel wool. Some collectors sandblast seats to remove rust, but Don prefers a more gentle approach.
When it comes to decorating seats, some collectors choose not to paint them, but Don hand-paints the front faces of his seats. “I think painted seats look good in photographs because it makes their patterns really stand out,” he explains.
Don leaves the seat backs unpainted because it’s a good way to tell original seats from reproductions, but otherwise Don doesn’t follow any patterns or attempt to match the original seat colors. “I just grab a color and start painting,” he says of his technique.
This approach has left Don with some unique-looking seats. One American-made seat, a No. P892, hanging with his indoor collection is from a corn cutter. It’s really back-to-back seats, built because it took two people to run the machine, one facing each direction. This double-winged shape lent itself to a butterfly pattern, and now the piece’s vibrant colors make it stand out from the hundreds of others. Don bought the seat for $60 – a steal because the last seat of its type sold for $750. Previous sales of similar seats averaged from $300 to $350. Another seat Don keeps in his office portrays a vibrant blue-and-green peacock pattern. Don says one of his friends painted the colorful peacock and gave it to him as a gift.
Don is more than a knowledgeable seat collector. He’s also a walking storehouse of wisdom earned from a lifetime of world travels. Like many men his age, Don served in the U.S. Army’s anti-aircraft division during World War II. Yet, few men remember the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor as well as Don does. He was an officer on duty the morning of the attack and alerted people around the base during the devastating raid.
“I remember that it was a complete surprise,” he says. “Nobody thought they would attack us there.”
Through years of experience, Don’s become an expert at finding authentic seats and is on constant lookout. Most collectors can easily recognize reproductions from originals, especially because seat hobbyists know which seats are being reproduced. Inexperienced dealers or collectors may not always admit that the seat is a reproduction, Don warns, or they may not know the seat isn’t authentic.
“People have gotten stung on them,” Don cautions. “So you need to be careful when you buy.” Most authentic seats carry old rust, he adds, and reproductions are often painted front and back to hide the new metal. “You can’t fake the rust,” Don says.
One seat in Don’s collection isn’t authentic – it’s a replica of a John Deere seat. Yet, the date on the seat reads 1847. That’s a red flag, Don says, because John Deere didn’t exist until 1868, at which time it was called Deere & Company.
Upon closer inspection, Don also realized the running deer on the seat – Deere & Company’s ubiquitous trademark – faced the wrong direction, and the seat was made in China. Undaunted, Don built a stool with the seat and kept it to illustrate his point that it’s important to carefully inspect any potential seat purchase.
Don sends seat “scouts” searching for rare finds, and stays in frequent contact with other collectors to keep current on trends in the hobby. Don bought most of his seats at tractor shows, flea markets and antique auctions, which he says are the best places to find authentic and rare cast iron seats.
Trading is also a common practice for Don. “Some folks don’t want to buy seats,” he explains. “They only want to trade.”
Of course, sometimes Don is just plain lucky. He found one seat, an Avery (Type 2) No. 56, at a flea market for just $10. This seat doesn’t have a part number, so it’s much more rare than the other Avery seats. “That’s what I call a sleeper – the ones that just creep up on you,” Don says. It turns out the price was right, and so was Don’s hunch. The other seven Avery (Type 2) seats that sold in recent years each brought several hundred dollars.
The Internet is another tool for collectors searching for the perfect seat. Don found a Reuther Elevator Digger No. 2, No. 891, on eBay, an Internet auction site. Don was a bit skeptical about using the Internet – not to mention buying a seat sight unseen – but submitted a bid for the seat regardless.
When he was outbid, Don forgot about the seat. Surprisingly, he received that very seat as a gift for his 90th birthday in April – Don’s son, Bob, was the person who’d outbid him online.
The Texas traveler
At the age of 90, Don has seen the world change, as well as shifting trends in seat collecting. “They’re getting harder and harder to find,” he says. “People have started making reproductions of the rare seats, so you have to watch for those. Lots of them are coming out of Mexico.”
But this Texas traveler can still often be found combing the country in search of collectible seats. In May of last year, Don traveled 28 hours on a bus to attend Art and Martha Heritage’s estate sale in Muncie, Ind. The trip was long and exhausting, but its fruits were sweet. Don bought the auction’s most expensive seat, a rare Globe No. 445, rated a 10 (for more on the estate sale, read “Cast Iron Seat Collectors Find Gems at Heritage Estate Sale”).
Don actually bought the seat as a gift for Ted Edwards, a seat collector from Wales. This effort shows that Don’s travels have brought him not only rare seats, but also irreplaceable friends.
Don met Ted in the early 1980s through an ad in the Collectors Association newsletter. The two traded seats and soon became good friends. Today, they pay each other’s membership dues for seat collecting clubs in their respective countries, and both have made the trans-Atlantic journey to visit each other. “We’ve probably traded 50 to 70 seats with each other,” Don says.
After a 10-day trip in 1993 to the British Isles, Don brought two suitcases of seats back that he bought during his trip. Ted later sent Don a blue Norwegian Laxevaags seat, one not shown in Friedly’s book. “It’s probably the only one of its kind in the U.S.,” Don says, “and Ted has the only one in England.”
Don’s trips to Wales were far from the first he had made in the name of seat collecting. In 1981, he traveled to Russia, China and Australia as part of the People to People program, an initiative begun by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower that sends Americans to meet with foreigners involved in similar trades.
Don took another journey to Australia and New Zealand two years later, visited collective farms, and continued correspondence with farmers after returning home. His friendliness paid off. “A year later, a friend in Australia called me and told me he found four seats: two McKays and two Mitchells,” Don says.
After nearly six decades in the hobby, Don’s interest in seat collecting is still going strong. On the top of his wish list is an Alamo Iron Works seat from Waco – the only seat known to be made in Texas. Always on the lookout for his next find, Don plans to attend the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Convention in Hastings, Minn., July 23-25, 2004.
For collectors interested in his seats, Don has a consistent and firm message: “I have no intention of selling my collection,” Don says. “My son runs the family business now, so he’s next in line for the seats.”
Don doesn’t plan on giving up traveling, although he says he will be doing one thing different. “I surely won’t be riding on a bus again,” Don declares. FC
Read more about the cast iron implement seat collecting hobby and seat development: “The Rise of Cast Iron Implement Seats.”
Lindsey Hodel is a freelance writer who shares a passion for preserving land and farm heritage. Contact her by e-mail at email@example.com.