On the vast, open desert east of Yuma, Ariz., sit three metal buildings under the granite peak known as Castle Dome Mountain. Inside those unassuming structures lies what might be among one of the finest private farm equipment collections ever assembled.
Dubbed the Dome Valley Museum because of its proximity to that impressive mountain, the museum is the life-long dream of Larry Weber. A former farmer born and raised near Princeton, Minn., Larry moved west nearly 20 years ago. Although he left the farm, Larry never lost his love for farm machines and implements. The museum is Larry's showcase, a shrine-like sanctuary where old iron finds a final home.
Far from merely a place to put equipment out to pasture, the museum holds a treasure trove of rare and unusual farm machines. From a special-order Farmall Model 400 Hi-Clear to one-of-a-kind stationary engines, the museum contains aisles of iron made by nearly every manufacturer imaginable.
'What we've done is quite different,' the modest, 57-year-old collector explains. 'We've got a little bit of everything.'
The museum opened in February 2002 and began as a place to store some of Larry's numerous tractors, engines and implements that he'd amassed through the years. Larry also owns Weber Implement, a Yuma-based business that sells late-model, used farm equipment. When the business's lot filled with vintage tractors and other farm equipment, Larry bought the 10-acre museum site and shifted the bulk of his collection there. Only a year after the museum's inception, thousands of visitors have passed through its gates - 2,800 in the first month alone -and Larry expects that number will grow along with his ever-expanding collection.
One visitor, Dennis Miller from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, says he's been to the museum seven times since it opened, and he always brings guests who visit the snowbird. 'This is the greatest thing you'll ever see,' Dennis declares about Larry's museum. 'He's always improving it, and even people who don't really like farm equipment can enjoy his collection.'
The impressive collection includes 775 tractors, both restored and unrestored, as well as stationary engines and dozens of implements from hay rakes to harrows. The machines in Larry's collection came from across North America, including Canada and Mexico - he's even purchased a few from Europe. With summer temperatures in southern Arizona reaching 120 degrees in the shade, Larry takes a few months off each summer to travel. A self-described tractor hunter, Larry is always on the prowl for the next piece destined for the museum.
Unlike some collectors, Larry doesn't factor a machine's worth into the equation when he buys it. 'It just depends on how I feel that day,' Larry says.
With a never-ending passion for old iron coupled with a desire to collect, it's no wonder that Larry's collection grows by the day. 'The other day I sold five tractors and bought six,' he adds with a chuckle.'
Larry is a great tractor hunter, but he concedes that one person can't take care of the entire operation. That's why his son, Bill, who grew up on farms in both Minnesota and South Dakota, has helped his father since 1996. When he's not erecting museum displays or moving equipment from the Yuma yard to the museum, Bill tackles restoration projects. He and a few hired hands are responsible for ensuring that most of the equipment is operational. 'Dad does the finding,' Bill says. 'I do the restoring.'
Bill has one philosophy about restoration projects: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' he declares. In fact, Bill estimates that 99 percent of the tractors and engines in the museum are functional, even if they aren't restored to like-new condition. 'I don't want to make it all bright and shiny,' Larry adds about his collection's condition.
With nearly 800 tractors to take care of, mostly unrestored, Bill's hands are full year-round. 'I could do one tractor a week for the next 15 years,' Bill says. He purchases paint directly from equipment manufacturers - if they're still in business - or from specialty paint providers. Parts come from wherever possible, from auctions to individuals, and new equipment is procured the same way. 'We get tractors any way but stealin',' Bill jokes.
Multiple versions of many machines in the collection - both restored and not - help Bill with his restoration work, he says. Parts can be compared, serial numbers double-checked, and it's easier to ascertain which components are original with two or more machines side by side. Bill utilizes manuals, magazines, books and nearly any source to guide his restoration work. Even after 10 years of study and dozens of restorations, Bill's challenged by each new project. 'I still learn something every day,' Bill says.
The desert is a good place for old iron since it doesn't quickly rust like equipment stored in more-humid environments, Bill says. Yet, the Arizona sun is also brutal on painted metal, and the dry air causes rubber tires to crack and split. That's why the Webers are adding a 26,000-square-foot building to protect the collection against the desert's damage.
The museum is a family affair. Larry says he couldn't have done it without Bill's help and support from his wife, Pennie. 'Most women wouldn't put up with a guy like me,' Larry declares. 'The only way a guy can get away with this is with a good wife.'
'No comment,' Pennie jokes.
Although both Bill and Larry are members of the Early Days Gas Engine Club, California Branch 22, based in San Diego, the elder Weber also attends the Massey-Harris Collector's Association national show each year. Yet, show-going isn't important to Larry. 'People usually go to shows to see unusual equipment,' Larry says. 'That doesn't do us much good.'
A quick glance at the iron parked at the museum's site - not to mention the 5-acre yard full of machines in Yuma - and it's obvious that Larry's surrounded by the rare and unique each day. The list of Larry's old tractors reads like a C.H. Wendel book. Most tractors in the collection are limited-run models, or hard-to-find variations on popular machines.
Among a seemingly endless row of John Deere tractors - Larry owns about 100, 40 of which are displayed at the museum - sits a 1959 Model 630 Gas Hi-Crop, with Serial No. 63013033. Only 16 were manufactured, Larry says, and 12 are known to exist, including the Dome Valley tractor. An All-Fuel Model 630 Hi-Crop sold at auction in 2002 for a record-breaking $175,000. How does it feel to own such a rare and potentially valuable machine? 'It's just another tractor,' Larry casually says.
Other Deeres in the collection include a complete set of unstyled tractors, such as BO, AO and GP models. Of the 30 Series Deeres, Larry has all but the 430, 730 Hi-Crop and a 330 to complete the set.
Another rare piece is a 1935 prototype hay baler. Built in Omaha, Neb., by Ummo Franklin Luebben, it was the first-ever attempt to fashion a machine that produces 22-inch round hay bales, Larry says. Once owned by Oscar Cooke, founder of the now-defunct Oscar's Dreamland formerly of Billings, Mont., Leubben's grandson assured Oscar that it was the first of several prototypes built, Larry says. Allis-Chalmers Co. eventually bought the patent rights and put the round baler into production.
The unusual collection includes stationary engines as well as tractors and implements. One engine carries an Olds Gasoline Engine Works logo but was made by Seager Engine Works, Lansing, Mich., sometime after Olds was reorganized as Seager in 1910. To confuse matters more, the engine carries a Massy-Harris nameplate that shows Serial No. D4530. It's a No. 3, Type A engine, which used one cylinder to produce 4 1/2 hp. Larry bought the engine from a North Dakota collector.
Parked in the middle of the museum's sandy compound is a 1927 Sunshine combine. Made in Australia and sold in Canada, the machine was the first successful production combine produced, Bill says. Like many pieces in Larry's collection, it's functional but largely unrestored.
Under another shed behind the museum's main building sit several rare tractors and steam engines, including a 1938 Avery Ro-Trac with a six-cylinder Hercules engine. The tractor is called a Ro-Trac because its adjustable front end can be tailored to match row widths used for different crops, Bill says. It was purchased in California, and 11 are known to exist, two of which Larry owns.
While Larry collects tractors and engines made by nearly every company, he prefers Massey-Harris equipment. His father used Massey equipment on their Minnesota farm, and the memory of those tractors never faded. 'I tipped my first Massey when I was 15,' Larry says. 'Massey is our specialty.'
That's evident by the sheer number of Massey logos seen in the museum. In fact, Larry says he owns all but five models of the 150 different tractors the company produced. His tractors include a 1938 unstyled Massey-Harris Pacemaker with side skirts made for orchard or vineyard use. None like it exist, Larry says, except in his museum.
That's not the only one-of-a-kind Massey in the collection. Larry also owns a 1942 Model 82 tractor specially made for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It has a four-cylinder Continental gasoline engine, and was built with specially cast front wheels and hubs that added extra strength for towing airplanes.
Larry's favorite Massey-built tractor is a sleek 1950 Model 44. It was built for vineyard use, and its front end is 5 inches narrower than other production models, to accommodate narrow vineyard rows. Only five are known to exist, and like other unusual tractors Larry owns, he has two, one of which is restored.
Even with all those fine Masseys in one place, Larry still wants to add a 1920 Model 3, a Model 44 High-Crop, an early 1950s Model 33 like the one Larry farmed with as a boy and a Model 102 Senior Row-Crop built in the early 1940s.
Museum visitors can see everything from stagecoaches to farm trucks, mixed among the tractors and other farm equipment. To ensure there's something for everyone, Larry's also erected displays of pre-1940s kitchens complete with vintage stoves and cook-ware coupled with a gift shop that sells both Arizona and farm-related souvenirs. 'We get all kinds, not just tractor collectors,' Larry says.
Nearly 3,000 visitors walk through the doors each month during the five months the museum is open for business, Larry says. They can also see tractor seats, tractor toys, nearly 100 pedal tractor versions of everything from John Deere to Massey-Harris, metal dealership signs, walking plows, unusual garden tillers, wagons, horse powers, grain drills and examples of about anything ever associated with agriculture.
With a new building in the works and a near-constant stream of new tractors and equipment, the museum is bigger than Larry ever dreamt. He's understandably proud of his museum and the farm equipment he's amassed since he first started collecting in 1985, even though it's been difficult and expensive work. 'You don't get into this to make money,' Larry says.
The expense is an investment in his future, Larry jokes, better than stocks or bonds. More than that, Larry says the museum is a place where visitors can learn about America's agricultural history as well as see tractors and implements found few other places. FC
-To learn more about Larry Weber's Dome Valley Museum, write him at Weber Implement, 12700 Somerton Ave., Yuma, AZ 85365; or call the workshop at (928) 726-5053; or the museum at (928) 785-9081; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the museum Web site at www.DomeValleyMuseum.com