Iron Ladies: An Obsession with antique power

For a lot of members, it’s more than just a hobby. There’s a connection to some memory.

June 21, 2007 | | Back Issues

My Uncle Dave has been a collector of old farm equipment for decades. He has four or five tractors, numerous implements, and an intimate knowledge of their inner workings. He’s on a first-name basis with every used-parts dealer from here to that great Cockshutt showroom in the sky and, more than that, can rhyme off their inventory from memory.

It’s kind of an odd obsession. Odder still when you consider that he lives in suburban Brampton and, now retired, hasn’t worked in agriculture since the early 1950s. True, he has what’s lovingly referred to as “the farm,” a fifty-five-acre parcel near Wye Marsh, but it’s really more a farmhouse cottage – and a place to store the equipment he can’t keep in Brampton.

To the uninitiated, his treasures can look a little suspect. Battered and bruised, grass reaching up through their springs and levers, they just don’t have the antique chic of, say, early Canadian furniture. To the family, Uncle Dave’s equipment habit was always something to be humoured, but not encouraged. I suspect he heard “What the hell are you going to do with that?” more than once as he arrived home with his latest acquisition.

Uncle Dave isn’t the only one in our family with a thing for old machines. I, too, have a long-standing interest in a couple of iron heirlooms, though mine is more a sentimental curiosity.

On the farm in Waldemar where I grew up, there were two family favourites when it came to the equipment: a 1934 Ford gravel truck, used for hauling grain from the field to the barn, and a 1940s-vintage John Deere Model A tractor with row-crop wheels.

The farm was sold in 1976 and the equipment, including the truck, was auctioned off. The tractor remained in the family, but gradually fell into disrepair. It was later donated to Dufferin County Museum and Archives, though when last I saw it a couple of years ago, it faced an uncertain future because the cost of restoration threatened to make the project unfeasible. The truck was bought by Greenwood Construction Company of Orangeville. As the years passed I often wondered what became of it.

Turns out Uncle Dave and I are far from alone in our mild-mannered mania for moss-backed machines. Talking turkey about tractors, waxing eloquent about equipment, and working endlessly on whirligigs are bugs that have also bitten about sixty members of the High Country Antique Power Club.

Formed in 1999, the club is based in Mono, but has members from across the province. Old farm and garden tractors are a favourite obsession, but some participants are into antique vehicles and motorcycles, saw and shingle mills, rope making, even road graders.

After a year and a half of planning, the group will be holding its “first annual” show on June 23–24 at the Orangeville Fairgrounds. It headlines Massey Harris and Massey Ferguson equipment, though a large variety of makes and models will also be represented. The Road Hazards car club will exhibit vintage cars and trucks on Saturday.

I got together recently with six members of the Antique Power Club at Bob Shirley’s place in Mono. Shirley, who is past president, is a serious collector in his own right, with no less than thirty tractors. He also restores and maintains the collection belonging to Dufferin County Museum and Archives, where he has been participating in the restoration of my old John Deere. Inside his front door, a display of scale-model, toy farm equipment – all Case, his brand – is impressive enough to make a zealous shelf stocker at Toys ’R Us green with envy.

Over coffee and cookies, a lively conversation jumps from topic to topic. It quickly becomes evident that these folks are as much friends as fellow collectors. The patience and knowledge demanded by meticulous restoration is also evident. “It’s an enthusiastic group” – an understatement by club member Earl Dodds.

Among Dodds’ collectibles is a hydraulic water ram, used on his own family farm from 1900 until 1968, when a modern pump was installed. “After I turned fifty,” he says, “I started to appreciate all this old stuff. And I decided to restore the water ram before it was gone.”

Like mine, one of Dodds’ tractors has also been transformed over his lifetime from a practical farm tool to sentimental memorabilia. “It got to be underpowered,” he says. “Eventually we got a new tractor and it never got used anymore. Fifteen years later, I restored it.”

Tom Brett, proud owner of twelve tractors, agrees. “For a lot of members, it’s more than just a hobby. There’s a connection to some memory.”

Okay, so let’s say you own a few dozen farm tractors – one member of the High Country club actually has sixty – where exactly do you house such a fleet?

“People’s barns and drive sheds are full,” says Harvey Clark. “You think some shed looks empty and unused, but don’t open the door. It’ll be packed.” Bob Shirley adds, “Other members have built barns especially for the purpose.” His collection has spilled over to occupy space on his neighbour’s property.

Dave Apple, another member, lives in downtown Orangeville. A collector of all things Ford, his prize possession is a 1953 Jubilee tractor, which he keeps in the yard. “I like to look out the back window and see it,” he says.

While the show will be the club’s first independent effort, they have been exhibiting at fall fairs and other events for several years. So, how do you move tons of tractors and equipment from place to place? “Most of us have our own flatbed trailers” says Shirley. “If not, you beg, borrow or steal from neighbours, friends and other club members.”

While collectors of other kinds of antiques most often purchase work by some long-ago craftsman, these guys have become craftsmen themselves. Restorations take many hundreds of hours, and specialized skills are required.

As an example, club president Ron James mentions Walter Gooderham, a retired machinist from Orangeville. When Gooderham needed a carburetor to complete his latest project, instead of trying to find the long discontinued part, Gooderham simply made one from scratch. When I met him a few days later he said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve made three of them now.”

Though you might expect this group to belong to the retired set, the average age in the club is actually estimated to be about fifty-five. Their youngest member is twenty-three. And membership secretary Harvey Clark says the club is growing. “We’ve had seven new members join recently.”

Collections often include not only the power equipment, but also the manuals, advertising and, if possible, the original bill of sale.

What, eventually, will become of their collections? “Usually the stuff gradually gets sold off,” says Bob Shirley. “People get tired of trying to keep them running. Some of mine are going to the museum.” Except in rare instances, when they’re sold, the return on investment isn’t high. “Oh no – it’s mostly a labour of love,” says Earl Dodds.

When I asked if any of the equipment still worked for its living, Ron James responded, “Sure. Every year we have a spring planting day where we put in a few acres of grain, all with period equipment. Later it’s harvested using a 100-year-old threshing machine, which is quite a sight to see in operation.”

But that kind of antique demonstration wasn’t really what I had in mind. On the Dufferin farms of my childhood in the sixties, a lot of very old equipment was still in everyday use. I persisted: “I mean, does any of it get put to work on a farm on a regular basis?”

Heads around the room shook. Harvey Clark said, “No, you need $200,000 for a tractor big enough to run a farm these days.” Old tractors, it seems, aren’t powerful enough to handle modern farming techniques. In the age of mega-scale agriculture, tractors and their attachments are two to three times the size of equipment common in my youth.

Talk gradually turned to farming in general: the need for vast acreages in order to turn a profit, how many farmers have to take jobs off the farm in order to keep things going.

It was then that Tom Brett asked, “How many full-time farmers are left in Mono, anyway?” I was surprised when it took the group – among them four farmers with decades of knowledge about the local community – a few long minutes to list enough to fill the fingers of one hand. Maybe there’s more to holding on to the old keepsakes than first appears. They represent not only personal memories, or mechanical history, but a whole kind of community life that is fading away.

Sadly, Uncle Dave has just sold the farm up north. “Time caught up with me,” he said when I saw him recently. On the bright side, the new owner bought the equipment with the farm, so Uncle Dave’s empire stays together.

As for my own old relics, I tracked down the truck. Still owned by the Greenwood family, it’s been totally restored. Though not feeling well enough to come out for pictures, I’m told it’s in good shape but for a part or two. As to the old tractor, Bob Shirley says he expects to unveil the completed result at the June show.

They’re hoping for a few thousand people, so maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the guy with a foolish grin on his face, pretending to drive the John Deere Model A. The one with row-crop wheels.

BRYAN’S HAY PRESS

Before the existence of the railway, farmers typically stored hay loose in a loft in the barn. As railways opened up the land and made the possibility of selling to distant markets a reality, a machine was needed that would compress and package the material for shipping.

Unlike the modern pick-up hay bailer, which came along in about 1940, a hay press was a mostly stationary piece of equipment. Usually set up in the barn next to the hay mow, it could also be brought to a central location in the field during haying season, where the hay could be brought to it. Power was supplied through a horse sweep, steam or conventional motor, and later by tractor.

Effective though it may have been, the hay press was also very labour intensive. Five to seven men were required to produce a single bale of hay. Most presses were owned by hay dealers who would buy the surplus crop either in the barn or on the field, bale it, and then transport it to market.

One such dealer was R.D. (Roy) Bryan, who also handled grain and coal. Opened in the mid 1920s, the Orangeville company continues today as Bryan’s Fuel. Bryan operated up to three hay presses year-round. One of these, a First World War-vintage Wolverine made by the Ypsilanti Hay Press Co. of Michigan, was donated mostly as parts to the High Country Antique Power Club. Several of the members, led by Cecil Smith, restored the machine over the winter of 2oo2-o3.

This particular machine has a wooden frame and axles. It produces a seventeen-by-twenty-one-inch bale – one of the largest on the market at the time.

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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