Old tractors: A bit of history, a lot of memories and fun
If you’ve never attended an old farm tractor/machinery show—and there are many held across the state—too bad. These shows are where you can see the tractor you first drove as a farm youth or the tractors your grand parents and parents used every day as they farmed the “home farm” that you visited while growing up. Or if you were a lifelong city kid, see the tractors that were used to raise the food you ate as a youngster.
During my recent visit to the Rock River Thresheree held over Labor Day weekend I met Steve Agnew of Milton. I found him seated on his 1920 Samson tractor that had been made in Janesville in 1920. The Sampson was made in what later became the General Motors assembly plant and like many of the dozens of tractor plants that came and went in Wisconsin during the 20’s and 30’s—when gasoline-powered tractors were just coming into their own—it was short-lived.
Making the old new
During our conversation while touring the Thresheree grounds in his 4-wheeler, Agnew mentioned that he had, over the course of years, rebuilt and reconstructed about 40 tractors along with some other farm equipment. As is normal, my curiosity prompted me to make a visit to the Agnew farm and learn more.
From Highway 59 the farm looked like a modern dairy layout: a long white barn, a freestall barn and a row of four Harvestores and a concrete stave silo. Steve met me as I drove in the yard and we went to his farm shop to talk.
“No, I don’t milk cows, the former dairy barn is what I call the ‘museum. We can walk over there later,” he explained.
Hanging from the walls of Agnew’s spacious farm shop were farm signs, some old (Sinclair, Badger barn cleaners, New Idea, Milton College, the Mobil's high flying red horse Pegasus and others) and one listing Agnew Farms Registered Holsteins, Agnew Trucking and a Century farm award.
A rusty Allis Chalmers D-10 cultivator tractor from the 1960’s was parked in the shop awaiting renovation.
“I bought this in Cambridge two weeks ago,” Agnew says. “It has the wrong front wheels and the three-point hitch doesn’t work. I’m looking for some parts in order to work on the tractor. And, yes it was outside and is pretty rusty.”
I’d guess Agnew’s shop has a tool for about anything and includes a paint shop and commercial ladder with nine steps to reach high places. After Agnew’s dog found out I wasn’t a threat to anything, he clambered up the steps and went to sleep on the top platform.
“That’s were he sleep. He can see the entire shop from 15 feet up and is out of the way,” Agnew says.
What about the barn, was still my question?
“My great grandfather bought this farm in 1906 and milked cows,” Agnew says. “The first barn blew down and some years later the rebuilt barn burned down. That barn was replaced by this one (with 80 stanchions) in the late 40’s. Another 60 feet and freestalls were added later. At one time the herd was up to 130 milk cows.”
"While my grandfather was farming here, my dad bought another farm nearby, that’s where I was raised," he continued. "I farmed, attended UW-Madison Farm Short Course and Blackhawk Tech at Janesville (Mechanics).
Over the years Agnew said he has done custom spraying, sold spraying equipment and managed a natural gas equipment manufacturing plant in Milton.
Back to the farm
“I didn’t really like being in an office,” Agnew said, "so in 2009, I bought the buildings and 150 acres here at the home farm then owned by an aunt. The barn silos and dairy equipment were pretty much worn out and the cows were long gone."
He notes that the barn and dairy operation had actually been rented out for many years.
Agnew converted the freestall barn into a storage area, leased the Slurry Store for waste food ingredients and rented out the several grain bins. He also removed the stanchions and free stalls from the barn and stores tractors and several other collections in his “museum”.
For a number of years Agnew operated a repair business fixing lawn mowers and other small equipment.
“I’m trying to get out of that business but people still drop things off to be fixed," he said.
In addition to tractors, Agnew has a few pieces of equipment made by the former Janesville Machinery Company that he displays at the Thresheree. And, like many of the tractor collectors, Agnew attends many shows, hauling tractors on his flatbed trailer. Or, as he and his wife did at the mid-August Badger Steam Show at Baraboo, hauling one tractor in the back of a mobile travel trailer while living in the front half.
A tour of “the museum” (former dairy barn) allowed me a look at tractors of several makes: a small John Deere 1939 Model L; a 1950 Cub Cadet lowboy; five or six Allis Chalmers Model Gs from 1948 (they may be more popular today than when they were new, Agnew guesses) and a host of others in various states of renewal. Agnew pointed out an enclosure containing old farm scales.
“I collected farm scales for awhile but quit that years ago,” he said with a laugh.
I’ve talked with and written about farm tractor collectors several times over the years and never quite figured out why they do it. In their words: "It’s partly about memories," "We grew up with these tractors," "We try to help non-farmers understand the days gone by when farm equipment was far less automated and required lots of work to keep it going," "It’s history from the earliest tractors and the gradual progress of change over the years," and "We’re tinkerers and mechanics who enjoy taking things apart and putting things together and making them look like new."
Many times tractor restorers have told me with a laugh, “We’re addicted, we’re sick, we’re maybe nuts. But we enjoy it and have fun. It’s better than sitting in a nursing home watching TV."
Whatever the reason, I thank them for providing me and so many others with memories and great conversations.
As I am in the process of cleaning out of my rented office in Madison that contains 35 years of paper and other records, I thought of the tractor collector I interviewed some years ago. I asked him what happens to his tractors should he die?
“That probably won’t be my problem," he answered back then. "They’ll be sold to another collector or auctioned off to many other collectors. In any case, I’ll be gone but the tractors will continue."
If you really want to learn some farm history, go to an antique tractor show. But don’t be in a hurry. Just look, ask and listen. And enjoy.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.