By BARRIE ALAN PETERSON
FROM Pebble Beach, Calif., to Greenwich, Conn., and at dozens of picturesque settings in between, shows for vintage vehicles offer enthusiasts the opportunity to rub elbows with historic machinery in country-club surroundings.
Not every gathering needs to be a concours d’élégance where white-gloved judges probe the undersides of pristine Duesenbergs in search of a historically incorrect hose clamp, however. A decidedly more populist show was the 21st Red Power Roundup, which attracted an estimated 25,000 people last June to the LaPorte County Fairgrounds in northwest Indiana to see some 2,000 tractors and trucks made by International Harvester.
One of more than 1,400 antique tractor events across North America in 2010 listed by Farm Collector magazine, it is considered by many in the hobby to be the World Series of farm tractor meets, a heartland counterpoint to blazer-and-ascot antique car events and casual suburban cruise nights.
To a casual spectator, the rows of gleaming red International tractors represent the steady progress of industry in modernizing crop production, but to the shrinking number of Americans rooted in farming, they represent a heroic era. From the early 20th century, tractors pulled plows and cultivating equipment, powered grain combines and hay balers, eventually hauling crops to the barn or to an elevator in town. They enabled American farmers to feed the world.
International Harvester played an important role in mechanizing the farm, producing its first proprietary tractor design in 1908. The company’s origins reach back to the invention of the reaper by Cyrus McCormick in 1831, and it had a powerful influence on Chicago.
By 1910 International was the country’s fourth-largest company in America by the value of its assets, making trucks and farm equipment — cotton pickers, manure spreaders and the other necessities of agriculture — as well as tractors. The agricultural division was split off and sold in the 1980s, later merging with Case.
Though tractors live a rugged life, the farmer’s reliance on them to earn a living assured a reasonable degree of mechanical care, so many survive. And they were designed for hard work.
“These tractors were made to be overhauled — no planned obsolescence,” said Dan Steiner, a supplier of restoration parts in Lennon, Mich.
As a result, when huge new machines were developed to work increasingly large farms, there was a ready supply of old tractors for restoration. And in many cases, the seasonal cycle of farm life helped to foster tractor restoration as a hobby, a productive way to fill the winter months.
For some farmers, it’s both a business and a hobby. Jim Seymour and his father, Wayne, who run a garden tractor dealership in LaPorte, restore tractors in their garage, a process that involves disassembly down to the bare chassis before sandblasting, fixing all the worn or broken parts and finally painting. It’s a pursuit that can turn into a habit: there are now some 30 tractors in the collections of Seymour family members.
To handle the endless logistics of a major show like the Red Power Roundup requires hundreds of dedicated volunteers. The 2010 roundup was hosted by the northern Indiana chapter of the National International Harvester Collectors Club. The national club has about 8,000 members.
Jerry Smoker is president of the northern Indiana chapter, a six-year-old group. Mr. Smoker is proud of the club’s cohesiveness, noting that clubs formed for other tractor makers have often disbanded.
While county fairs and farm equipment meets often feature displays of distinctive green John Deere tractors, the bright red of International machinery, which includes the Farmall models and brand, is more frequently seen because the company was for many years the largest maker of tractors.
“International Harvester made their five-millionth tractor by 1974, while it took John Deere 10 more years to hit 2 million,” said the editor of Red Power magazine, Dennis Miesner.
A bumper sticker popular among International partisans reads: “If it ain’t red, leave it in the shed.”
Finally, because International was an early maker of what became known as sport utility vehicles — the Scout and Travelall utility vehicles — a broader range of interest exists for International than for tractor-only brands.
Highlights of the 2010 roundup included popular country fair attractions like a working border collie demonstration, and there was an appearance by the 2009 Miss America, Katie Stam, who is a Hoosier and former 4-H member.
Daily machinery demonstrations showed the versatility of tractors, using a belt drive system to power a thresher, corn sheller and hay baler, and there was an auction of 110 International tractors, memorabilia and equipment that drew hundreds of bidders.
Rounding out the rural heritage displays were blacksmithing and craft demonstrations, a quilt contest and jug band; more than 150 vendors of restoration parts, magazines, memorabilia and farm toys exhibited in several 4-H livestock pole barns and a huge outdoor lot.
In the swap meet area, so many rusty red parts were available that, more than one attendee noted, a smart shopper could build a tractor from scratch by buying the shop manual for $30 and using it to shop for all the parts needed.
Other International Harvester products, including many types of heavy construction equipment — even freezers and Cub Cadet garden tractors — were displayed.
For some collectors, the tractors have become alternatives to stock market investments, with families designating tractors as assets for their children’s college fund. But that is a minor motivation; most do it for the love of the machinery. As in the art world, the issue of provenance comes up.
“I keep getting requests to authenticate items,” said Darrell Darst, editor of the club’s quarterly publication, Harvester Highlights. “ ‘Do your research’ is all I can say.”
Farm toys, being part of the traditional antique business, attract many investors. But some collectors are taking a different approach. One collector, Jerry Mez, for instance, decided to create a museum with the items he accumulated, Farmall-Land, in Avoca, Iowa.
“Like many, I got the bug from my father,” Mr. Mez said. “My wife says it’s a disease, but it’s one of the better ones I could have.”
What is the future of antique tractor restoration and collecting? Will a new generation carry on the tradition?
Hugh Tonagel, an agricultural extension agent for LaPorte County, said that a small but steady group of farm boys — with an occasional girl — have become involved with the 4-H tractor maintenance club.
But James Shatava, a retired agricultural economist from the University of Wisconsin, is doubtful. “Fewer students commented on my International Harvester sign in my office as the years went by,” he said.
Among restorers it is said that tractor restoration starts out as a hobby, but makes a grown man into a damn fool. Mr. Smoker, the president of the northern Indiana chapter, added: “And keeps a man out of the tavern.”