Minnesota Machinery Museum

There are few things that soothe my soul more than a gentle breeze on a warm summer afternoon, the smell of fresh doughnuts wafting in the air and the sound of two-cylinder John Deere tractors popping in the distance. Toss in a dash of oat dust and you have recreated an August afternoon of my childhood.

My wife and I recently experienced all of those things at the Minnesota Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls. We were there to sign copies of my book and chat with folks who were attending the Museum’s threshing show.

I can’t think of anything that says “Americana” like a farm machinery show on a summer afternoon in a small Minnesota town. Such events are deeply pleasurable for aging sodbusters like me. It also gives non-farmers the opportunity to see, feel, hear and smell what farming was like before tractors evolved such features as autonomous GPS-guided steering and comfy climate-controlled cabs that have high-def TV screens and surround sound. I haven’t been in a new tractor cab lately, but wouldn’t be surprised if it had a heated waterbed.

The type of farm machinery I operated as a kid was the kind where the ease of steering was directly proportionate to one’s arm strength. The operating environment was the great outdoors.

At the Museum’s parade ground, I was treated to a vista of row upon row of old tractors. Many were John Deeres and most had been restored to pristine condition. It was as if the parade ground had been carpet bombed with several thousand tons of vintage farm equipment.

Meandering through the tractors, I bumped into Jeff Schwartz, one of the organizers of the threshing show. To say that Jeff likes classic John Deere tractors would be similar to saying that Gollum liked the Ring. Jeff is a guy who bleeds green.

I asked Jeff how he managed to get such a large assemblage of antique John Deere tractors to come for the weekend.

“I use Facebook to connect with John Deere enthusiasts all across the nation,” Jeff replied. “I belong to several Facebook groups that focus on old John Deeres. There’s even one that’s dedicated to new old stock.”

Two things occurred to me. First was that it’s somewhat paradoxical for folks who are obsessed with outdated farm equipment to use 21st century technology to connect. Second was that the phrase “new old stock” has a nice ring to it. Instead of referring to myself as “middle-aged,” I’m going to start saying that I’m “new old stock.”

In the shade of a grove sat a sprawling amalgamation of hit-and-miss engines. These massive cast iron contraptions date back to the turn of the century — the 20th century — and are known for the lackadaisical way that they run. The sparkplug of a hit-and-miss motor fires only occasionally, waiting until the engine really needs a burst of power.

I struck up a conversation with Bob Robinson, who was working on his 1914 Fuller & Johnson hit-and-miss engine. It looked as though the machine weighed as much as a compact car. Bob said that it produces 2 1/2 horsepower.

Bob spun one of the engine’s ponderous flywheels. The engine wheezed and coughed began to emit a series of random burps. Even when it’s in peak running condition, a hit-and-miss engine sounds as if it’s on its last legs.

Bob grew up on his family’s farm near Slayton and has retired from a long career as a lineman.

“I started collecting some years ago, after my brother in Arizona called and told me about a hit-and-miss engine that he had bought and fixed up,” Bob said. “I went to a farm auction and purchased my first hit-and-miss engine and was hooked. I own about 25 of them now.”

I pointed out that the engine’s open crankcase looks a bit dangerous.

“You’re supposed to know better than to stick your hand in there,” Bob replied. He then proceeded make an adjustment to the engine, his fingers inches away from the flying crankshaft.

I asked Bob why he participates in these events.

“It’s a great way to meet other collectors and enjoy some camaraderie. And once in a while, you get to see a particularly rare model. It’s like getting an opportunity to see a unicorn,” he said.

The Minnesota Soybean Association had set up a doughnut stand. The aroma was irresistible, so my wife and I purchased a bag of piping-hot mini doughnuts. We noshed on the treat with the sound of venerable John Deere tractors popping in the distance.

It sounded and smelled and tasted exactly like my childhood. And I felt young again, not at all like new old stock.

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