SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The names of the tractors roll off Bill Clark’s tongue as comfortably as the names of old friends: John Deere, Allis-Chalmers, Rumely, Leader, Massey-Ferguson, Beeman.
He steps away, reaches up and spins the flywheel on a vintage John Deere. It takes two spins before the engine catches, shooting a tin can off the exhaust pipe, 10 feet into the air.
Putt. Chug. Putt. Chug.
The unmistakable sound of a tractor fills the air and a smile fills Clark’s face. To Clark, the beauty of the tractor isn’t contained in its lines or its color. It’s in its straightforward, workaday simplicity.
At 75, Clark is one of the state’s premier tractor experts and has about 70 in his collection, mostly John Deeres. He doesn’t love his tractors for what they look like; he loves them for how they make him feel.
For many, the images of a farm include lush fields, fresh eggs and barns filled with cows. But since farmers first began trading in their teams of workhorses for machinery in the 1930s, farming has been as much about iron tractors as about green pastures.
Clark sees himself as more of a preserver than just a collector. His tractors fill a barn next to the homestead where his father was born. They are three-deep in a dooryard across the street. They are packed into two additions on the barn.
And a carcass or two fill the mechanic’s shop where Clark is restoring a 1937 John Deere Model B. Some are worth a few hundred dollars; others are worth thousands.
Clark and Robert Davids of St. Albans are but two of the many antique-tractor collectors whose Maine barns and yards and shops are filled with their collections — tractors bought at auctions, from other collectors or from behind someone’s barn.
They are both members of the Maine Antique Tractor Club, which was founded 15 years ago as a way to preserve the history of agriculture machinery.
Davids has 17 tractors — mostly Allis-Chalmers — but added, “Don’t tell my wife.”
Why collect tractors?
“Maybe it’s nostalgia,” Davids said. “Learning to drive a tractor when you are 11 years old is really neat. A tractor represents a simpler time, a time when hard work meant success.”
Clark, who grew up on a farm, said, “There is a great deal of satisfaction in getting one of these old machines going again.”
Davids said he sees many people seeking the tractors that their fathers once used. “There is a lot of interest in reconnecting with the farm,” he said.
“There are also wonderful friendships that develop through the club,” Davids added.
The Maine Antique Tractor Club has more than 500 members, and a second club recently was formed in Aroostook County. Throughout the year, the club members gather at agricultural fairs, local festivals, plowing events, tractor pulls, tractor dealer open houses and parades, and the club is host to the annual Summerfest tractor festival.
Antique and vintage tractor collecting is popular around the world, with hundreds of Web sites, magazines and clubs for fans. On eBay collectors can find starters, hydraulic pumps and other parts, or even a 1953 John Deere Model 50 (the current bid is $2,501) but you’d have to pick it up in Wisconsin.
Clark admits to going as far as Illinois for a tractor. Davids said tractor collecting “is often referred to as a disease.”
The 14th annual Summerfest Antique Tractor Festival will be held June 26, 27 and 28 at the Farmington Fairgrounds and is the largest tractor show in New England.
Davids said there will be hundreds of antique tractors, implements and construction equipment on display.
This year, the show will feature tractors manufactured by J.I. Case. There also will be antique tractor pulls, doodlebug pulls, lawn and garden tractor pulls and kids’ pedal tractor pulls, as well as tractor games, a tractor parade, a swap meet, demonstrations of antique equipment, a flea market and tractor parts vendors. The show grounds also will have many food vendors and craft vendors.
For more information, go to www.maineantiquetractorclub.