But to an antique tractor savant like my brother, the lines of tractors told a different story. “It’s not what it used to be,” he said, staring at the winding line of antique Farmall tractors. “Every year, fewer tractors and fewer people.” He shook his head sadly and wandered away to stare at the hydraulic hoses twisting out of a Farmall B.
Dressed in jeans, T-shirt and a ball cap, you’d never know my brother held an engineering degree and supervised steelworkers for a living, or that he could volley Civil War history as well as most professors. Taking that into account, especially when it comes to all things engine, I trust him more than any Haynes manual. The numbers were down, and it wasn’t just the intermittent rain.
It seemed that every make and model of tractor filled the Lake County Fairgrounds that weekend. The iconic green and yellow of John Deere, the Persian orange of Allis-Chalmers, and the brilliant International Harvester Red of Farmall lined the paths and shelter interiors, broken only by the rust-red of the “working” tractors (the ones pragmatic hobbyists like my brother admire the most). Several Farmalls were painted a brilliant pink and dedicated to survivors or victims of breast cancer. I had never seen that before.
Scattered among the displays were men and women (mostly men) in lawn chairs, sitting and smiling and waiting and willing to answer any questions. Outside of the machines were the usual fairgrounds fixtures: funnel cakes, Italian sausage, overpriced Pepsi in souvenir cups…fair fare. You know what I mean.
To say my knowledge of antique tractors is limited is an understatement. I wouldn’t know how to ask an intelligent question, but antique aficionados are a patient sort, ready to answer even the dumbest questions. It was my fourth antique tractor show since 2010. I’ve attended the shows not to just tagalong with my brother or to get a $3 spiral-cut potato.
I didn’t come to ask questions or shop for tractors. I came to browse the craft behind it. As a hobbyist (and third generation) woodworker, I have a healthy admiration for craft. I may not know HOW these men and women restored the ancient hulks of iron and grease to pristine shape, but I appreciate the process of doing it.
To see a 100-year-old steam engine provide enough torque to power a blade through a sixteen-inch hunk of cedar…I don’t care who you are, that’s damn impressive (I kept my distance from the boiler though. I can’t look at a boiler without thinking of theSultana Disaster). It was at this sawmill, watching volunteers operate the antique blade and engine that I got a different impression than a once-mighty event petering out.
An elderly but capable foreman had charge of the portable sawmill, barking out commands and gesturing impatiently. Two middle-aged workers hopped this way and that, obeying the old man without question.
But I didn’t see the same unquestioning obedience on the faces of the youngest workers. They looked both amused and annoyed. They lifted when told to lift, they pulled a handle when told to pull a handle, but they didn’t have any real expediency. It was almost like they were indulging the older coworkers, or respectfully patronizing them, if that’s such a thing.
That is the impression I took from the tractor show, and it made me feel a little better, because it’s something I have seen many, many times before. It’s the look of a generation that has heard the phrase “this is how it’s going to be” so many times it’s virtually meaningless.
Adhering to tradition isn’t always practical, especially when it comes to dollars and cents. Running a club, an event, or even a tractor show, the same way for the last ten or twenty years is fiscal suicide. Numbers peak and then slope off, eventually dwindling to the point of extinction. Fewer visitors show up, fewer participants join in, vendors turn away, and the blame falls on generalities. The phrase “kids these days” usually rears its head.
It’s not kids, it’s people. And people, young and old, get bored.
Do the same thing year and year out, have the same show, the same exhibitions, the same layout, year after year, and that’s going to happen. People get bored. It’s idea as simple as nature: evolve, adapt or die. Tradition has nothing to do with it.
I don’t think you’ll see a major change at next year’s antique tractor show, or even 2023’s show. I’ll keep attending and hope the show can hang in long enough to survive itself. People like my brother will help keep it alive. But in ten years, when the chiefs have changed, and the younger participants no longer need to patronize their grandfathers, then you’ll really see something. Antique tractors will look new again.
I, for one, am looking forward to the reboot.
And, yes, I just know some reader is going to lambaste me for saying reboot.