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June 24, 2002 In Praise of Old Iron
Spotsylvania Battlefield Education Association


In praise of old iron

June 24, 2002 12:59 am


Earl Wilkinson (left) and son Mark Wilkinson admire some of the
gasoline-powered garden-tilling machines displayed at the yearly show.

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Loudoun County farmer Earnest Cornett (left) talks with Allen Smith about his 1918 Heider, a rare gasoline-powered tractor once popular in the West, at the Antique Tractor and Equipment Show held in Spotsylvania Courthouse last weekend.
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back into Gordon Durrette's
memory and tug.

The sight of a rugged tractor with its big rear wheels and narrow metal seat takes him back to helping his father and grandfather work a field.

As a grade-schooler, he'd ride high and proud under the hot sun, cutting down rows of sweet-smelling hay while grown men did the harder work below.

It was all about nostalgia at Spotsylvania County's Antique Tractor and Equipment Show, held over the weekend at Spotsylvania Middle School on Courthouse Road.

Country-grown or city-cultivated, people came by the hundreds to admire farm machines from a simpler time.

About 75 old tractors gave off the proud glow of restoration, with bright paint, polished metal seats and tires that looked spit-shined.

The event raised money for the Spotsylvania Battlefield Education Association, which aims to preserve Civil War sites outside of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

But the 20th century, not the 19th, was the show's center of attention.

Among the earliest examples on display was Dick Stephens' 1927 Ford Model T panel truck, converted to a tractor early in the Depression.

The tractor was already old when Stephens' father, A.K. Stephens, bought it. He garaged it at his service station, Stephens Pure Oil, on U.S. 1 and Mine Road, where a Taco Bell now stands.

Dick Stephens was a high school student, and his father told him to leave the tractor alone. That made it irresistible.

One night after his father went home, the younger Stephens ran the tractor around the service station, hit a concrete fuel port and broke the wooden spokes of a front wheel.

After the service station was sold, the younger Stephens stored the tractor for 23 years. Then one day, he went back to it. A new carburetor, some fresh spark plugs, and it was running again.

"The older you get, the more you appreciate the older things," said Stephens, a retired federal employee. "You look back at what you have thrown away, and you wish you still had it."

Many of the owners who showed their antique tractors are fervent about a particular manufacturer--John Deere, Ford, Allis Chalmers and others.

Bill Catlett of Spotsylvania's Wilderness area is true-blue when it comes to bright-red McCormick-Deering Farmalls by International Harvester. At his place, there's a saying: "If it ain't red, it ain't in the shed."

Gordon Durrette, whose childhood love of tractors thrives today, isn't so particular.

"I've got Fords and Olivers and Internationals," he said. "If it's old and it's a tractor, it doesn't matter to me."

Durrette, Catlett and Catlett's father-in-law, Bob Seay, all brought antique tractors to the show.

Proud as they are of the old, none had bitter words for the new.

"It's just like anything--when you make a little money, you try to update," said Catlett.

He raises beef cattle, corn and beans in addition to working as a lineman for a high-voltage-electrical contractor. He still uses some of his old tractors, but he does about 70 percent of the work with a 1989 model.

The fact is, there's a lot to be said for a brand-new tractor that's as big as a house and costs just as much.

It can multitask over multiple rows with precise efficiency. At night, it can light up like a carnival ride, casting a halogen glow that overrides sundown.

And all the while, its operator reclines in padded, air-conditioned comfort, listening to CDs and sipping beverages from the built-in refrigerated lunch box.

"Everything is made easier, and easy is good, I guess," Durrette said.

Still, there's a sense of loss as simple gives ground to complicated.

"There's nothing like the sound of these things that'll just draw you," Durrette said, nodding toward one of Catlett's old McCormicks.

It's a shame to think that few farming fathers or grandfathers today could dare entrust a fully loaded new tractor to a grade-school driver.

"I feel sorry for young people nowadays," Durrette said, "who haven't ever run down the road and smelled fresh-cut hay."

Copyright 2001 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

Spotsylvania Battlefield Education Association

PO Box 1964

Spotsylvania, VA  22553

(540) 582-7469