A Vermont farmer pulls out all the stops — and the tractors — to establish an ag museum in Vermont
The rule while I was growing up was that the tractor lived indoors, and the cars sat in the driveway, exposed to the weather. My foster father once explained this housing arrangement by pointing out that the tractor had to start reliably in all weather, all the time — driveways must be plowed, brush hauled, pastures mowed and trees dragged to the woodshed for slaughter. Cars were for errands, not labor; in the final analysis, cars were decorative and expendable.
I know now that this attitude is an early symptom of tractor fever, but I never questioned the logic of it until I met someone who thought that cars ought to live indoors. I’d seen garages, but had an idea they were for storing skis and freezers.
I never caught this particular auto illness on the farm; to be rampant and contagious, the condition seems to require many tractors in one place. Probably the best place to catch it is at the tractor pull, and the odds of infection are increased at any pull restricted to antique tractors, defined as pre-1960. There, a mild and joyous frenzy sets in as the monsters start to growl and crawl and rumble across the field; you can stand among them and the ground vibrates with their purring. Each engine sounds different: Some of them say “tuck-tuck-tuck,” and some of them say “bum-bum-bum,” and some of them say flatulent, complex things. The human attendants climb, sit, walk around and admire, but they’re dwarfed by the benevolent metal beasts that raise their voices in a chorus.
It’s like nothing else, though I confess it sounds pretty boring. Tractors make their livings pulling things. This is a tractor pull. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that agriculture brings with it an aesthetic that is sunstruck and practical, but is also endangered. Warren Preston, a Randolph Center farmer and one of the founding lights of the Vermont Agricultural Museum, talks about “keeping a living history, keeping the connections to farming alive.”
But he is referring to a connection without much quaintness; this is not about the picturesque agricultural history available at places like the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, where 18th-century tools and techniques are lovingly displayed. Instead, this is about 20th-century Vermont, where tools and techniques are louder and leave a deeper imprint on the land.
The Agricultural Museum was incorporated in 1993 as a charitable and educational nonprofit with a mission to collect and display farming artifacts and to provide educational materials. Seven years later the museum, as a practical matter, does not exist.
“We finally bought the land in the summer of 1999,” says Preston, “and the town of Randolph helped out with the financing, but we are still amending and working on the Act 250 permits. This part has been an education for us. It’s been complicated.”
Equally daunting are the financial logistics — Preston estimates the nonprofit museum board needs to raise about $800,000 to build the museum structure and make the needed site improvements. The goal is to develop the 51-acre site in Randolph Center to encompass demonstration fields, displays, a gift shop and parking. “Almost everyone we have talked to has been supportive,” says Preston. “By this I mean Rural Development, the town, the Department of Agriculture, the Chamber of Commerce, Soil Conservation, banks and businesses. We seem to have everything we need except the money.” He frowns when he says “money.” The word worries him.
The museum’s July tractor-pull fundraiser and “consciousness raising” is about money, but it doesn’t cost much to get in. Three bucks buys you two days of unrelenting growling, a kind of tractor rodeo that includes tests of driving skill, tractor games, garden tractors, tractors by weight, tractors by age and tractors in rows for our general edification. The setting for the 2000 pull is a large green field with long views to the south and west to Pico and Killington. Tents and flags have been raised, so that the event has the heraldic air of a jousting contest. The long pulling pit with its orange cones looks curiously dangerous, and the heavy sled the tractors will hitch to has an intimidating name: “The Little Humiliator.”
It’s a kind of tractor heaven, and as the games begin, it becomes an essay in the variety, poise and expressiveness of individual pieces of machinery. Most of the tractors are battered, patched and scarred with honest labor; they seem alive even when not running. One specimen, a carefully restored 1938 John Deere A, takes the top pulling prizes in two categories, dragging the sled steadily and earnestly across the field. The machine is owned by Gene Vossler of Morrisville and is the oldest tractor in the competition.
The Deere says “rum-rum-rum”; the next tractor to pull, a 1958 Oliver, says “able-bodied, able-bodied, able-bodied.” When it reaches the far limit of its pulling abilities, the Oliver lifts its front wheels about a foot off the ground and just for a moment looks like a pony. I want one, almost desperately, and when I say this out loud, a young, lively farmer nearby offers to show me a tractor he has back home. I don’t want to explain to him that I live in town on a quarter-acre lot. I want to see the tractor; clearly I have picked up the bug.
Warren Preston also has the fever, but his symptoms are under control. “The idea,” he says, “is to collect the oral history of farming and make these videos, and show them so that people see the connection between the machines and a whole way of life. We have more than just tractors being donated,” he continues; “we have balers and choppers and all kinds of tools, and we want to be able to show the videos and pictures and have visitors understand that internal-combustion machinery is what made Vermont agriculture what it is.”
When we think about Vermont agriculture, we mainly think about it being in trouble — trouble with debt, urban encroachment, prices and the cost of production. There is even trouble with hiring skilled help and coping with neighbors — agriculture is noisy and fragrant, and in the 21st century, it’s hard to sell people on a profession that does not offer full benefits and paid vacations.
It seems that everywhere you poke at farming a little more of the stuffing comes out. It’s easy to forget there were times in our state’s history when things were worse, and that the advent of heavy machinery made farming both easier and more profitable. The Vermont Agricultural Museum’s emphasis on post-war agriculture, with its industrial overtones, is without nostalgia but historically sound.
Preston admits the museum’s permitting problems and money woes discourage him. “I won’t say it hasn’t been difficult; it has,” he says. “But we just have to keep working on it and working on it.”
Creating the ag museum is laborious, but it does have its interesting philosophical moments: The museum recently became a member of the local chamber of commerce, despite the obvious absence of any ticket sales, exhibit space or programming. The idea seems to have its own stubborn reality, just as real as the tractors themselves. It certainly seems that way when the antique machine-beasts begin thrumming, calling and milling around like dinosaurs.
Once you invoke this kind of reality, you have to live with the consequences. The first day of the Vermont Agricultural Museum Field Days was disrupted by an accident — Francis King of Milton was badly injured while loading his tractor onto a flatbed trailer that was parked on a hill. The front wheels lifted as he guided his machine up the ramp; this same lift, which seemed so animate and charming while the pull was in progress, turned menacing as the rig overbalanced and flipped backwards. This danger, too, is a part of the history of farming.
King was trapped beneath his rig for about 15 minutes while the other drivers worked frantically to get him free. An ambulance took King away; the shaken crowd sadly dispersed. But they came back in force on Sunday. There was, after all, a congregation of tractors.
The Vermont Agricultural Museum will be built, someday, in Randolph Center. In the meantime, the growing collection of donated farm equipment sits, some of it in the open, on Preston’s heifer farm on Route 66. The annual tractor pull is always around the Fourth of July. For info, call 728-5274.