Farming tools' heritage rescued from rust, ruin

Collectors fix equipment from the past in attempt to preserve a way of life

September 29, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Albert McCracken finally had to build a barn for his hobby.

Where else could he put three antique tractors, a corn sheller, a lime spreader, a butter churn, a plow, a cider mill, several wagons and 125 aged pitchforks - plus the smaller trappings of farming in times past?

At its heart, though, this is more than just a hobby for the retired Cooksville resident and the thousands of others in Maryland who spend their free time and spare money collecting and painstakingly restoring relics of agricultural machinery from the 1950s, the 1920s, even the late 19th century.

It's about rescuing pieces of the past so junkyards are not their final resting places. It's also about reaching out to newcomers in fast-growing places such as Howard County, which was transformed in a generation from an agricultural stronghold to suburbs dotted with farms.

"Farming is the history of Howard County," said McCracken's neighbor, Brice Ridgely, 55, who also restores equipment when he is not raising grain and horses on his 200 acres in Cooksville.

"A lot of people moved in here ... and they don't know," said McCracken, 72, who farmed as a youth before working for the National Guard and U.S. Customs Service.

Today, members of the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club have their shining tractors, threshers and other restored equipment at Mount Pleasant in Woodstock for everyone to see.

Collectors brought in nearly 200 pieces for Farm Heritage Days, said Virginia Frank, a club member for six of its seven years.

The annual event usually draws several thousand people, and it is one of the smaller ones - the Mason-Dixon Historical Society's show in Carroll County brings in 20,000 visitors over three days.

"It's not a small thing anymore," said Joe Rogers, caretaker of the Carroll County Farm Museum, who can think of at least nine such events in Maryland every year.

In Howard County, restorers - McCracken and Ridgely included - spent several days last week at Mount Pleasant giving demonstrations of old-time farm life to groups of second-graders.

But only a handful of times each year do local enthusiasts get a chance to display their efforts to Howard residents. Most of their time is spent in sheds, garages or barns.

In McCracken's barn - 32 feet by 64 feet - equipment lines the walls and hangs from the rafters. Two wooden harrows for working the ground. A muzzle for a horse to keep it from eating the crops while plowing. A 1904 wagon, green, used for light freight and trips to the general store. A 1932 tractor, red. Two hay knives from 1890.

"There's thousands of items," said Ridgely, looking around approvingly. (He can't put a number on his collection, but it takes up space in three sheds.)

Often, the two neighbors work together, though Ridgely has less time because of the demands of his farm.

They find antiques at auctions, on farms, on land about to be developed and, sometimes, "along the road in bushes," said Ridgely, laughing.

To the two men, the equipment represents familiar brands and vintages. "A lot of it we grew up with," Ridgely said.

McCracken keeps photographs in an album: before, during and after a transformation.

Ruined wood: replaced. Dry wood: massaged with turpentine and boiled linseed oil. Rusty metal: sandblasted, repaired with putty, primed, sanded, painted.

The paint costs $180 a gallon. He wants the color to last.

"Had to tear the whole thing apart, strip it down to nothing and put it all together again," McCracken recalled, referring to a bright-orange manure spreader, circa 1934.

"Back to original showroom condition," Ridgely said later, laughing.

The club is hunting for space for a museum so members can display their rescued history all year. When that day comes, McCracken plans to go through his barn and hand over most of his treasures.

"Well, there's no use me keeping them here," he said. "That's what we started the club for - to get a museum.

"You've got to have something to put in a museum, once you get it."

Farm Heritage Days exhibits continue from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Mount Pleasant, 10520 Old Frederick Road. Admission is free. Information: 410-988-8165.

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