OBSESSIONS: Antique Power


The folks who tinker with old farm machines.

It is a beautiful summer afternoon in mid-July, breezy, not humid, with clear blue skies and a comfortable heat. I am watching tractors pulling stacks of concrete blocks along a mud-dirt path.

Held annually at the Hallockville Farm Museum in Riverhead, the Long Island Antique Power Association’s (LIAPA) Annual Summer Show is the major fund-raiser for the organization, which has about 200 active members (about 90 percent are from Long Island). At the 2009 event, there are 80 tractors on display, along with four operating steam engines and two side exhibits-a vintage racecar showcase and an antique engine collectors section.

The whole show is spread out over a corner of the vast acreage of the Hallockville Farm Museum, which is edged by tall, fat trees to mark the property lines. Choked-up traffic on Sound Avenue slowly drives by the ruckus of the sputtering machinery and revving engines. Beneath all the rumble of the tractors and the spouting steam engines, there is a hum of silence; Riverhead lies above the sea, suspended on a plateau, and the land itself would be serene if not for the buzz of human activity.

When I speak with Dave Young, one of the first LIAPA members and its former president, I realize that this annual summer event is not a manly show of trucking, but a display of master craftsmanship.  Repairing farm equipment is a practical skill and done by necessity, yet there is an art to how form becomes function, where man becomes the machine, in a sense, by assembling and restoring it.

“It’s in your blood, agriculture is: working on the equipment… tractors, trucks, anything that is antique, working on this stuff as a hobby,” says Young in a phone interview. It is “hereditary-an inborn skill.” He lives in Riverhead, and has departed from farming, yet he sticks to his farming roots because of his family: his brother was an Antique Power Association founding member. “You pick up on it right from your grandparents. Basically, when you grew up, you picked up on what was going on. Believe it or not, there’re a lot of outsiders that come in and they’re quite inter ested in how these things work. Some folks like to take something apart and put it all together, to know the ins and outs of how this piece of equipment works there.”

Jeff Rottkamp, who is known for his sweet corn, and farms 200 acres in Calverton, puts it this way: “We have a couple old tractors and once in awhile we restore them, make it look nice here and there; it’s expensive, restoration is expensive-a lot of man hours, the parts are expensive. At the end of it, you spend more than what the equipment was originally worth. The deeper you dig into it, the more it’s going to cost you,” he says in a phone interview.

But, he acknowledges that “there’s a lot of satisfaction in resurrecting an old piece of equipment.” “It brings back old memories.  You can look at that old machinery and remember. I’m 55 years old and I can remember my grandfather using that equipment.”

At the association’s show, “you can see the machinery and see the development of the human mind,” says Lee Foster in a phone interview. She is the wife of Cliff Foster, a potato farmer with 500 acres in Sagaponack. “I love the steam engines; they’re quiet, the most beautiful things. We’re surrounded by people who just can’t understand why mechanical devices have such an aura, but that’s kind of my husband’s life.”

Similarly, Cliff Foster observes, in a phone interview: “I’ve had a lot of interest in antique machinery and tractors, old engines and stuff. I never knew there were many other people around the country interested in it. I’ve got tractors, gasoline engines, steam engines; in fact, I’m building a half-scale of a steam engine.” He’s got others of “big, cumbersome size.” He says it was a hobby for a lot of people, and more economical than restoring cars. “People could afford to rebuild and remake tractors.”

The Fosters have held “field days” on their property-complete with a lunch wagon and evening barbecue-where association members and other collectors and restorers (of antique engines and vintage planes) gather to celebrate their renovations and watch them work. Their informal event is passed along through word-of-mouth, without any visible press, to keep sanity in the neighborhood’s traffic flow.

This vibe is nothing new: scores of farming-equipment collectors display their hobbies at similar events throughout the U.S. (there is a thick handbook listing such shows at the association).  Beyond the natural need for a rural community to maintain its machines, some Antique Power members trace their love of farm machinery to Long Island’s race car history: “In the ’50s and ’60s, at least one son had a race car or was involved in racing and built or maintained them,” says David Gardiner, the current association president. In fact, he notes, many of the NASCAR drivers who raced on the island came from neighboring farm families.

Which is why the appearance of a selection of vintage race cars from the Himes Museum of Bayshore meshes with the overall tone of the Antique Power Show-most farmers who collect and restore farm equipment have a crossover interest in vintage race cars. The nitty-gritty focus of the gasoline-, hot-air- and steam-powered engine collectors-how they are assembled, how they are engineered and powered-all have a place here, where those who are truly passionate about creating functional machinery from their encyclopedic mechanical knowledge happily share their experiences.

It is also possible to become philosophical about the whole event. As Jeff Rottkamp remarks, “I’m sure one of your ancestors was a farmer.” Meaning, this celebrated “rite of passage,” from old to refurbished farming equipment, is just one of the many agricultural traditions that continue to be remembered by the association’s annual summer show and by the farming families that live in this culture.

The 18th annual Long Island Antique Power Association summer show will be held July 17 and 18 at the Hallockville Farm Museum, 6038 Sound Avenue, Riverhead, liapa.com Regina Geok-Ling Tan grew up in farming country in rural New Jersey.