Lovers of old-time farm implements preserve past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some Howard County farmers are following the lead of the Amish, abandoning modern, $125,000 air-conditioned combines for draft horses and antique tractors, grain binders and threshers.

But they're not exactly calling modern-day farming wimpy. They're just revving up the old equipment for the 50th anniversary of the Howard County Fair.

On the opening day of the fair, which runs Aug. 12 to 19, the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club will display its collections and demonstrate how grain was harvested before World War II.

The 40 members of the club,formed in January, search the countryside for antique equipment. So far, they've uncovered a 1944 grain binder and thresher, a stationary bailer, tractors from 1927 to 1954, toy pedal tractors, old combines, plows and Ford Model A and Model T trucks to haul their finds.

Collecting old farm equipment is on the rise, members say, but the equipment is hard to find. Most of it was left to rust in the woods when it became outdated, said Richard Claycomb, club member and owner of a Mount Airy heavy-duty truck repair service.

The Amish are really the only ones who have antique equipment in good shape, he said. But they're not letting go of it because they still use it.

In the days of the old threshers, binders and tractors, said Cooksville farmer and thoroughbred race horse breeder Brice Ridgely, it would take 10 to 20 people to harvest the grain.

One person directed the horses or tractor that pulled the binder, another operated the binder, which cut the grain. Several others wrapped the cut grain stalks into shocks. A crew of four or five operated the hulking, dusty thresher that separated the grain from the stalks. And four or five more people brought in the shocked grain from the fields to the thresher in repeated wagon trips.

Modern combines, however, cut and thresh in one swipe. So now, only one person is needed to harvest the grain, with the main job being to "make sure the air conditioning and radio work," joked Mr. Ridgely.

And while farmers were lucky to harvest 5 acres a day with the old equipment, the modern combines can clear 40 to 50 acres a day.

Besides collecting farm relics, the group meets once a month to swap stories.

"A lot of old-timers, when they get together, you just enjoy the stories they tell," said Mr. Ridgely.

Not yet an old-timer, Mr. Ridgely, 48, has a few stories to tell, too. When he was a boy, he cut off the nose of his dog Old Duke with the swipe of a corn knife during corn cutting time.

Charles C. Feaga, chairman of the Howard County Council, remembers working alongside German prisoners of war from Fort Meade on his father's farm after World War II. At age 12, he was teaching them how to sheath the grain. "When you were 10 and 11 years old, you were expected to do a man's work," he says. "You didn't know you were a little kid."

The owner of Cooksville's Honey Do farm, Albert McCracken, 65, agrees. At age 6, he was riding and guiding the mules that pulled his family's grain binder. He didn't mope about lost play time, though: "In those days, you did what your father told you to do," he said.

It was a different lifestyle altogether," said Mr. Claycomb, 56, who grew up around the old threshers on a dairy farm above Bedford, Pa. Besides the backbreaking work, farming was more of a community activity than it is today, he said.

"People used to know everybody in Howard County," said Mr. McCracken. "It was all farmers. They all went to fairs and all the farmers helped each other out. But now you don't even know your next-door neighbor."

Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, Columbia was the site of about 100 farms, said Mr. Feaga. During harvest time, the owner of the thresher would take his machine around to the farms, stopping at the largest first. At $1,000 each, threshers were too expensive to be individually owned.

When the threshing was under way, farmers would cut and sheath their grain and then head over to other farms to help thresh.

And the better meals your farm served -- fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, ham, pies -- the more help you got. "Home cooking," said Mr. McCracken. "All that good fattening stuff."

"You serve a slab of fatback, you didn't get any help," said Mr. Ridgely.

Today's farm equipment greatly reduces the time, labor and community effort needed to farm, which frees farmers to work more land and raise livestock.

But you pay for the advantages and the luxury of today's machines, said Mr. Ridgely, who runs five area farms.

"You used to pay $40 for a ton of fertilizer, and a 1940 tractor cost $900. Now you pay $200 for a ton of fertilizer and the same tractor costs $30,000. And you're still getting $3 for a bushel of wheat."

The club does have a higher purpose in mind than scouring attics, sheds and woods for abandoned equipment. It wants to start a Howard County farm museum.

For the past three years, county officials have set aside funds to start an agricultural center, which would house the county's farm offices. About nine sites have been considered for the center, including portions of the 185-acre county-owned West Friendship Park.

The club wants a farm museum to be added to the plans. All they need, members said, are several acres to plant grain for equipment demonstrations, and a building to house their collection.

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