Refurbishing Antique Tractors

Odd Collections, Odd Jobs, People
on August 5, 2001

The Happy Farmer, The Samson, The Bull, The Friday, The Love, The Common Sense.

Few might recognize these names, but for Dr. Omri Rawlins they represent a priceless part of American farming history—namely, that of old tractors. These and other names were given by manufacturers to their replacements for mules, oxen, and horses in the early 1900s.

Rawlins’ passion for these workhorses today is on permanent display in the form of 30 refurbished antique tractors and numerous farming implements all housed at Cannonsburgh, a re-created historic village in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Rawlins, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, grew up on a small farm in Georgia, the youngest of two sisters and seven brothers—and farming, not college, was the tradition in his family. But, Rawlins set his sights on an education, culminating with his doctorate in agricultural economics from Texas A&M University.

“I chose agriculture because of my farming background, and mostly because I didn’t know anything else,” recalls Rawlins.

Although he was reared on a small but diversified farm where corn, tobacco, hogs, and “everything else” were raised, Rawlins’ own farming experience was limited.

“My dad had mules until I was 10 or 12, and then he bought a tractor,” says Rawlins, recalling the 1940s-era “Red-Belly” Ford. “I wasn’t big enough to farm with the mules much, so I helped doing what I could. But once we got the tractor, Dad did most of the tractor work.”

Rawlins recalled that tractor fondly, however, and never lost his passion for collecting and sharing this glimpse of America’s farming past.

Rawlins “serves an invaluable purpose in educating young people about where agribusiness has come from and gives an idea of where it might be going in the future,” says attorney Ewing Sellers, mayor of the Cannonsburgh Town Council.

“He has done an excellent job with it,” Sellers says of the farm equipment museum, founded in 1982. “When you see the progression, from the hand-worked tools up to the gas engines, it sort of inspires one to wonder how it might be done years from now,” he continues. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come in 100 years of farming.”

Although Rawlins doesn’t see his efforts as extraordinary, he acknowledges that few such collections are on public display. And what might surprise many is that the South, as a whole, wasn’t always rich in tractor ownership, he says.

“They had tractors out West and up North before we had tractors here, because farms in the South were smaller—at least after the plantation days,” Rawlins explains. “And they couldn’t afford tractors, so most of the early tractors were used out West on the big wheat farms and on the giant soybean farms.”

Rawlins’ project has been a labor of love. “Basically, I hauled every tractor in myself using my truck, my gas, and my trailer. One or two instances, I had students who went with me to help me load them up,” he adds, “but other than that, I did it myself.”

When it came time to refurbish the tractors—that is, paint them their original colors—be it John Deere green, Ford red or Minneapolis Moline “prairie gold”—Rawlins turned to local chapters of the Future Farmers of America (FFA). One such helper was Bruce Haley, who studied under Rawlins in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and is now an agricultural education instructor and FFA adviser at nearby Eagleville High School. His agriculture students have helped get the antique tractors in shape for more than 10 years.

“They don’t run—they’re just for looks, but the students enjoy working on them,” Haley says. “They get a lot of hands-on experience as far as sandblasting, sanding, priming, and, finally, painting. They get a history lesson, too—and a grade.”

As for Rawlins, he’s in it for the personal satisfaction of sharing his work.

“To me, this is history—that’s what this is.”