Richard Schmitt remembers the first tractor he ever drove.
“My dad started farming in the mid-40s — he had a Farmall F20,” said Schmitt, 82. “I was about 7 years old, and he taught me how to drive it. My dad still had horses, yet I couldn’t drive a horse; the horses he had were kinda wild-like.”
Mechanized farming is such a given now, it might be hard to imagine that once farmers had to be persuaded to use tractors, which were both expensive and dangerous — a new one easily cost a year’s profits, and a quarter of the fatal farm accidents when Schmitt was a young man were caused by farmers being crushed by tractors. That had to be balanced against the ability to pull a bigger plow.
“The horses couldn’t pull the 7-foot plow,” said Schmitt, who lives in Sterling, 100 miles due west of Chicago. “The tractor could pull a 7-foot disc, and the horses could only pull a 4-foot disc.” A bigger plow allowed for a bigger farm, more crops and — in theory — more money. “We were really farming big.”
Now Schmitt owns 750 acres and 58 Farmall tractors, including five featured on the new 2017 Farmall calendar, which arrived on my desk last week, a welcome break from post-election turmoil. It was sent by Dan Herrick, an Oregon photographer with local roots, who works for a variety of websites selling farm equipment, including farmallparts.com.
This is the second year he’s done the calendar.
“My boss told me, ‘I’d love to see a Farmall calendar,'” Herrick remembered. “I said, ‘I know where a whole bunch of them are and can shoot them in their natural environment, all in north central Illinois.'”
That’s no coincidence. Illinois is Tractor Country, or was. In the 1940s, more tractors worked in Illinois than in any other state. They were made right here. The Chicago region has been a center for farm machinery since 1847, when Cyrus McCormick moved his famed Reaper Works from New York to be closer to his farmer customers, settling on a spot just east of where the Michigan Avenue Bridge is today.
As Chicago grew, farm machinery manufacturing moved even closer to the fields, and the Quad Cities — Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa — became “to tractors and combines what Pittsburgh was for steel and Detroit to the automobile,” according to the New York Times. In 1902 McCormick joined with other farm machinery companies — hundreds made tractors alone — to form International Harvester, and in 1926 opened a factory in Rock Island to make its Farmall tractors. By World War II it had 4,000 workers turning out 300 tractors a day. But in 1986 the plant was shut down, part of the general die-off of American manufacturing.
So Farmall tractors are packed with a triple nostalgia: memory of American industrial might, of small family farms, they just look like a tractor should, like the small red rubber vehicles you’d find with a cow and a chicken in a farm set under a Christmas tree.
To shoot the tractors, Herrick teamed up with childhood pal Chris Blomquist, a Flossmoor resident, semi-retired IT expert, who served as his photo assistant, holding big reflective screens to create what Herrick jokingly calls “tractor porn.”
“Chris is my best friend since third grade,” said Herrick, 46. “When I started thinking about doing this calendar, I said, ‘Would you be interested in helping me out?’ I thought it would be great to spend the week together, driving around, meeting these farmers, hearing these great stories.”
Using his sisters home in Oglesby as a base, they travelled from farm to farm. They drove 1,500 miles photographing tractors and talking to their owners, which turned into the best part of the trip, stopping at places like Van Petten, Illinois, population 2.
“That’s something we noticed,” said Blomquist. “It wasn’t just about tractors. We really liked the old farmers. Really nice people, despite the fact that all of them are Trump fans. They are so much more relaxed than we are. Very laid back and soothing talking about the tractors they’re passionate about.”
Not that they left finding tractors to random chance. Before setting out, they called Terry Hadaway, who put them in touch with the right folks.
“I do a local antique tractor show — the Rock Falls Antique Tractor and Engine Show,” said Hadaway, 66. “We usually have tractors from five or six states — about 110 last year. Next year is our 10th year.”
July 8, 2017, if you want to mark your calendars. And the calendar is $4.95 at the Farmallparts.com website.
“We do a food drive, crafts and vendors,” he said. “This year we’re going to get on our tractors, go uptown and have ice cream.”
Do farmers still work these old tractors?
“No, they’re just for show,” said Hadaway. “Very seldom do they work them. They might do a tractor game. We’re awful particular about who comes around our tractors, too. We don’t want people climbing on them.”
Which is why his shows are dry affairs.
“A lot of people like to have a beer garden,” he said. “We don’t do that because people get drunk and kind of careless. We don’t want people’s tractors to get scratched. Some tractors have 20 coats of paint on them.”
Schmitt does work one of his 58 tractors — a 706, for hayrides. Which leads to the obvious question: How did he get so many?
“I’m a retired plumbing contractor,” he replied. “Back in the day, there were lots of livestock. I put in a lot of plumbing for cattle water. Remodeled a lot of old farm houses. A lot of the time, an old tractor would be behind the corn crib growing up with weeds. I thought, ‘Man, I had one of those. My dad had one of those.’ I’d get it for 200, 300 bucks, bring it home. If you saw what they looked like, you wouldn’t want to think of fixing them.”
I asked Hadaway what the tractors mean to him.
“The past,” he said. “It’s the past, and preserving history. It’s the backbone of our country. It’s what you were born and raised with. I was born and raised with John Deere, but I like ’em all, I’ll restore every one of them I can to save the past. So we don’t lose the past, so it’s in our future.”
But isn’t the future vast conglomerate farms harvested by enormous driverless agricultural machinery directed by satellites?
“That ain’t farming to me,” he said.Tweets by @neilsteinberg