Antique Machinery Club Keeps Tractors — and History — Alive

A hot, sunny Saturday in May marked the 2nd annual Monroe County Antique Machinery Association’s spring antique machinery and tractor show at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. The smell of fried food mingling with oil and gasoline weaved into a sensory tapestry of sight and sound. The chuff-chuff-pop of hit-and-miss engines, low diesel growls of trucks and tractors, the whimsical ding-ding of the Cub Cadet-powered miniature train’s bell, and the harmonious din of festival goers all blended with the bright greens, yellows, and reds of more than a century’s worth of machines. Layer some live music into the background and dapple in the cheerful colors of ice cream, endless baked goods, exhibition halls full of vendors’ sundry, and a little fortuitous sunshine, and you’ve got one very good spring day.

Tim Deckard, president of the Monroe County Antique Machinery Association, during the association’s show in May at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. He’s standing in front of an early 1880s Russell 10-horsepower steam tractor, which was first restored and exhibited in 1980 by Bob (“Papaw”) and Margie Hughes, then re-restored in 2023 by Bob (grandson) and Margaret Barnes. | Limestone Post

Tim Deckard, president of the Monroe County Antique Machinery Association, during the association’s show in May at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. He’s standing in front of an early 1880s Russell 10-horsepower steam tractor, which was first restored and exhibited in 1980 by Bob (“Papaw”) and Margie Hughes, then re-restored in 2023 by Bob (grandson) and Margaret Barnes. | Limestone Post

For a festival in only its second year, the turnout at the antique machinery show was impressive. The president of the Monroe County Antique Machinery Association, Tim Deckard, reports that there were 92 tractors featuring brands such as Ford, Farmall, Oliver, Allis-Chalmers, John Deere, and Wheel-Horse; 23 garden tractors; 22 hit-and-miss engines; one steam engine; and three working displays — a hay baler, a wood carver, and an early-1900s horizontal shingle sawmill that can cut 20,000 to 40,000 shingles in ten hours. Additionally, there were 45 pedal tractor displays, seven large trucks including dump trucks and a semi-tractor, five pickup trucks, and three vintage cars. Despite the word “Antique” in the club’s title, there is no qualification to make it into the show.  

“I’m not sure if there is a cutoff for ‘antique,’” Deckard says. “We say if you’ve got a tractor, bring it. New or old, some people have never seen this type of equipment.” That seems to be the inclusive spirit of the hobby. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about sharing something that’s important to our local history and culture.

The machinery show was paired with a vendors’ exhibition featuring more than 130 sellers of toys, antique farm tools, crafts, clothes, plants, tchotchkes, and other oddities. And even though I visited for only a few hours on that Saturday afternoon, the voluminous turnout leads me to believe that the show attracted a large crowd all weekend. There was no shortage of entertainment. A tractor parade and live music created a fair-like atmosphere, and I’m certain I rode the miniature train (a Cub Cadet garden tractor decorated to look like a locomotive pulling a train of small wooden cars) no less than three times with my toddler.

Origin story

A Cub Cadet “locomotive” offered rides around the fairgrounds. | Limestone Post

A Cub Cadet “locomotive” offered rides around the fairgrounds. | Limestone Post

Deckard started the Monroe County Antique Machinery Association with a few friends in 2022.

“We just decided to see if there was an interest in old tractors in Monroe County,” he says. “And there is a strong interest.” 

This much interest in antique machines bodes well for the club organizers, giving hope that the future may hold a place for these industrial relics. I can say from experience that the fairgrounds show was an event my 3-year-old did not want to leave.

“Currently we have 102 members in the association,” says Deckard. “Myself and the other organizers never knew what kind of response we would get, so we decided to just put it out there and see. It was a hit and still is.” Many of the association members express roots in the hobby coming from an elder in their own life teaching them an appreciation for antique machinery. “I owe my love for this from the old steam engine doctor Bob Hughes,” Deckard says. “And from my neighbor Don Fowler, the man who taught me to drive a tractor.”

Even though the Monroe County club’s tractor show is only in its fledgling stages, it isn’t Deckard’s first rodeo. “I have been involved in putting on a local machinery show since 1990. As a member of the Eastern Greene Fire Department, we did a local show called the Hendricksville Homecoming Antique Machinery Show in northern Greene County.”

Deckard recounts the origins of the Monroe County Antique Machinery Association in a tale that is best told in his own words:

Two local brothers, Lloyd and Stanley Hudson, had a large steam engine and sawmill. Together, they built a half-scale model of their A.D. Baker steam engine. With my love of steam engines and tractors, this was right up my alley. I traveled a couple of years all over the state, going to shows and talking to many of the organizers of these shows. With help from the Hudson brothers, we set the date and held our first show in Greene County. This lasted about ten years, until the death of the brothers.
Jim Webster was an exhibitor at that show. I knew Jim from 4-H and we remained friends over the years. About five years ago I was at the Jackson County antique machinery show and ran into my cousin Steve Deckard and a couple of guys, and we began talking about the show and how Monroe County needs a show of its own. This stirred up some thoughts and I got ahold of Jim. He and his son Drew and I met several times, talking about getting a group together just to see the tractors and see what interest there was to hold a show. We put it out there, set a date for September of 2022, and held our first meeting at the Monroe County Fire Protection District station at the airport in Van Buren Township.
Boy, were we surprised at the turnout. At first there was no one there. And then here they came. We had 36 individuals show up with interest in forming a group. We discussed holding a show in the near future. The fair board director, Jake Conard, communicated to us that the board wanted to host a craft and vendor fair at the fairgrounds and wondered if we’d bring some tractors. This became our first show in May 2023. We had a great showing of equipment at our first show. We had 73 tractors, several hit-and-miss engines, and antique cars and trucks. It was a good show for our first time.

The Machinery Association does more than simply meet once in May for a big tractor show. In fact, it hosts events throughout the year, including a farm toy show in March, a spring tractor drive and old-fashioned plow day, and a fall tractor drive — this year to the Tulip Trestle (the 2,300-foot railroad bridge in Greene County). Tim Deckard and other club members and organizers go to various shows in the region, lending their support and their equipment and spreading the love for the hobby. “Our goal is to preserve the past and teach the next generation about the [history of] farming and its equipment,” says Deckard.

Hit-and-miss engines are stationary, cast-iron combustion engines with belts, gears, and flywheels, used in the early 20th century for a variety of on-the-farm jobs, from washing laundry to sawing wood. They emit a distinct whirring-whooshing-popping sound as the engine “hits”  and “misses” to maintain a constant speed. | Video by Limestone Post

Many of the exhibitors maintain or restore tractors that have been in their families for decades. A few of them still even put the tractors to work on their own farms. In talking to some of these machinery enthusiasts, it’s not uncommon to hear sentiments such as “My grandfather bought this tractor in 1949” or “I remember watching my father haul the wagon with this tractor when I was young.” And many of the association’s members express the desire to pass the hobby, and the memories, on to their own children or grandchildren.

Antique tractor owners in the association include hobbyists as well as part- and full-time farmers. | Limestone Post

Antique tractor owners in the association include hobbyists as well as part- and full-time farmers. | Limestone Post

It runs in the family

Steve Deckard, a Monroe County Antique Machinery Association member and Tim’s cousin, was born and raised on a farm south of Bloomington. He says the tractor he shows is an 861 Ford his dad bought in 1962. “And I still have my grandfather’s 1947 Allis-Chalmers,” he says.

“New tractors aren’t so easy to fix,” he says. Sometimes modern equipment requires a whole computer setup and specialized tools. “But,” Deckard says, “with an old tractor, all you need is grease and a wrench.”

“It’s important to keep the old stuff alive,” he continues. There are a handful of young folk involved in the association, but it’s mostly people in their late 50s and early 60s. “The people involved try to get the younger people interested,” Deckard says. “Years back at Fowler Pumpkin Patch, I’d do tractor rides for the kids. They loved it. It’s just a great hobby.”

Even before the formation of the official Monroe County Antique Machinery Association, local gearheads and tractor lovers were meeting, greeting, and playing with their big metal toys. “Something we started doing during COVID, because you couldn’t really have meet ups, was doing tractor drives,” Deckard recounts. “We couldn’t have tractor shows, so we started having tractor drives.” These tractor aficionados ride 200 to 250 miles a year on country roads from Brownstown to Spencer, Bedford to Orleans, and everywhere in between.

“It’s a word-of-mouth event,” Deckard explains. Members have a phone chain set up to organize drives, denoting location and departure time. But even old-timers with old tractors utilize modern tools. “Nowadays,” Deckard says, “we post the schedule for drives on our Facebook page.” The next big drive is scheduled for the third weekend in August.

Steve Barnes works an early 1900s Horizontal Shingle Mill, made by Dixie Manufacturing in St. Louis. The mill has the capacity to make from 20,000 to 40,000 shingles in ten hours. | Video by Limestone Post

A look into the past …

A 1942 wartime ad for Farmall tractors.

A 1942 wartime ad for Farmall tractors.

You can’t buy a tractor in downtown Bloomington these days. But 75 years ago the same was not true. Nowadays the large equipment sellers have mostly relocated to the fringes of town or moved into the surrounding county to set up shop, but throughout the mid-1900s farm equipment was sold in the heart of town. A few of the tractors at the May show were originally purchased at the John W. Kennedy Dealership at 312 Morton St. from 1939 to 1955. Other tractors on display were sold at Huber and Elsie Anderson’s Anco Sales Inc. at 2420 W. 3rd St., which is now a car dealership. And what did a tractor cost in the 1950s? According to information placards at the fairgrounds show, the price tag was about $750 for some machines. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a little more than $8,300 today.

One of the rarest, and certainly one of the oldest, pieces of machinery on display at the fairgrounds was an early-1880s Russell 10-horsepower steam tractor. The locomotive-looking machine, painted bright red, yellow, and black, was restored by Bob Hughes, the grandfather of the current exhibitor, Bob Barnes, in the late 1970s, with components sourced from south-central Indiana and around the Midwest. Additionally, “Papaw” handcrafted parts when he wasn’t able to find them elsewhere. In 2023, after 30 years in storage, the steam tractor was once again restored by the Barnes family and put on display at the local tractor show.

To the future …

Antique tractors and heavy machinery is a niche interest. But the preservation of these machines offers a tangible glimpse at the bridge from the past into our future. The tractors still run. They still plow and haul, and they still attract a crowd curious to learn about and appreciate the workings of history. These machines played an important part in the economic, industrial, and agricultural development of southern Indiana. And it is the progeny of farmers that worked this equipment who keep the history alive by showing it, telling about it, and utilizing it. For every few children who ride a hay wagon pulled behind a green, chuffing John Deere tractor, who memorize the musical rhythms of the hit-and-miss engines, who appreciate the simple architecture that goes into constructing a mechanical workhorse, there will be an ingrained appreciation and respect for these antique machines. A deeper understanding of what it was that got us here. And a perspective on how it’s up to us to keep the practical knowledge of these still very functional antiquities alive.

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this article had misspelled the name of Jake Conard, president of the Monroe County Fair Association. We regret the error.]

Plow Day

The Monroe County Antique Machinery Association held an old-fashioned plow day in April, just off Bloomfield Road. Plow day is a chance for equipment owners to get together and see what their antique tractors and machinery can do — while also getting a field plowed. Photos and video by Limestone Post 



The Monroe County Antique Machinery Association Plow Day, April 2024

Dason Anderson
Dason Anderson is a writer from southern Indiana. He's a big fan of Lord of the Rings and the Sunday comics section. “Life’s a garden. Dig it.”