An old tractor or hit-and-miss engine collecting rust in a briar patch might seem like scrap iron to some, but to others, it’s like finding treasure.
Mike Hodges and Steve Garner of Athens are among treasure seekers who love restoring rusty farm equipment. Instead of wondering how much an old tractor or engine would fetch at a metal recycler, the pair ponder how long it will take to get it running again.
“Farmers who like John Deere machines say their blood runs green. Those who like International Harvesters say their blood runs red. Steve and I say ours runs rust,” Hodges quipped.
Hodges and Garner take pride in the many tractors and hit-and-miss engines they’ve saved from the scrap yard. Hit-and-miss engines are motors that ran everything from washing machines and ice cream makers to cotton gins and grist mills before electrical power lines came to rural areas. The engines were typically powered by gasoline and were named for the sputtering sound they make.
“We like it when we pull an old tractor out of the weeds or a barn and it’s in really bad shape and someone says it’s too far gone and nothing but junk,” Garner said. “We found one old tractor covered in rust that didn’t even have wheels on it. Everybody told us it couldn’t be saved. A couple of weeks later, we had it running.”
The pair also enjoy recruiting others to the hobby of antique engine and tractor collecting. However, they preface recruitment speeches with a warning that collecting old farm engines and tractors is addictive.
“It’s easy to get hooked,” Garner said. “You get one engine or tractor, and then you want another and another after that. Pretty soon, your shop is full, and you’re having to build more storage space.”
Garner owns seven tractors. Hodges has 14 hit-and-miss engines and 11 tractors, including a 1919 Fordson believed to be the first gasoline-powered tractor in Limestone County.
The restoration fanatics said attending a show where enthusiasts gather to display machinery is a good way to learn about collecting antique engines and tractors.
Garner is president and Hodges is a director of the Piney Chapel Antique Engine and Tractor Association, which organizes the Piney Chapel American Farm and Heritage Days the first Friday and Saturday in August. This year’s show is Aug. 2-3 at 20147 Elkton Road, Athens.
It features displays of antique tractors and engines; steam-powered and horse-drawn farm equipment; and vintage cars and trucks. Activities include live entertainment, a fish fry Friday and competitions such as a slow-tractor race, a pedal tractor pull for children and a skillet toss for ladies Saturday. Concessions, arts-and-crafts displays and parts vendors are open both days. Activities begin at 7 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free. Parking is $5.
“We have people from all over the country who plan their vacation around our show,” Garner said. “They come here with their family. A lot of them bring a tractor or engine, but some just come to see the equipment and talk to the exhibitors. When they see the old equipment operating, it brings back a lot of memories for the older people. For the younger people, it is an opportunity to see the machinery their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents used. It gives them a better understanding of what life was like before the technology of today.”
Garner said antique engine and tractor collecting is a hobby almost anyone can afford.
“You can spend just a little money to get started, or you can spend a whole lot of money,” Garner said. “Hit-and-miss engines start at under $500. Some tractors can be found for under $2,000. You can also spend $10,000; $20,000; or even $30,000 for a really rare tractor.”
Hodges said a low-cost way to start the hobby is with an old lawn tractor.
“You start out with lawn tractors or hit-and-miss engines and work your way up to small garden tractors and then the big farm tractors,” Hodges said.
Garner said antique engine and tractor enthusiasts eagerly welcome newcomers to the hobby.
“We don’t have any secrets,” he said. “We always help one another. Mike is a walking encyclopedia of antique tractor and engine knowledge. People are constantly calling him for help to make a repair or find parts. We’re like a big family when it comes to helping anyone.”