Farm Horizons, June 2012

Delano man’s vintage collection represents a century of farming

By Linda Scherer

Jim O’Connell’s collection of antiques began with a one bottom plow he received from his grandfather as a young boy.

“Grandpa traded a load of firewood with the neighbor up the hill for an old walking plow with the handles. The plow is still down in the shed,” Jim said.

Over time, Jim’s collection of wagons, buggies, gas pumps, vintage tractors and cars, and more, has grown so large it has filled several sheds on his 80-acre, fifth-generation, family farm in Delano where he lives with his wife, Anita. Both Anita (Parochka) and Jim are 1975 Watertown High School graduates.

“I have always been interested in history and family history,” Jim said. “I don’t know why, but it has just caught my attention. And I have always liked old equipment. As far back as I can remember, I have been collecting,” Jim recalled. “Of course, as I got older, I could get bigger and more expensive things. Now, all of the sheds are full and it’s time to quit collecting.”

Having such a large collection doesn’t mean Jim doesn’t value what he has. He knows where each antique is stored, and has catalogued in his memory where, when, and who he purchased the items from. In addition, he knows who the manufacturer is, the year it was made, and what makes the piece unique.

“Everybody says Jim was born 100 years too late,” Anita said of Jim’s love of the old days.

Although Jim didn’t live on a farm growing up, he did experience farm life helping on his grandparents, Peter and Rose Janicula’s dairy farm in Delano, the same farm Jim now owns.

Both Jim’s father and mother, Bill and Renee (Janicula) O’Connell, came from farming backgrounds, but lived and worked in town. Jim’s dad was a law enforcement officer for the city of Watertown and later for Carver County, and his mother worked as a nurse for the clinic in town.

His parents encouraged his interest in farming, and Jim can remember them taking him to steam shows in Jordan with his Grandpa O’Connell, who had been a steam engineer in his early years.

“I was fascinated by how they (steam engines) were used and how they fit into history,” Jim said. “Once you see a steam engine go – when the bug bites, it bites hard. It’s funny, most of my steam buddies, I think most every one of them, had a grandpa or great-grandpa that was a steam engineer. It just seems to run in families. I don’t know why.”

So for Jim, it just seemed like a natural step for him to buy his 24-horse Minneapolis steam engine in 1994.

“The one I bought came from Maple Plain,” Jim recalled of the steam engine’s history. “It was originally shipped to Jordan, to the Bieder family. They used it for threshing until the 1930s. Then it sat until the 1950s, when steam shows started getting popular. They (Bieders) took it out and got it operational again and had it in the steam show in Jordan for several years. From there it went to a fellow in Milaca before it was sold to the fellow from Maple Plain.” ,

According to Jim, by 1915, steam engine days were numbered, and steam probably died out by 1924. The smaller, gasoline tractors were starting to be manufactured and were beginning to become popular in about 1915 to 1920.

One of the biggest advantages, according to Jim, of having a gasoline tractor over a steam engine was the ability to start the tractor whenever you needed it.

“A steam engine has to have the fire started about two hours before it’s used,” Jim said. “You would have to start the fire by 6 a.m. if you wanted to start threshing by 8 a.m.”

Owning a steam engine and showing it requires inspections by the state every two years. “Piping through the years can get rusty and thin, and if it ever ruptured, someone could get badly scalded,” Jim said. It also requires Jim to have a special license to operate it.

Even with the extra requirements for the steam engine, Jim and Anita definitely think the steam engine is worth it. Both agree, it’s their prize possession.

Jim said driving the steam engine cannot be compared to anything he has ever experienced. “When you are up there steering and it’s going, there are no words to describe it. You’re king of the world.”

“I would never sell my steam engine or my separator [threshing machine],” Jim said. “I have already spent too much time, work, and money repairing them. Money is kind of inconsequential. I don’t even consider that. Most of the stuff [his antiques] I don’t think I would ever sell. It will go in an auction when I am dead.”

Jim owns two threshing (separator) machines. His Red River Special is made of wood and was manufactured by Nichols and Shepard in 1920.

“It’s a huge machine and was used by custom threshermen,” Jim said.

When Jim tracked down the original owner, the son was still alive and about 90 years old. The separator was his father’s and was used with the Hart Parr tractor, a huge two- cylinder tractor, to operate it.

Jim is currently working on the weigher unit, which is part of the Red River Special that tallies how many bushels were being threshed, so the custom thresherman would know how much to bill the farmer, who was being charged by the bushel.

Jim’s second separator is a metal McCormick Deering, made in about 1935. It’s smaller and much better suited to the smaller tractors.

“It’s in working order. They threshed with it every year, but nobody ever wanted to spend money or stop and do an extensive repair. They would just tie more wire around it to fix it,” Jim said.

Repairing the old threshers during harvest time wasn’t always easy. “So you prayed that nothing bad would happen,” Jim said of the old-time threshing crews. “Some of the parts were carried in the hardware stores, but many them came out of Minneapolis by train. If the local blacksmith couldn’t fix it, you would just have to wait for your part to get shipped out and, if it was a major repair, you might have to load the separator up on the train and ship it back to the factory.”

A major problem in trying to run the old thresher equipment 70 years later, is finding the belts needed to run the separator. After years of use, they dry out and rot away, according to Jim.

“And you can’t buy the belts anymore, so the best you can do is use the belting from a round baler or industrial belting of some kind. You get kind of creative. I have seen a lot of things done,” Jim said.

The O’Connells enjoy attending steam shows with friends and family to experience the camaraderie of other vintage equipment owners, and possibly pick up a few tips on restoration.

When they bring their steam engine, they need to hire a large truck to haul it, so they only do it about once a year, mostly to Jordan’s steam show because that’s where the steam engine originated from.

In 2006, they took advantage of their threshing equipment and had their own threshing bee, inviting friends and neighbors to experience old-time farming. About 100 people turned out for a fun day of reliving the past.

“I loved it all,” Anita said. “We (Anita, Sue Pawelk and Pat VanDeCreek) did all of the cooking for the day.”

Besides Jim’s steam engine and threshing equipment, his collection shows a slight preference to antique wagons and buggies, of which he owns at least a dozen. Many of them have had new wooden wheels made for them since Jim purchased them. Some other interesting pieces in Jim’s collection include several vintage tractors, two Ford 8N tractors once owned by his grandfather, a Model A truck cut down in 1940 and used as a deer hunting tractor, a grain seeder which predates the old grain drill, a 1937 Pontiac in mint condition and used for the O’Connell wedding, grain binders, and a John Deere tubular elevator made in 1935, which has a one-lung gas engine purchased from a guy from Henry’s Corner.

A future purchase would be considered if Jim possibly found a 1915 Fordson gas tractor or a Model T Ford touring car.

“I might buy either one if the price is right and I was in the right mood. But I have too much stuff and life is finite and I am not going to get it all fixed up before I am dead,” Jim added.

Restoration is a part of owning all of the antiques that Jim has, and he does enjoy the work. Anita likes to do the detailing, and several machines they own look like brand new with their handiwork.

But the restoration of many of his antiques will have to wait until he has more time. Currently, Jim has been employed as a Carver County highway maintenance foreman for 29 years. He looks forward to the year when he can retire and devote a lot more time to the restoration of his machines.

“There are just some projects that are ongoing, that will never get done, like the steam engine and the big separator. The steam engine needs to have the back wheels pulled off and blasted and painted and, when I do that, I am going to probably find extensive boiler repair, which is terrifically expensive.”

So why buy so many antiques when it takes so much time to restore them?

“A lot of people ask me that question and my reply is, ‘If you have to ask, I can’t explain it.’ There is no answer to that question, it’s your heart. Some people will say you’re making an investment, but I would probably lose money if I sold everything.”

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