I have always liked old things, especially mechanical ones, especially if I find them in an unappreciated, neglected state, covered with rust and missing a few pieces, and if I have had personal experience with them in my life. Repairing them, de-rusting them, perhaps painting them,and getting them running again is one of my major hobbies. The photo shows a 1920’s orchard sprayer I am restoring to health. A friend of mine gave me the wagon and tank and a number of components that were in bad shape (see the photo below, which shows a surge tank with rust). I happened to have the proper pump which I had restored, shown on the left photo along with the restored surge tank. I also had the proper engine, although as can be seen from the photo below,it has not yet been restored. I have de-rusted and painted the main chassis and rebuilt the main wooden tank, which contained boards which were warped and rotten, and am working on the sprayer’s many other components.
As a result of this hobby, I am usually surrounded by such things and the tools necessary to do the work, and my house and yard, are replete with the results, many of which have overflowed to a friends farm. I laugh when I see the many articles about simplifying life by getting rid of stuff, usually featuring a person who acts as a paid consultant to help people do so. I love my stuff, and usually assume that these consultants are simply obsessive-compulsive people who have figured out a way to make money by spreading their neat-freak approach to life.
But am I an historian? Definitely not. I read what I can about these devices, their application, and the people who make and use them, but as one of my historian friends gently told me, “historians work from original sources—you are an antiquarian”. My answer, was “why should I spend time looking for original sources, because historians turn them into books, that organize the material and present it in a more easily readable form?”. I prefer reading books under a tree with a beer in my hand than searching through archives and stacks of papers to find what I want. My wife, incidentally, was born and trained as an historian and loves to do such things. She agrees I am not one.
Collectors are often historians. I consider myself an acquirer, rather than a collector. I have veered in that direction a few times, but seem to always become sidetracked by a new interest. Leo Keoshian, a retired hand surgeon and my friend who gave me the parts for the orchard sprayer does qualify as a collector, because for many years he has collected and restored vintage vehicles (Ferraris, Bugattis, etc.) and agricultural equipment. He leans in the direction of historian. He learns everything he can not only about the products, but the people involved, the environment in which they were used, and so on. Once I accompanied him on a cross country trip which he was making to pick up a small rare tractor on the East coast, and he insisted we go out of our way to pass through Cleveland Ohio, because the archives of the Cleveland Tractor Company, which at one time had made the one we were trailering, was there. He happily spent the day in the archives, while I happily checked out the town. But Leo lacks one attribute of most of the historians I know —he doesn’t write books.
Another person in the area, who is also a collector (see photo in his shop below) and also a historian of old machinery is Jack Alexander, who lives close to me in Gilroy, Californa. He is an engineer who retired from Lockheed, and does write heavily researched books about old machinery and the people who produced and used it. He has mastered the full range of historian, collector, acquirer, and thinker.
I simply acquire things I am drawn to and want to work on, although in the process of working on them I learn a great deal about their background and the people and companies who were involved.
The photo below was taken in my back yard and shows a bit of agricultural eqipment. Even though I know a lot about these beautiful things that I saved from death, ( perhaps more beautiful to me than to my gardener wife who might prefer plants), I guess one of my main joys has always been not only being involved with designing and building machines but also tinkering with sick ones—diagnosing their problem, making them the necessary parts, restoring them to health, and painting them to reflect their past glory. Perhaps necessary therapy to offset the years I have spent as a professor, during which the expectation was that I would use my head rather than my hands. To me, the key to happiness is to use both.