Scratching the antique machinery itch

Even after six decades of collecting, if Ed Larson feels the itch to haul in a new piece of antique machinery, he cannot help but indulge. Larson, of Milan, Kansas, says he learned about antiques from his father, who had been collecting Model T’s since before Larson was born.

“I’ve been collecting since I was old enough to walk,” Larson said. “My favorite things are the Gleaner combines because of the history of the Baldwin family and the building of their combines.”

Larson raises winter wheat and once the wheat crop is in the ground, he has time to work on his antiques in the shop or attend sales. He has farmed his entire life, which is part of the reason he enjoys collecting farm machinery. Larson is also a student of history and the Baldwin family in particular. He has an extensive collection of literature on Curtis Baldwin and his combine projects built in Ottawa, Kansas, as well as a far-reaching accumulation of Gleaner Baldwin literature.

Larson says the farthest he has ever driven to buy a piece of antique machinery is Culbertson, Montana, which is more than 1,000 miles from Milan.

“That’s farm country up there and during the second world war, the scrap drives weren’t so heavy in the Dakotas or in Canada,” Larson explained. “A lot of our big prairie tractors came out of Canada because they just didn’t scrap stuff during the war like we did here.”

Larson says the days of junk yard finds are ostensibly over because the early equipment was either scrapped long ago or is already in collector hands.

People collect what they had when they were kids, Larson says this is particularly true with automobiles. Larson’s father’s generation wanted Model T’s and early cars, while Larson’s generation considers the 1957 Chevrolet to be the hot item.

“Nowadays the item I could sell in a minute is my 1977 highboy four-wheel drive,” he said. “But the real early stuff is always a premium because there just isn’t that much of it left.”

As for farm equipment, Larson says right now everyone is looking for tractor caravans.

He says collectors want rubber tire tractors that have road gear and can go down a minimally used paved road.

“Now that wouldn’t interest me in the least,” Larson added. “A tractor was made to go to the field and work, not just go parade around.”

The Gleaner guy and his collection

Years of attending sales and trading with other collectors has built Larson’s collection into a hodgepodge of unique and valuable items related to farm machinery.

“It’s a hobby, but it turned out to be a good investment,” Larson said.

He says the rarest item he has is a Curtis Rotary Reaper. The Rotary Reaper was unusual because it had a stripper head and used blowers instead of elevators to move grain into the bin and return the tailings. Larson says this is the one of only two in existence. Larson also owns two complete Curtis Model 30 pull-type combines. Some experts believe there to be only five in existence.

He previously owned a large collection of steam engines, including a 25-horsepower side-geared Nichols & Shepard, a 10-horsepower Advance built in 1892 and a 18-horsepower Advance-Rumely Universal.

However, he recently sold that branch of his collection. Larson says he has gotten to a point in his life where it is just as much fun to buy machinery as it is to sell it.

“You have it, you play with it for a while, then it’s time to let somebody else have some fun with it and you find something else to work on,” he said.

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Larson says collectors are a relatively small group. He says young people are still collecting and farm equipment is still desired by a number of collectors.

“The hobby is small enough that either we all know each other or we know somebody that knows us both,” he said. “Always be honest because everybody knows everyone and you don’t want to get a bad reputation.”

Right now Larson says he is seeking out new items to add to his license plate and hubcap collection. Currently, he has over 200. The project he plans to complete this winter is a 1911 Maxwell Roadster. After that he intends to start on one of his C-cab Model T trucks.

Over the years, Larson has added multiple barns and buildings—including an 1870s peg barn—to house his collection. He says there is no telling if he will decide he needs more space. Larson says his cousin, a fisherman, once asked him why he builds a barn and fills it with junk.

“The only difference between our two hobbies is every day I get up, mine is worth a little more money and every day his depreciates. That’s the only difference.”

Larson says he has no intention of every stopping collecting.

“It’s in your blood, you’ve always go to haul something in. My friend says anyone who knows how many tractors they have, doesn’t have enough.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].