Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Among the machines

The Central Mass. Steam, Gas, and Machinery Association held its annual engine show at the Orange Airport last weekend, and Fred and I made our annual pilgrimage there.  Fred goes because he finds useful parts for things there and because he really likes the old machines.  I really like the machines, too, but mostly I enjoy watching and thinking about the people.  (Anthropologist.  Sue me.)

I had a brief interesting chat with the guys at the International Harvester Collector Club table--the same group I wrote about in an earlier post this spring.  They had a row of beautiful Farmall tractors set up, and I asked them if anybody in the club actually used these for "real" farming.  Not really, they said--aside from an occasional Plow Day event when they help out a farmer in exchange for a place to run the machines around, the point is more the collection and restoration of the tractors, not their everyday use.

They did mention that a handful of club members found the older tractors useful for working small patches of land or doing specialized jobs.  But by and large, these collectors aren't farmers.  When I asked about that--i.e. how many members of the club had ever worked as active farmers--the answer was one that I could have predicted:  "Well, a lot of us had grandparents who farmed, but we do other things."

It's a very familiar answer when you talk to people in preservation, public history, reenactment, and related circles, and it confirms my sense that for a lot of those involved in preserving and commemorating elements of the past, it's more about reconnecting with a lost piece of family background rather than discovering something that might be put to use in the present.  And anyone actually using these machines to cultivate fields isn't going to spend a weekend sitting at the engine show--they're out growing things at this time of year.

So the aura of "pastness" is always pretty intense at the engine show.  But it's still fun to walk around and look at the often bizarre and beautiful machines, and to realize what an extensive community exists around them.  Like public historians, these people are engaged in saving and showing how to use aspects of small-scale farming that can't be relearned overnight, and even if they're not using that knowledge directly themselves, that's not to say that what they're doing isn't important and potentially useful to others.

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