If Chuck Stelter was allowed to skip school each day as a kid and spend time in his family’s corn and soybean fields south of Rankin, he would’ve put away the books and pens for good and spent nearly every hour of daylight riding through the fields.

Stelter drove his first tractor independently at the age of 8. He admits 52 years later that he made a mistake every so often as he cultivated and plowed the fields, but once he started riding, there was no doubt about what he would do with the rest of his life.

“On the weekends when we weren’t in school, I’d be out there 10, 12 hours a day,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It wasn’t a chore. I didn’t do it because Mom and Dad said to do it. I wanted to be there. If I could’ve, I would’ve stayed home from school and gone to the field.”

As he grew older, his passion for agriculture and nostalgia for his days spent on the farm as a kid led him to the annual Historic Farm Days shows, which have been put on by the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club every year since 1986. The show features around 800 exhibits of antique farm equipment. In 2004, he joined the club, which also puts on the bi-annual Half Century of Progress show in Rantoul. For the last eight years, he’s served as the club’s president.

“We’re here for the preservation of agriculture’s past,” Stelter said, “not only the equipment, but the lifestyle.”

On Thursday, Stelter welcomed trucks with tractors and other antique equipment into a grass lot down the road from the former Penfield Grade School for the first day of this year’s Historic Farm Days. The club bought the school and more than 100 acres around it in 1996, five years after the last students left, and turned it into a museum. Antique tractors line the school’s gymnasium, including the 14,000-pound Hart Parr No. 3 tractor that was built in 1903, which the club has displayed for the last 19 years after receiving it on loan from the Smithsonian. The school also features a replica of a typical farm homestead and a general store from years gone by.

Former I&I President John Fredrickson remembers seeing the bricks of the gymnasium laid when he was a student in the early 1950s. After growing up on a farm just outside of town, he left to pursue other opportunities. Each year, the memories flood back for him as the school fills up with people and tractors line the adjoining fields.

“This is just like coming home to a family reunion,” he said.

I&I member Betty Bensyl, who helps tend to the home and general store, felt particular nostalgia at this year’s show. Each year, the show highlights a particular brand of antique tractor, which happened to be Ford this year. The first tractor she drove on her family’s farm at the age of 10 was a Ford 8N.

“I thought that I was big stuff getting to drive that — probably about a mile an hour,” she said.

The club also built a blacksmith shop, a sawmill and more on the property, and it holds demonstrations using a corn sheller and a thrasher each year. The antique tractors of various brands, many of which are now defunct, fill the 100 acres along with exhibits from vendors selling various antique equipment.

For I&I member Gordon Hedrick, the club’s displays are a reminder of the hard work done by farmers of yesteryear, which he thought about recently when working on a family member’s field.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t imagine two generations back them coming across that with very small equipment, spending so many days doing it,’” he said. “Here, we’re doing it so quickly. It’s humbling to see what people went through back 50, 60 years ago to farm the same land we are now with this great big, fancy, comfortable equipment.”

Hedrick, who was a member of the last class of students to go through Penfield Grade School when it ceased operations in 1991, spends much of his time looking ahead as an assistant professor at Parkland College focused on diesel power technologies. Hedrick thinks educating students about farmers of the past is important as the school prepares to send them out into the working world.

“It’s important to know where we come from to know where we’re going,” he said.

The club is looking to those students to push agriculture forward and preserve the past. It donated $20,000 to Parkland’s agriculture program to create annual scholarships for students in the agriculture, diesel power and Case New Holland Service Technician programs and $10,000 more to Danville Area Community College to go toward scholarships for the agriculture department.

“You cannot preserve agriculture’s past if you cannot keep agriculture’s present going,” Stelter said. “We have to keep agriculture going with the new kids in school and get them properly educated. If you don’t do that, you can’t preserve the past.”

Of course, the job of safeguarding the history of farming has changed over the years. The number of farmers in the United States has decreased from a peak of around 6.8 million in 1935 to around 2 million in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. People like Stelter, who can’t imagine a life without farming, are fewer and fewer, making it increasingly important to preserve old equipment and record history.

“So many people nowadays are not farmers,” Stelter said. “Years and years ago, most families were involved in farming. Then it got to the point where you at least had a brother or a cousin or family members involved in farming. But now, some families have gone two and three generations without anyone in the family involved in farming. So, it’s very important to keep this alive and keep this going so that everybody sees how life was years ago.”

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