RANTOUL — Tractor enthusiasts began descending upon the former Chanute Air Force Base this week from as far away as Maryland and Colorado to show off their antique farm equipment, some of it more than a century old.
They’re in Rantoul for the Half Century of Progress show, which runs today through Sunday and happens every other year the week before the Farm Progress Show in Decatur.
On Wednesday, Richard Smith was unloading his 1954 half-scale steam engine and 1958 half-scale corn sheller.
“It’s hand-built. It’s not a factory job,” said Richard Smith, who was visiting from Gridley with his son, Doug. “My father built them both.”
His father ran a welding machine shop, and Smith, a retired electrical engineer, will be running his sheller for the next few days next to more than 2,000 other pieces of antique equipment.
One of the highlights of the event is seeing the old tractors harvest a field of corn at the former base.
Nate Murrell, from Clifton, said he’s still trying to decide whether his 1937 John Deere Model 25 corn picker and Model A tractor can handle this year’s corn.
“This was my grandfather’s. He bought it new in 1937” in Champaign, Murrell said. “My father was 19 years old, and he was the operator.”
His grandfather farmed on North Market Street, Murrell said.
“In the early 40s, it picked Pioneer seed corn,” he said. “He bought it new, and it probably cost about $750.”
The two-row corn picker was used up until the early ’80s, Murrell said, and then it sat in his father’s shed for some time.
Murrell, 73, used it at the first Half Century of Progress show in 2003 and again in 2015.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s pretty green out there right now.”
Murrell, a recently retired farmer, said pickers this old weren’t built to handle the 200-plus bushels per acre of corn that’s common today.
“This would pick 70-bushel corn easy, but it was designed for that. Corn of today, it can’t quite pick it very good,” he said. “It’s too much. It just comes in too fast. It’s too heavy.”
If he decides to run his equipment, he’ll have to deal with something his grandfather didn’t: people taking pictures for Facebook.
That’s something Craig Long, the show’s “safety guy,” said he has had to teach the tractor operators.
“We have a little bit of trouble with, like the plowing, they all want that Facebook picture,” he said. “They want to be down in that furrow and getting that tractor coming right at you. That makes us worry. You never know when people trip and fall right in front of them.”
He runs multiple safety meetings a day for all the tractor operators.
The tractors and the golf carts many people get around in all have to obey a 5 mph speed limit, Long said, and he cautions the operators to always watch out for people around their equipment.
“There’s chains and belts and things that we don’t really have today, and years ago, they came with no shields,” he said. “So we encourage the operators to look around before they engage anything, that they’re making sure nobody’s reaching in.”
Despite the tens of thousands of people and thousands of tractors, Long said he’s aware of only three incidents during the nine Half Century shows.
“Two of the accidents were people who tripped. One broke her wrist,” Long said. “And we had another fella that tripped over a rope that goes to one of those tents, didn’t see it and tripped over it and had to get a few stitches.”
And he said the third must have been so minor he couldn’t remember it.
Lights, camera, tractors
Besides people trying to get a selfie with a tractor, the tractors themselves might get glamour shots this year.
Lee Klancher is setting up a $30,000 light box in Hangar 2 and will be inviting select operators to bring their tractors in for a studio shot.
“It’s a Chimera F2X (light bank). There’s only a few of them in the country,” he said. “The box, when it goes off, is crazy. It’s 20,000 watts of power. There’s eight lights in it.”
Klancher, who has published books about tractors through his company Octane Press, even had a local electrician put in a breaker box.
“It just sucks power,” he said. “When it goes off, the whole place will see the flash. They’ll see the flash out there” outside of the hangar.
The light box lights the tractors from the top, Klancher said.
“This gives you a 20-foot-long beautiful even sheen,” he said.
While he’ll choose which tractors he wants to photograph for his future books and calendars, guests are free to stop by at 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday to get their picture taken in the giant photo booth with a tractor.
“Each day, we’re going to have a real special tractor in this booth, and people can come and get their own picture taken with the tractor,” he said. “We expect that to be very popular.”
Klancher, who is based in Austin and not a tractor nerd himself, said he has found a niche with the books.
“When I did the first book, I was like, ‘Tractors, really?’ But I grew up rural, and I’m a gearhead so I’m like I’ll try it out,” he said. “I wrote a little book for them, and it sold $40,000. So I was like, ‘Tractors, you bet.’”
When he founded his own company, he started with a book about red tractors.
“We’ve got more than 50,000 in print. It’s a $75 book,” Klancher said. “It built the company.”
While he didn’t grow up a tractor nerd, he said he understands the appeal.
“I really enjoyed the history, and these things were so important to how our society changed,” he said.
Dave Crouse, who arrived Wednesday from Maryland with his son Davis and an International Super C tractor, said he looks forward to the Half Century of Progress show.
“It’s just the best show around,” he said. “You have all the demonstration, all the parts dealers, and you have nice people.”