Labor of love
May/June 2008 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
Volunteers are putting in "quality time" at the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, connecting visitors to the history of agriculture.
Volunteers work to preserve ag history
Every Tuesday morning, a dozen retirees known as the "Tuesday Work Crew" grab grease rags and wrenches and go to work.
An appreciation for the mechanical has brought retirees including, from left, Leroy Griffin, Jack Santos, Joe Parsons, Don Stoye, George Fleming and Ray Whitman together as members of the Tuesday Work Crew.
These volunteers are putting in "quality time" at the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, which consists of two museums--the Hays Antique Truck Museum and the Fred C. Heidrick Antique Ag Collection--that merged 11 years ago to connect visitors to the history of agriculture.
The volunteers painstakingly restore antique trucks, tractors and other pieces of farm equipment, many of which had been rescued from fields and barnyards where they had been slowly deteriorating.
"As Tuesday Work Crew volunteers, we give people an opportunity to see things that were used maybe 100 years ago," said Ray Whitman, who serves as chief mechanic. "They probably would never see this equipment without visiting a museum like this."
Whitman, a Woodland resident, said he and the other volunteers experience a sense of accomplishment each time they refurbish an item--and that you don't have to be a farmer to appreciate the museum and their handiwork.
"I grew up on a farm in Missouri. We had dairy cattle and we grew oats, alfalfa and corn, but agriculture was not really for me. I am a retired equipment mechanic," he said, as he repaired the throttle rod of a 1950 Minneapolis Moline tractor. "I spent 30 years with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., but agriculture is important for our country--growing food for people to consume."
Under Whitman's guidance, volunteers replace exhaust valves, gaskets and O-rings, overhaul engines, change starters, rebuild generators and touch up paint. They return each week to transform old, broken-down equipment into something that looks better than new.
"I like machinery. It doesn't matter what it is," said retired marine diesel mechanic Greg Allen, who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in Woodland. "Taking an engine that doesn't run and making it run is what I like. I tear down engines, pull off tires, push trucks by hand--whatever needs to be done."
For many of the volunteers, who spend several hundred hours a year in the center's workshop, the recharging and revitalizing is not always about the machinery.
"I'm mostly here for the camaraderie and to get out of the house," said Whitman. "We joke around and kid one another and have a little fun."
Jack Santos, a retired heavy equipment operator who lives in Woodland, says that while his focus is on restoring the equipment, he also finds time to joke with his fellow volunteers.
"I like to tell jokes and maybe heckle the other guys a little bit," he said. "It keeps everybody happy. We have a great time."
Leroy Griffin, a retired warehouse manager for Chevron Chemical Co.'s Ortho Division, said he looks forward to Tuesdays at the center.
"I like just being with the group and getting out and doing something," said Griffin, a Woodland resident. "I grew up on a farm so I think it is important that people see the history of farming through this antique equipment."
Group leader Gene Muhlenkamp said the Tuesday Work Crew members come from all walks of life.
"Our work crew volunteers are mechanically inclined and have varying degrees of experience, from mechanics working on engines to people working on displays," he said. "We're working on equipment that our forefathers used, which brings back a lot of good memories, and each person adds a little something to our work experience."
Muhlenkamp, a docent for the Heidrick Ag History Center, retired from commercial aviation and started as a museum volunteer in 1994.
"The museum had a display at the Yolo County Fair and they were asking for volunteers. I was looking for a little something to pass my time, and coming from a farm it was perfect for me," he said.
Linda Lucchesi, daughter of museum founder Fred Heidrick, is the archivist and curator of exhibits for the Fred C. Heidrick Antique Ag Collection. Lucchesi said that without the Tuesday Work Crew, the two museums probably would not remain open.
"The Tuesday Work Crew is wonderful. … They do everything. They change exhibits around for me and restore the pieces that we have," Lucchesi said. "I think they are all proud to be doing something that is an asset to the community."
Lucchesi's father collected rare, unusual and historic farm equipment throughout his lifetime. In fact, Heidrick's is the world's largest and most unique collection of one-of-a-kind antique agricultural equipment. First opened to the public in 1997, the museum exhibits farm implements, tractors and harvesting machinery from the late 1800s through the middle of the last century.
"He would find (the pieces) in fields, all rusted and sometimes growing in trees, so he had an eye for where they were," Lucchesi said of her father. "He liked restoring old things. It kept him busy and young for 88 years."
By the time of his death in 2001, Heidrick had accumulated more than 800 pieces of fully restored equipment. About one-third of the total collection is located in the museum or available to the museum.
The Fred C. Heidrick Antique Ag Collection was originally located on the family farm, west of Woodland. This was one of the largest family farms in the area, exceeding 30,000 acres until the 1980s when the Heidricks began to downsize.
Today an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people visit the Heidrick Ag History Center each year, coming from all over the world. The museum's vintage equipment is exposed to millions more via Hollywood filmmakers. For instance, the 1921 Relay truck and the 1942 Mack fire truck from the Hays Antique Truck Museum appeared in the movie, "James and the Giant Peach." Three of Hays' trucks remained on location for several months at Alcatraz Island for the filming of "Murder in the First," starring Kevin Bacon. "Monster," a Universal Studios picture, also used six trucks from the collection.
A.W. Hays established his truck museum in 1982 about five years after he retired from operating the A.W. Hays Trucking Co., one of the largest agricultural trucking firms in the state.
According to Muhlenkamp, Hays got started when Heidrick, his good friend, asked him to restore one of his trucks. Hays restored the truck and by 1983, when he set up the nonprofit organization, he had more than 60 trucks in his museum. Hays died about a decade later.
Today the Hays Antique Truck Museum contains about 100 different makes of trucks, representing 94 manufacturers such as Fageol, Freightliner, Mack, Sterling, Oshkosh, Peterbilt, Chevrolet and Dodge. Also on display are trailers, generators, tools, equipment and trucking memorabilia, including a new "History of the Wheel" display. Most of the trucks have been beautifully restored and many are in running condition.
"My dad used to say someday none of this stuff will be around. People won't even know how they farmed or ranched before the air-conditioned cab tractor and all of the other new technology," Lucchesi said. "So he wanted to have a place where people can come and No. 1, learn how people used to farm and see the machinery and No. 2, learn about the farming industry and just how tough it was. … It is absolute American history."
For more information about the Heidrick Antique Ag Collection, visit www.aghistory.org. To learn more about the Hays Antique Truck Museum, visit www.truckmuseum.org. Hours for both museums are Monday- Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For additional information, call the Heidrick Ag Center at 530-666-9700.
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.