Antique Farm Equipment Collections Give Peek Into the Past
It’s lurking in the attic, tucked away in the barn, stowed in a box in the basement, sitting innocently in the china cabinet—it’s a priceless antique! Not every North Carolinian can claim to have the most valuable antique discovered on the PBS favorite Antiques Roadshow, but there’s no doubt there’s probably at least one cherished item that’s been in the family for generations and is worth more than what money can buy.
During the Antiques Roadshow stop in Raleigh last June, an unidentified Eastern North Carolinian made big headlines when it was discovered that she was the owner of the highest appraised antique ever found on the show. Show publicist Erika Denn said the collection of Chinese jade from the period of 1736 to 1795 was valued at $710,000 to $1.07 million. That breaks the previous record of $500,000 set last year in Palm Springs, Calif., for a painting by abstract expressionist Clyfford Still.
The precious family heirloom that’s been passed down, or the one-of-a-kind collector’s item picked up on a family road trip might not be worth millions, but all collectors will verify that everything has a story behind it.
Cumberland County Farm Bureau member Andrew Gillis and his family have been collecting antiques as a way to preserve their family’s history and use it to educate others about what life was like in earlier days. The Gillis Hill Farm has been in the Gillis family since the 1700s. Through the process of restoring some of the original buildings, the Gillis family thought that others, particularly local school children, might be able to learn something from their family history, and they decided to open the farm to the public.
“We wanted to share our history with everyone around us,” Gillis says.
The family offers tours from April to November for schools and groups that are interested in learning more about farming.
“The tours are not just about the farm animals,” Gillis says. “We show them about old farm life, what it was like to live back then, the way chores were done.”
The tours lead children through various scenes where they learn about the old farm equipment, how crops were harvested, how ice cream was made, how clothes were washed and other practical information. The farm features treasures like an old rope bed from the early 1800s, a horse-drawn buggy from 1890, a rifle from 1862, a house built in 1852 and a steam powered cotton gin from 1911.
“It’s our way of still living off the land, but teaching with it too,” Gillis says.
For Rowan County Farm Bureau member Tom Smith, collecting antiques is a way to remember his past. Smith has an extensive collection of John Deere tractors and equipment.
“I grew up on a farm close to here and worked for a farmer that had a two-cycle John Deere tractor,” Smith says. “In the ’80s, I thought I’d get that tractor and fix it up. It’s a way to remember earlier days, and each one of these tractors carries fond memories.”
Smith and his wife both like to collect antiques, and they enjoy hunting for treasures when they travel. “That’s our thing when we’re out travelling together; we just enjoy looking around antique shops to find things,” Smith says.
His wife has a large collection of old irons in a display that shows how irons have evolved over the years. The earliest irons in the collection date back to the 1700s. The Smiths found them while traveling in Europe.
“We both remember our grandmother using these old irons, and that got us interested in the different kinds of irons.”
Smith’s collection might be worthy of a museum display, but he says it’s all just for his enjoyment. In addition to the tractors and irons, the barn where he keeps his antiques also houses other collectibles like butter churns, washboards, flax wheels, hay trolleys, an old school desk, Depression glass and many other items.
Onslow County Farm Bureau member Marion Howard also collects antiques that he remembers from his childhood.
“I was always into old things, and I kept a lot of the things I grew up with,” Howard says.
Howard has set up an antique museum in the loft of one of his barns where he displays a wide variety of antiques from Octagon soap to ice saws to lightning rods to a full-blown tobacco grading station.
“I’m a scrounger,” Howard says. “I don’t throw anything away; I keep it. But some of these are things I’ve bought or found or someone gave to me. People that know what I’m doing always bring me things.”
Some of the farming equipment that Howard has kept over the years originated from his father. “My father was a sharecropper. He started out with nothing, but he was very smart and a hard worker, and by the time he died, he had done very well,” Howard says. “Looking at what he had to work with and what we have now—it shows how far we can come in one generation. I always think, ‘Well, they’re not going to come up with anything better than this,’ and then they do.”
Howard’s motivation for expanding his collection was to showcase what life was like in earlier days. “I want to be able to share this and pass it on,” he says. “You can go to a museum and see lots of things, but they don’t have all the things we used to use on a daily basis.”