To Restore or Not

1920 Moline

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 Curator of Collections Ontario Agricultural Museum Sent to us by William M. Honey 4 Elias Lane, P.O. Box 3141 West Tisbury, Massachusetts 02575

The following article is reprinted with permission from Peter Ledwith and Canadian Antique Power Magazine in which it originally appeared in the January/February J 994 issue.

For most hobbyists involved in the restoration of farm tractors, gas engines, implements or other antique machinery, the planning stages of a restoration project usually consist of seemingly endless rounds of questions. 'Where can I find that missing carburetor?' 'What brand of magneto did this tractor use?' 'Those fenders are pretty bad. Should I fix them up, or are reproductions available?' 'What are the proper paint colors and what brand should I use?' 'What is all this going to cost me?'

In the museum world, a similar round of questions also precedes such projects, but one essential query overrides all others: 'Should this artifact be restored or not?'

Restoration of farm machinery is a wonderful process with impressive results in the appearance of the machine, and in the ego of the restorer. Nothing instills more pride in a hobbyist than to be able to pull out those before and after pictures and discuss in intimate detail just how that 'sow's ear' was turned by tender loving care and hard work into this 'silk purse.' Restoration can turn jumbles of unrecognizable steel and iron into beautiful, impressive, operating and understandable mechanical units. Other hobbyists are impressed, the general public is amazed and enlightened when they see the finished projects, and the machine itself, after many years of neglect, is once again appreciated by all.

But, while restoration can reveal a machine's former glory, it can also hide important detail, remove original material, and reduce the historic importance of particular machines. For most museums today, machinery is no longer revered only as a mechanical marvel from a former time, but appreciated as a record of lives of people from days gone by. Every machine, in fact every man-made object, was created to satisfy a perceived need. Some machines filled that need satisfactorily, others failed miserably. But all were acquired, used, appreciated or cursed, and ultimately replaced by something supposedly better, bigger, faster, or just plain nicer, by someone. All artifacts are much more than what they were made to be: they are a record of a part of someone's life.

Through restoration, much of a machine's deeper meaning can be lost not always, but often enough that a restorer should add the question, 'Should I restore this or not?' to their repertoire. Very often, there is no choice but to restore. Neglect and time probably cause more damage to the 'meaningful-ness' of machinery than do all the efforts of restorers combined. Nonetheless, there are many times when important details are sandblasted away, painted over or thrown away to be replaced by a reproduction part.

As I look over photographs of many of the early tractors in the Ontario Agricultural Museum's collection, many of which were acquired in the mid-1960s and restored nearly 20 years ago, I realize just how badly the automatic restoration ethic has reduced the meaning of many of our pieces. I see factory canopies simply discarded because they were 'too rough' to restore; tractors with 75 percent or more of their original paint, including decals and stencils, repainted 'to original,' yet exhibiting none of the charm or character the original finish exuded; and homemade modifications or repairs 'corrected' or removed, despite the important message these features provided about repair techniques from a former time or modifications made to improve the practicality of a machine or to make it better suit its working environment. How I wish we could turn back the clock, and save these features for the benefit of future generations!

Of course, restoration does not exclusively mean returning an object to its 'new' condition, although most restorers would seem to think so. 'Restore,' according to the dictionary, means 'to put back into a former state,' which not only includes 'new,' but also any particular time of the object's life. By combining restoration practices with the preservation ethic museums preach, it is possible to convert old pieces of machinery to something restorers can be proud of and other people can enjoy seeing, without losing the meaning that can be lost by a narrow desire to return everything to its new condition, at the cost of the removal of original or need-driven features.

So, when you begin your next restoration project, ask yourself just how far you should go. Determine not only what you might gain by a restoration, but what you might lose. Think about your project, not so much as a machine, but as a document that relates to a story about someone else's life. And, most of all, enjoy your project because it is, after all, a wonderful hobby we share!