Hoosier Couple's Collection of Tractors, Parts and Doodads Draws Visitors From Many Lands
Names: Clyde and Helen Berkshire
Age: Both are 78.
Occupation: Owned a Harvester dealership for forty years. Now they collect Harvester tractors, toys and promotional items.
Quote: 'I'm pretty sure no one's got more original parts than me and Helen,' says Clyde Berkshire.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Indianapolis Star, where it first appeared on November 15, 2000. Photo is by Matt Detrich of the Star staff.
Guard dogs aren't unusual. Plastic guard frogs are.
'Ribbet, Ribbet,' croaks a plastic, battery-operated guard frog when you walk through the door of the Berkshire Implement Company here in the flat, sweeping farm country of northern Cass County.
'The air movement when you walk by makes it croak. You can't sneak by that frog,' explains propietor Clyde Berkshire.
'She had to have one,' he added, nodding toward his wife, Helen, who was working crossword puzzles.
'I like listening to the frog when I sit here and work crossword puzzles,' said Helen.
Clyde and Helen, who are both 78, were watching flies thump against the plastic ceiling insulation inside their 17,000-square-foot warehouse along U.S. 35. Not much else to do on a lazy autumn afternoon, except listen to the frog.
'They die off in the winter,' said Clyde of the thousands of ceiling-thumping flies. 'You want the tour?' he asked.
Clyde and Helen believe they own the world's largest collection of International Harvester farm tractors, parts and gadgets. Who could argue with them, because who would count it all?
'I'm pretty sure no one's got more original parts than me and Helen,' said a confident Clyde.
In addition to the 150,000 parts, he's got antique tractors and old Harvester promotional items like whoopee cushions, fly swatters, toy trucks, wagons and plastic rulers, all emblazoned with the red and black Harvester logo.
They sell tractor parts all over the world because, in 1985, the giant farm implement manufacturer went bankrupt. Successor Navistar International Corp. makes heavy-duty trucks and diesel engines.
Clyde and Helen had owned the Harvester dealership here in northwest Indiana for 40 years, selling and repairing the giant machines. When the company went bankrupt, Harvester tractor owners turned to Clyde and Helen because the couple had a warehouse full of parts that were suddenly in much greater demand.
'We ship parts to Africa, even,' said Clyde. The old tractors, Harvester toys and promotional items, which Clyde had been accumulating for years, instantly increased in value as antiques and 'collectibles.'
'Collecting, it just come natural,' Clyde said of his vast collection. 'It's a museum, you might say. I don't sell none of my collectibles, though.'
What's the point?
'We don't know,' said Helen. 'We just like to look at it and show it to people.'
Even more baffling is that people travel from all over the world to look at Clyde and Helen's stuff. A couple of times a month last summer, a giant tour bus would pull into the dusty parking lot and disgorge tourists from Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, England and other distant places.
'The Swedish people flew into Chicago, rented a big bus and came on over,' said Helen, showing off her guest registry, complete with snapshots of the foreign tourists, visual proof that people the world over really do come to see their stuff.
'We've got a set of twins from Pennsylvania that come every year on their vacation,' Helen added.
'To look at our stuff. They're fanatics like us,' said Helen. 'We'll show you.'
Many of the tourists are members of the Club for International Harvester Enthusiasts, which has about 4,600 members worldwide, including the Swedish people who used their vacations to fly more than 4,000 miles to Chicago, rent the bus and visit with Clyde and Helen, all of which makes you wonder what they must have been like. 'Oh, they was real courteous. Generally, we get Christmas cards from them,' said Helen, outlining her family history while leading the free tour for one tourist.
'Clyde and I was married 60 years on August 24. We were high school sweethearts. We had five kids, but only now we have three. Vance was 47 and died of a massive heart attack, and the baby died after five days because the cord wrapped around his head,' explained Helen, walking to the long line of glass cases displaying Harvester coffee cups, gloves, jackknives, matchbooks, lapel pins, yardsticks, belt buckles, caps, lighters, pencils, pens, jump suits, key chains, watch fobs and toys.
Shootin' the breeze: Longtime friend Wendell Stroud of Logansport (left) with Clyde Berkshire in the greeting area of the museum in Royal Center.
And best of all is a prized copy of the last will and testament of Harvester founder Cyrus H. McCormick, who died in 1885.
'A guy buying cylinder gas for his pigs had a copy of the will and asked if we wanted a copy of his copy. Lord, I couldn't say 'yes' quickly enough,' said Helen, who moves slowly because she had a big heart attack and bypass operation a couple of years ago.
'I had went to Winamac on Monday for that rear-end examination, and I sat down, and that was the last thing I remember,' she remembered. 'Next thing I know, I woke up 2 months later in St. Vincent Hospital.'
In addition to tractor parts and 'collectibles,' like a $8,300 Harvester ruler, Clyde has 80 Harvester tractors in the building, 55 of which work. He scours Midwest farms and auctions for rusty old tractors and hauls them home on his 44-foot semi-tractor rig. Then he sandblasts the rust off them, overhauls the engines, replaces the tires, paints them Harvester red, displays them and sometimes hauls them to antique tractor shows around Indiana.
'They're worth a lot of money,' he said.
Why don't you sell them?
'Then we couldn't look at them, ' he said. 'Those flies make a racket up there, don't they, a-thumpin' on that ceiling?'
People who collect Harvester tractors are sticklers for original replacement parts. Putting something other than a Harvester-manufactured bolt or spring on a Harvester tractor would be unacceptable to the purist.
'They gotta have original parts,' said Clyde, who rarely utters more than one sentence at a time and prefers to answer questions with one word, like 'Yep.'
'Look here,' he said, walking to another part of the cavernous warehouse, pointing to row upon row of shelves filled with tractor parts, ranging from fan belts to nuts and bolts, springs and other little things.
That's a lot of stuff.
'There's 156 cubbyholes in each bin, and there's 20 bins,' said Clyde. In another corner stacked to the 20-foot ceiling are hundreds of big parts: batteries, the tire rims, transmission, steering wheels, cylinder heads, gear boxes, shafts and thousands of empty International Harvester boxes.
'Our boy Vancehe died in '88 with the massive heart attackhe said we needed to save all the boxes because they would become more valuable to collectors than what's in 'em,' said Clyde. 'Boy, Vance was right.'
From the ceiling where the flies were thumping hung hundreds of Harvester plastic buckets that once contained grease, oil and other lubricants.
'It was greasier than all get-out cleaning them buckets,' said Helen. 'Here's something Clyde failed to draw your attention to.'
'This,' said Helen, holding up a red International Harvester necktie.
'There's more stuff outside,' said Clyde, walking out the door past the air-activated guard frog.
In a nearby field, there were 20 more rusting tractors. And even more down the road at Clyde and Helen's son Marvin's place.
'Let's go to Marvin's,' said Clyde, climbing into his Ford pickup with a bumper sticker that says: 'Toyota: From The Same People That Brought You Pearl Harbor.'
Clyde has strong political views.
'They're a bunch of crooks,' he said, roaring down the dusty road. 'It was that one-world government that bankrupted Harvester. You know the people that run the world.'
Who are they?
'You know. The one-world politicians.'
The president? The governor?
In Marvin's big barn, there were 30 more tractors in various states of restoration.
'This here was built in the 1930s; this was in the '40s. I take out every bolt and either clean it or replace it,' said Clyde. 'There are 15 more tractors over at Marvin's other barn. You want to see them?'
More tractors at Marvin's other barn. Marvin is a fanner and a tractor restorer.
Back at the 17,000-square-foot warehouse/museum, Helen was working crossword puzzles and petting Daisy, the basset hound, who had wandered in, triggering the watch frog.
'That frog startled the dog,' Helen told the returning Clyde.
'Well, that's about it,' said Clyde, broadly hinting that he had work to do, and the time for talking had ended.