One of the biggest issues facing the future of the old iron hobby is the simple question, “Who is going to carry the torch?” In the earliest days of the hobby, almost everyone came from a rural or farm background. Further, almost everyone had a direct, personal connection to the machinery they collected and restored. Whether it was because they’d personally run that old Stover to power a grinder, or their dad had or their granddad had, they had a direct and intimate connection with the old iron they collected. It meant something because it was familiar, a comfortable connection to the past.
Those first collectors, the old guard, if you will, have mostly passed away, or are nearing that time of life. Fortunately, just as many of the old guard came into the fold because of their fathers or grandfathers, so too did their sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters, a fact that’s kept the hobby vibrant and helped it grow. Yet as we all well appreciate, as time goes by fewer of the younger generations are attracted by our interest. In an increasingly digital world, our engines simply have no relevance, and we’re not sure how we can inspire individuals for whom there is no connection to see value in the old engines and equipment we so enthusiastically surround ourselves with.
That’s a very real concern, and one that clubs across the country have been actively confronting, often with programs and special attractions to inspire a younger generation to take an interest in what we do. There’s great promise in that approach, as I remain convinced there will always be a certain percentage – and yes, certainly a small one – of the population that will show interest in the hardware of the past. The trick of course is that they need to be introduced to it in the first place; they have to discover that it even exists.
Fortunately, beyond club efforts there are yet young adherents coming into the hobby through the time-honored channel of family, of parents and grandparents who fly the old iron flag. At this year’s Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, I noticed what seemed like an increase in younger attendees, and I had the chance to speak with a few, including 30-year-old Dan Newendorp, who was displaying a circa-1913 1-3/4 hp Associated Chore Boy, the first engine he’s ever owned or restored. As with many old engine fans in years past, Dan came to the hobby thanks to family, in this case his wife’s family, and more specifically her 90-year-old grandfather, Monroe, who gave Dan the Chore Boy, an engine Monroe’s father bought new.
In this little corner of the world, family connections still matter. It’s a fact that makes me feel confident we’ll continue to share our passion for old iron for years to come.