Time was, when a farmer sold out in Howard County, the tools of his trade, the field wagons, tractors and even pitchforks, seemed to vanish. They were auctioned off, or junked, or left to rust. What value did a hay baler have when fields were getting scraped and flattened for streets, sidewalks and yards?
"They just got rid of it. It just didn't have any meaning," said Cooksville farmer Brice Ridgely, whose 200-acre farm is near a swath of big, boxy suburban homes -- new Howard County.
On the other side of Ridgely's spread stands a worn gray farmhouse with a wraparound porch, a narrow gravel drive, a rose garden and a big tomato patch -- old Howard County. Albert "Abe" McCracken grew up there, moving in with his aunt after his father died when he was 13. He has lived there most of his life, and in 1970 he named the place Honey-Do Farm, a sly reference to how his late wife, Margaret, always had a list of chores for him.
About 1996, McCracken put up a metal barn that became his special storehouse for relics of a time when farming dominated the U.S. landscape. Long rows of pitchforks, and below them ax-like corn choppers, festoon the walls. Stacks of burlap seed bags hang from the roof beams, along with an assortment of tin gasoline cans. There are a 1932 McCormick-Deering tractor in working condition and pieces of field equipment that now seem arcane. Their names -- seed cleaner, corn sheller, potato grader -- hint at the multitude of tasks that once occupied everyday farm life.
"Everything I got in here is over 50 years old," McCracken said proudly, in a luxuriant twang that makes "Howard" sound like "herd."
There are other places like McCracken's storehouse in the county's rural enclaves. Although the keepsakes inside those locked buildings might be dingy -- and missing blades and bolts -- they are highly prized by members of the county's Antique Farm Machinery Club.
Founded nine years ago, the 150-member group quickly has become an enthusiastic guardian of farming the way it used to be in Howard. The Antique Farm Machinery Club undertakes preservation projects, acquires historic materials, raises money and organizes events such as this weekend's Farm Heritage Days at Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock.
The event usually draws several thousand people to see old equipment and to experience farm life before the advent of electricity -- when butter, brooms and candles were made by hand. Farm Heritage Days is part of the first county-sponsored Farm-City Celebration, which began this past Saturday and spotlights modern farm operations.
The Antique Farm Machinery Club is also trying to establish a farm museum in Howard, such as those in Carroll and Montgomery counties. The club grew from meetings at a Lisbon country store that were standing room only. Members, who meet monthly at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship, include people whose roots are long and deep in Howard, as well as newcomers.
Organized as a private, nonprofit corporation, the club accepts tax-deductible donations and holds annual fundraisers, such as an April consignment sale.
Members are a handy bunch. For example, they disassembled and stored the machinery of a donated cider mill and one of the county's oldest water-powered grist mills.
"We found out we are able to do a lot of things that other volunteer organizations have trouble accomplishing," said club President John Wesley Frank, who retired in 2002 as deputy chief of the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "We constantly have projects in the works."
The club is actively looking to buy or lease land so artifacts can come out of storage and be used to depict the evolution of agriculture.
"What we're doing is celebrating the history that led to where we are today," said Frank, whose four-acre place in West Friendship is filled with disassembled and partially restored equipment.
Many of the pieces in Frank's and McCracken's collections are from a boom period in U.S. agriculture in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when mechanical innovation surged.
McCracken is an unabashed admirer of that age.
"Everything made today -- the idea was a long time ago," he declared.
He pointed out an 1898 horse-drawn corn harvester, which had metal seats for two people and cut corn stalks close to the ground with two long blades. After paying more than $200 for it, he took it apart, down to the last nut and bolt. Underneath those fittings, he found flecks of the original paint. He sandblasted all the pieces, coated them with rust preventative, reassembled and painted the harvester in its original bright red and blue.
"I just enjoy putting this stuff back in the condition it was," he said.
There's one piece he didn't have to touch -- a 1905 McCormick-Deering reaper painted a cheery yellow, blue and red. McCracken said he learned from an auctioneer that the piece sat for decades in its original packing crate in an old warehouse in Waldorf.
"This one's never been used; this is brand new," said McCracken, his sunburned face breaking into a wide grin at his improbable description of a century-old machine.
McCracken travels around the mid-Atlantic and Midwest to purchase pieces, but one of his greatest finds was local. About three years ago, Winchester Homes, which is developing the former 78-acre Montjoy farm near Routes 29 and 100, contacted the antique club.
"They told us anything we want to come get it," McCracken said.
So he and his neighbor Ridgely looked over the place once owned by M.L. Dawson Lee Jr. Buried beneath a pile of junk, they found a busted up 1918 high-wheel hay wagon. Six months of restoration followed.
As he stood next to the orange and green wagon, repaired with white oak cut from his stand of woods, McCracken said with conviction, "I know this is the last hay wagon out of Columbia, Md."
That sounds like a safe bet.