Fascination with Old Farm Machinery From his Boyhood Spawns a Book
By Tim Tesconi
When he was a boy growing up on the family’s fruit ranch in Windsor, Chuck Elsbree couldn’t wait to brush off the dust and get out of town. There wasn’t much glamour and little or no profit producing prunes, pears and apples in the 1940s and 1950s in Sonoma County.
Elsbree remembers the farm of his boyhood as a lot of hard work, little pay and far removed from the bigger world that he desperately wanted to explore. He was always more interested in the farm machinery than the fruit trees on the family’s 100 acre ranch operated by his father Pat Elsbree, who died in 1974.
Elsbree went into the Navy after graduating from Healdsburg High School and then to college at the University of Southern California. Eventually he got a job at Northrop Corp., working as an aerospace research and development engineer in Southern California. One of his most memorable aerospace assignments was program manager for developing hardware used on the Lunar Lander. He later founded an electronics hardware company and was granted six different patents.
As he helped develop missiles used in the Apollo Space Flight Program, Elsbree’s thoughts would regularly return to the simple yet innovative farm implements like the jackrabbit cultivator used on the family ranch in Windsor. He became intrigued with the ingenuity of these simple, utilitarian implements often designed – or improved – by the farmers who used them in the fields.
“I consider the old horse drawn implements engineering marvels that helped build a strong America,” said Elsbree, 74, who recently published a book celebrating the farming marvels he has collected and cataloged. “Those early farm tools were the prototype of most modern implements in use today. Some have hardly changed at all.”
Elsbree’s fascination with the farm implements of his boyhood became his magnificent obsession Thirty years ago he began collecting turn of the 19th century farm equipment and other implements manufactured before tractors.
After selling his companies and retiring, Elsbree and his wife Diana returned to Windsor, settling on a 15-acre vineyard estate not far from the farm where he picked prunes and pruned pear trees. Here he has created an outdoor museum of bygone farm equipment – seeders, cultivators, graders and other implements -at his meticulously groomed vineyard estate.
Today, Elsbree is more of a gentleman farmer than dirt-under-the-fingernails farmer, growing pinot noir and zinfandel grapes on 10 acres. He and his wife produce a limited amount of wine sold under their label, Elsbree Family Vineyards.
During a stroll on his property, Elsbree points to a horse drawn soil ripper from the old days and the modern-day ripper used today in his vineyard. Even after a century, the basic design is little changed.
A few years ago Elsbree began compiling a book on the farm implements that are part of the vast collection he has on display at Elsbree Family Vineyard Ranch.
Elsbree’s book “Antique Farm Equipment: The Elsbree Collection,” produced by Rayve Productions in Windsor, is hot off the press for $27.95. Mary McEwen of Graphic Girl Design in Santa Rosa designed the book’s layout..
The book has more than 200 photographs of the farm machinery that Elsbree and his son Mike have restored to their 19th century simplicity. The collection includes 9 models of seeders, 14 cultivators, 9 harrows, 20 plows, 9 models of haying equipment and 30 additional pieces of miscellaneous equipment including an ancient subsoil ripper, corn kernel and husk remover and wood tank sprayer.
The book catalogs all these pre-tractor farm treasures and includes information about the identification of manufacturers’ models and estimated dates manufactured and used on farms. Elsbree offers his own detailed analyses of operating mechanisms and farming purposes.
“By preserving the implements and describing their functional and mechanical purposes, I hope that readers, and those who tour the collection on site, will better understand and appreciate the engineering talent required to create and manufacture antique farm equipment,” said Elsbree.
He started the collection with implements he used as a boy working on the family’s fruit farm. He said the hay press from the Elsebree family ranch is his favorite in the collection because he has a distinct memory of it being used when he was boy in the 1940’s.
Elsbree and his wife Diana then started traveling around the country looking for abandoned farm implements in fields and attending farm auctions. The collection was compiled from scavenging in four states.
“Most of the stuff was in junk piles, sometimes they would be covered in blackberry bushes or scrub brush and we would pull them out” said Elsbree, who made it a habit to travel down rural roads rather than the Interstate to scout the farmsteads and fields.
"We did that on our way to see the site of Custer's Last Stand,” said Elsbree. “ We came home with a truckload of farm equipment."
Most of the old farm implements were rusted or in otherwise poor condition when
Elsbree found them. He said he and his son try to put the old farm relics back to the way they were when used in the days when most of America was rural, family farms.
After repairing the tools, the fun part begins when Elsbree ponders how they were used. He said modern bookstores and even most libraries are not particularly helpful with this kind of research. Surprisingly, he said, the Internet isn’t much help either. That’s why he relies on personal interaction to fill in the blanks. He talks to old timers, like George Greeott, the 101-year Healdsburg farmer, to learn about how the old farm implements,
Elsbree hopes his book will help preserve the tools and pass on information that will excite the next generation about the engineering marvels on the farms that helped feed America.
Elsbree said the collection in an on-going project and that the continues to collect and restore horse-drawn farm machinery from the 19th century. To get in touch with Elsbree email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elsbree’s book can be purchased at traditional and Internet bookstores or from Rayve Productions at www.rayvepro.com or 800-852-4890.