Preserving farming's past: I&I club has grown to more than 350 members

RANTOUL — Years ago, nearly everyone had someone in their family who was a farmer. Those days are no more.

Chuck Stelter, president of the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club, said that’s why members of the I&I club want to preserve farming’s past.

“As farms got big and more people got out of farming, we’re getting to the point where ... people haven’t had a farmer in their direct family for generations,” Stelter told the Rantoul Exchange Club.

Stelter said he feels it is important to have a museum and antique tractor shows — “to understand that’s where we came from and that’s where we are now.”

The I&I club is doing that. Big time. Not only does the club hold Historic Farm Days every July on its Penfield show grounds, it also holds the biannual Half Century of Progress farm show in Rantoul.

Stelter called it “the largest operational farm show in the country.”

There might be a few shows that have more antique farm equipment, but that’s it. They are not operational and doing farmland demonstrations.

The Half Century show draws thousands of people to Rantoul — nobody really knows how many — from across the globe.

I&I club member Russell Buhr said he spotted five men who obviously weren’t from around these parts at this year’s show. It turns out they had made the trip from Ireland.

Buhr said Rantoul is famous among antique farm equipment aficionados for the Half Century Show.

“It’s a worldwide event. People come from all over,” Buhr said. “Every old magazine that deals with tractor pulls or antique farm equipment, ... they’re all talking about the show in Rantoul, ‘If you haven’t been, you need to go.’”

The club held its first Half Century show in 2003 when Farm Progress Show officials wanted to mark their 50th anniversary and asked I&I officials to help. The first show was held in rural Henning.

A highlight was lining up 100 tractors — two from each year — from 1953 to 2003 at the show entrance.

Two years later the show was moved to Rantoul, which Buhr said provided a better location “having the expanse that we do here with the facilities and the hangar and the farm ground.”

The show continues to grow — Buhr saying the 2017 show drew the largest crowd ever.

The I&I club started with five members in 1976, and for several years they had their own shows and tractor pulls at a farm near Ogden. In those years the club would also set up displays at area malls and shopping centers and would participate in parades and festivals.

The club began holding its shows near what is now the waterfowl preserve at Middlefork Forest Preserve in 1986 and planted 12 acres of crops for demonstrations.

The show continued to grow, and the club bought the current show grounds in Penfield, holding its first show there in 1996.

The show grounds for Historic Farm Days grew to 24 acres — the club paying for it via fundraisers, donations and loans from club members.

It took a lot of work to turn the old Penfield school into a museum. Buhr said the club hauled 50 truckloads of stuff out of the school.

They sandblasted and added new paint, ripped up the old flooring, installed new heating and air-conditioning and added five overhead doors, including one in the gymnasium.

The museum is open from April-October and can be opened by appointment during the rest of the year. It contains myriad country-related items, not just farm equipment.

The gym houses two priceless tractors on loan from the Smithsonian Institution — an International HT-340 gas turbine tractor and a Hart-Parr No. 3, which is considered the oldest operational gas tractor in the world.

“It looks more or less like a steam engine. It has a steam engine frame with a gas engine in it,” Stelter said.

The club has bought additional land over the years and built several buildings, including a new club hall, saw mill building, pavilion where bands perform, the pork palace, tractor pull grandstands, blacksmith shop, north storage building, and four years ago, a new feature building.

In 2005, the United Methodist Church was closed, and it was donated to the club. The building is used for activities including worship services during the show and the Gifford Lions Club fish fry.

A log cabin was moved from north of Rantoul to the club grounds in 2015, and Stelter said renovation continues on the structure.

The show also expanded from two days to four days.

Stelter said the club has also had some adversity at the site. The Potomac Improvement Association building burned down in 1997, so a new club hall was built. And in 2004, a tornado destroyed the north shed, announcer’s booth and damaged the tractor pull pavilion.

In addition to July’s Historic Farm Days and the Half Century show every other year, the club will host the farm toy auction March 23 and antique equipment auction March 24. I&I will also have an antique tractor display at the January Midwest Ag Expo at Gordyville.

“The I&I club exists for the preservation of the past farming methods and the preservation and restoration of farm equpment,” Stelter said.

The club has grown to more than 350 members.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com







 

Categories (3):News, Agriculture, Living

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