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Farm couple gives antiques to Hardin museum and visitor center
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette StaffRancher Don Howard stands in front of a 1917 Birdsell Thresher Huller which the Howards used until the 1960s, after which the family purchased a combine. Every piece of machinery is still in close-to-perfect working order.Pictured above is the tool box on a horse-drawn farm implement.This old engine was one of the first-ever fuel-injected engines.

Nothing so noisy as a tractor disturbed the peace or broke the sod on the Howard homestead at Sarpy Creek.

Rancher Don Howard didn't want that newfangled, unnatural stuff once he settled on the place in 1918.

"He wouldn't do anything if it couldn't be done on horseback," said Rich Howard, his 81-year-old son. "All hell broke loose when I got a tractor."

It was a shiny green John Deere, acquired in 1939. Rich, not overly fond of horses in those days, fell in love with gas-powered engines.

"They made a big difference in your whole life," the retired Hysham-area rancher said. "Everything was so much faster and easier. I can't tell you how hard it was farming with horses."

The new tractor wasn't a large and powerful monster machine, but it could pull a plow across a hay field and not get tired. Sixty years later, it still works - not that it has to anymore.

Last July, the old John Deere, along with eight other tractors, 29 single-cylinder engines, a reaper and gigantic 1917 Birdsell Thresher Huller arrived at their new home - the Big Horn County Museum Complex and Visitor Center in Hardin.

Every piece of machinery, including an engine manufactured in 1900, is in near-perfect working order, thanks to Rich. For more than 30 years, he has been scouring the prairies collecting old equipment and parts that he has restored to original condition, right down to the color of the paint.

While he tinkered, rebuilt parts and prodded the old engines back to life, they were stored in various ranch buildings on the place where he has lived since 1921. His collection had reached a critical mass when he and his wife Mildred - married since 1940 - decided to donate the lot to the Big Horn County Museum.

"I had it hauled over here so I wouldn't have to crank on it anymore," he said, laughing. "But they couldn't find anybody else, so I still crank on it."

He and his wife spend every Thursday volunteering at the museum. Rich "cranks on" his old engines and others in the museum collection in an enormous barn on the museum grounds. Mildred works in the museum.

Museum director Diana Scheidt said the collection, worth more than $250,000, will be dedicated Sunday afternoon as part of Country Fun Day on the museum grounds.

"Rich will be there to start the engines, which include five John Deeres, a Fordson, Rumley, McCormick Deering, Farmall and many of the 'one-lunger' engines," she said.

Rich is good-natured about the swirl of activity at the museum, but is not sure he's comfortable with all the attention.

"The whole thing kind of embarrasses me," he said, but he was smiling when he said it and cheerfully answered questions about the machine display that fills more than half the barn.

The machines date from 1900 through the 1940s. The newest is a 1949 tractor.

"You could go to the field with this tractor," he said.

The collection includes a 1923 Fordson tractor built by Henry Ford & Sons that sputters to life with a hand crank. Most of the tractors can't build up horsepower until a little or a lot of manpower, depending on the engine, is applied.

He rebuilt a McCormick reaper from the 1920s with spare parts that old-timers had hung up and forgotten in their barns. Mildred said the reaper was in use on the Sarpy Creek place until the 1950s. Horses pulled it until the Howard family entered the mechanical age in 1939.

The 1917 threshing machine, in all its magnificence, worked the fields until 1960s, when the Howards invested in a combine.

"We were the last holdouts of the threshing machine," Rich said. "Combines don't do as good a work, but it took four good men to keep (the threshing machine) running."

The thresher was retired to a special shed. When it was moved to Hardin, Rich's son Lee had space to park three tractors.

The old machine clearly takes up as much room in Rich's heart as it takes up in the museum barn.

"You don't find them made of wood very often," he said. "This was all maple and oak. I'm a damn poor carpenter, but I got it cobbled together. You look at these and wonder what those people who built them were like. They must have been wonderful craftsmen to put these together."

In his years of fussing over the engine collection, he has planed wood, fabricated extinct parts and searched far and wide for spare pieces. Friends and neighbors contributed machines and parts. He dragged old equipment out of irrigation ditches and junk piles.

"He hauled in 29 bodies to rebuild one car," Mildred said.

It was a Model T - his father's only concession to the mechanical age.

When Rich's son Lee returned from service in Vietnam, the two would fly over the prairie looking at abandoned homestead sites - the mostly likely places to find remnants of Model T's.

Homesteaders who came into the area usually stayed only about two years before realizing that they couldn't make it on a few acres of arid land, he said. But during those two years, most would wear out a Model T.

Like all the other machinery in the Howard collection, the cobbled-together Model T works. Which is more than can be said for the museum's own Model T, a roadster that once belonged to Big Horn County's first veterinarian, Carl DeVore. But Rich is still working on it, so there is hope.

Mildred tolerates it all with good humor.

"I've washed a lot of greasy overalls," she says of her 63-year marriage.

She and Rich, only a few months apart in age, have been friends since they were 7 years old.

Her parents moved from their original homestead to Sarpy Creek in 1927. Bob Howard had moved on his place in 1918 and brought his family to live there in 1921, when Rich was a year old. Mildred's older brother and Rich were best friends.

It's only natural that one of Rich's favorite engines is a 1900 model that Mildred's grandfather, who also moved into the Sarpy neighborhood, used to irrigate his garden and pump water to the house.

Rich always liked tinkering, but the ranch offered few opportunities to really learn how engines work.

World War II took care of that. In three years in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps, Rich learned the workings of airplane engines. From the skills gleaned during his years in the service, Rich came home able to work on just about any kind of engine.

He worked the ranch and on its machinery until his son took over in the 1970s. Rich and Mildred still live on the place they've shared almost all their lives, but grandson Chad now keeps it running, Rich said. Lee, an airline pilot, also works at the ranch.

There are lots of machines now and only saddle horses. Work horses haven't trod the place in years, but a harness still hangs in the barn.

"I think I could still go out there in the middle of the night and harness a team in the dark," Rich said.

More information Dedication of the Rich and Mildred Howard Tractor and Engine Collection will be among the highlights of Big Horn County Historical Museum's annual Country Fun Day today in Hardin.

The public is invited to attend events designed to honor the people who shaped county history and those who helped preserve it, said museum director Diana Scheidt.

The day begins at 11 a.m. in the restored church on the museum grounds where Ed Folkwein, pastor of the United Method Church will conduct services.

Besides the tractor and engine collection, visitors can enjoy the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, "Barn Again!" New exhibits featuring the volunteer fire department and early veterinarians will also be dedicated.

From noon to 2 p.m., partake of a pitchfork fondue, featuring steak cooked in a large vat over an open fire.

After lunch, the Home Town Sound and the Hardin High School Swing Choir will perform. The Swing Choir will sing "Barn Dance," a song written by composer Ed Harris just for the choir as part of the Barn Again! Project.

Dennis Wacker will preside at the dedication ceremony for the new exhibits.

For information, call the museum at (406) 665-1671.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com.

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