A 1930s tractor parked at Morris Farm Market looked as much like a torture contraption as a work machine.
First, it required a hard yank on the engine crank handle to get it started. The tall metal back wheels have sharp cleats attached for gaining traction in dirt, but made for a bumpy ride on a hard road. Then there’s the steel seat with a bolt head jutting up right where the bottom of the overalls settled.
“I think they put burlap down there,” said Chet Morris, manager of Morris Farm Market.
But the vintage McCormick-Deering was a far better option than walking behind a plow and mule.
The old tractor is one of 43 on the property set on N.C. 168 within Currituck County farm country. Morris’ father, Walton, began collecting tractors in 1983, the same year he and his wife, Ginger, began selling vegetables on the roadside from the back of a pickup truck. The business has grown to a 7,000 square-foot store with 65 employees.
Thousands of people stop here on the way to the Outer Banks from April through October to buy produce and homemade goods. But the thing most people remember about the place is the row of old tractors out front.
Walton Morris figured tractors would set his market apart better than signs, said his 31-year-old son. At first he displayed tractors used by his father and grandfather, then he began getting them from friends and bought some at auction.
Now, people who regularly drive by on the way to the Outer Banks know this is the place with the tractors, he said. Visitors love to look at them, ask about them and put their children on them.
“Most of the people who come here have never been on a farm,” Morris said.
The McCormick-Deering is Morris’ oldest, made before tractors came with rubber tires, padded seats and an overhead covering. It featured a pulley on the side that operated other equipment. Most who lived in Currituck County in that tractor’s day lived or worked on a farm and depended on their farm machines for plowing, pulling down trees, sawing wood, grinding corn and hauling equipment.
Perhaps the most valuable on site is a 1970s John Deere 730 diesel model, he said. They were popular in their day and sought now by collectors.
“She’s a bad mama,” he said.
He wouldn’t say how much they were worth, but vintage tractors cost from $1,500 to $15,000, sometimes more, depending on condition, model and the buyer's desire, he said.
Some collectors focus on one brand. John Deere, Ford and International Harvester are among the most sought after, said Michael Kinder, general manager of Yesterday’s Tractor Company based in the state of Washington.
Vintage tractors are a thriving industry, he said. Dozens of websites advertise parts and antique farm machine associations have cropped up nationwide.
Jim Hornbrook founded the Albemarle Antique Power Association in Currituck County six years ago with less than 20 members. Now, nearly 100 have joined. They drive their machines in parades and put them on display at festivals around the region.
“It’s a different ball game now,” he said.
The popularity of the “farm to table” and organic crop movements drive much of the interest. When the economy is good, more collectors join the market. When the economy is down, more people buy them as alternatives to new models.
“This business has been recession proof,” Kinder said.
Yesterday’s Tractor online forum attracts thousands of people daily who share news, maintenance tips and information about replacement parts. The company sells tractor parts to people nationwide.
Morris’s collection is among the largest he is aware of.
“Lots of people are still using grandpa’s tractor to keep the farm garden,” he said.
“An old tractor will run longer than anything made today.”