Mr. Miller’s tractors
By Melissa Shaw-Smith
Bruce Miller is finishing a paint job on an early 1960s blue Fordson Super Major tractor, before turning it out into his yard. There it will sit, on display for the summer outside his barn in Amity, NY, beside 17 other beauties. Each has been restored and burnished to its former glory by Miller’s patient hands: Farmalls, John Deers, Olivers, a McCormick or two – the workhorses of a farming community.
Miller is a believer in fixing things that are broken: he’s got two shoulder replacements and two hip replacements, but it doesn’t stop him from climbing up into the seat of a gleaming red and yellow early 1950s Massey Harris. Miller has a story about each tractor, which farm it came from, an interesting tidbit about the family that used it, and what it took to piece it together again.
He points out a hand-cranked tractor, waiting for a paint job. “It runs . . . three cranks; I say three, sometimes it takes 10 or 20, sometimes it takes three.” He chuckles. It’s the oldest tractor in his collection–a 1921 Fordson he bought from a farmer in Pine Island. “I’ve another one, but it’s all in pieces. I’ve been using some of the pieces off it–the radiator, because this one leaked. The gas tank was original. If I ever want to make it authentic, I have the metal wheels . . . so that’s the story on that one.” Recently he found a pair of fenders to go over the metal-cleated wheels. “I didn’t think I’d ever find ’em. I’ve looked for years for ’em.”
Miller leafs through a collection of before-and-after photos at his workbench. “These old tractors, there’s always something wrong with ’em,” he says with glee. Some arrive in parts, dug out of the weeds. The only time Miller is disappointed is when they don’t require much work. “I always liked working on ’em. Just to have them around, ‘cause I grew up with them. I was a farm boy.”
As a teen, Miller helped his father milk 50 or 60 cows. “Across from the Crystal (Inn), it was all our fields where County 1 is now,” he said. “The first tractor we had was in ’52. My father bought a brand new John Deere . . . I started working on them when I was on the farm.” But in the early ‘60s, Miller says, “There was no money in farming.” So he branched out into construction, and in the wintertime he worked in the shop with the mechanics. In the late 70s, Miller started his own construction business. “I bought everything wore out – couldn’t afford much – fixed it up and kept it going for a few years. I bought better and better, until I bought a new one.”
Once retired, Bruce was able to turn his attention to collecting and restoring vintage tractors fulltime, even taking some to compete in tractor pulls at local fairs. “Twenty years ago I started pulling locally – Minisink, Greenville, Maybrook, Otisville–regular tractor pulls with a sled. You either spin out or stall out.” His trophies sit above a wall of spare parts in his workshop.
“The last few years it’s very hard to find an old tractor. I’m always looking for something different.” Once the tractors are fixed up, he might sell one if it’s a duplicate, to make room for something more unusual in his collection, like the 1937 John Deere Orchard model, or a 1953 Ford Golden Jubilee. “They only made that one year,” he says. “Very rare.”