For most of the past week, 14 Australians who are driving vintage Chamberlain Champion tractors across the United States have been in Perryville. With five tractors pulling house trailers, the visitors from Down Under have enjoyed the comforts of rural hospitality.
The close look at a place that may not have caught their attention if they were traveling in a more conventional manner has been revealing, said 70-year-old farmer Dick Garnett.
"The country folk are absolutely outstanding," Garnett said. "Some said they would love to come visit, and I would love to have an opportunity to return the hospitality."
By Saturday morning, two of the tractors had already departed in order to reach Oshkosh, Wis., in time for an annual aircraft convention. But the three remaining had a prominent place in the first stint of the 40-mile adventure ride before breaking away to continue their journey.
The Australians aren't strangers to long tractor rides -- beginning in 2000, they have gone on extended trips across their country covering 10,000 miles. And they are proud of their tractors. The Chamberlain Champion has innovative features that were added after farm surveys. The nine-speed gearbox allows speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. A bench seat, with snap-down canvas cover, provides both comfort and protection from weather. And foot throttles replaced old hand throttles.
"We are very passionate about them because they are our tractor," said Garnett, explaining that the tractors were made in his state, Western Australia.
Garnett farms 10,000 acres, raising wheat, malting barley, canola and sheep. He can get away from home for so long, he said, because his 39-year-old son also works their land.
Taking the time and expense to bring tractors to the U.S. for a cross-country tour sounds crazy, and maybe it is, said Garnett, a tall, broad-chested man whose delight in the adventure is obvious. "They talk here in the U.S. about the bucket list -- well, I've got a bloody big bucket. It just gets better and better."
The outside interest in the River Hills club ride is part of growing interest in antique tractors as both a hobby and investment, said Jerry Davis of Davis Farm Supply, a co-founder of the ride. A tractor must be 40 years old to be considered antique, he said.
A spectator watching the parade could see models built by Ford and John Deere, Case and Allis-Chalmers, International Harvester and Minneapolis-Moline. Some are working tractors, while others have been restored. All are prized for the progress in farming they represent, and a few are highly sought collector items, such as the gold 1959 Ford 981 that was issued to dealers as a promotional tool as a new model.
"It is just antique tractor fever," said Davis, whose family business is the last survivor among seven farm implement dealers that operated in Perryville when Davis Farm Supply opened in 1955. "It is really becoming a big deal. You get really hung up on it, and it is part of your life."
Marsha Lappe, who helped run registration for this year's participants, including her husband, said she's caught the bug. She and her husband raise wheat, soybeans and cattle on 300 acres. Sometimes, she said, it is hard to resist when her husband becomes enthusiastic about a machine.
"I'll go with him a lot of times to look for tractors," she said.
Antique farm machinery is also gaining value, which makes the hobby a good investment as well, she said. The enjoyment from displaying and driving the tractors is the same a horse enthusiast feels on a trail ride or a Harley-Davidson owner feels on the open road.
"This is basically what these guys do," she said,