When Tom Roduner and Joe Scoto were inspired by the history of tractor dealerships in this great agricultural region, and sort of came up with the idea of having a museum exhibit, they thought they knew quite a deal about the subject already.
Then they were surprised, maybe a little frustrated, but always determined to find out more, and finally, just get it done.
Now, after more than three years of research, finding vintage display pieces, putting it all together, and then COVID delays, their work will come to fruition this Saturday with the opening of the “Tractor Dealerships in Merced County” at the Courthouse Museum in downtown Merced.
And it’s going to open with a bang at 11:30 a.m. Be prepared to see some 20 to 30 tractors — from one-of-a-kind antique models to modern giants — come through town and fill up N Street that leads to the courthouse steps.
Expect a lot of activity around the surrounding park, with owners ready to explain details of their machinery, while Jim Cunningham and his volunteer team will cook up free BBQ hot dogs for everybody. It’s going to be a community celebration, so bring your lawn chairs and picnic blankets.
Actually the Merced County Historical Society is going to take advantage of the day to hold its annual membership meeting and awards ceremony at noon. After that, there will be some history talks on local tractor dealerships, including stories from Jack Gallagher of Merced whose father owned Gallagher Tractor, one of the first Harvester-McCormick dealerships in town during the late 1930s and ’40s. Also, longtime farmer David Santos from the West Side is expected to jog some memories with his family experiences.
When residents and visitors enter the exhibit inside the museum, they will be treated to a fascinating display that examines how the evolution of tractors shaped farming in the Central Valley — from walking plows to smart tractors.
The exhibit begins in 1837 when John Deer invented his famous saw blade and developed the steel walking plow, and then follows the invention of the first steam tractor in 1868, and onto 1892 when the first gasoline-powered Case tractor was built.
Developments one would take for granted today — including the idea of finally replacing horse and mule teams with way more efficient tractors, and the introduction of things like rubber tires and the ‘three-point hitch’ to hook up plows — helped grow a network of dealerships that kept agriculture the No. 1 industry in the county.
“When I start looking at the pictures in this exhibit, I just think, ‘Wow, we have really come a long way,’” says Bob Souza of the Historical Society. “It shows you how we used to farm and grow food back in the old days, and what we had to work with.”
Souza chuckles when he points out: “Those first tractors cost 250 bucks and today’s tractors go for $500,000, or whatever. Now they have GPS technology, and some are even considered autonomous vehicles.”
The Historical Society and the Courthouse Museum can thank Roduner and Scoto for creating the exhibit from start to finish. Both are members of the Society and both belong to local farming families that go back generations.
It all started a few years ago when Museum Director Sarah Lim was wondering about the picture theme she was going to put on the Historical Society’s annual calendar that is sent out every January. She had done car dealerships previously, so Roduner suggested to her that she consider tractor dealerships.
“I started talking to Joe [Scoto] because we both like the history, and tractors, and all that,” Roduner explains. “We were gung-ho to help her out. We knew the basic ones, and so we started digging up information and chasing down photos.”
That’s when Scoto started talking about something much bigger.
“I have a bunch of old directories and memorabilia,” he says. “I have always been interested in collecting those things. I went through my old phone books and Polk directories from the early 1900s. And I compiled the first list of dealerships. And once we had the list, I was like, ‘oh my god.’ … Pretty quick, we were saying why not have an exhibit.”
Roduner adds, “You know I grew up as a kid on a farm. My dad took me into Merced, and I remember a lot of these dealerships. But there are some in this exhibit that were around during my time, and I didn’t even know they existed.”
Thanks to research that was also supported by Augie Scoto and Ric Kirby, the team ended up with a list of 92 tractor dealers and implement dealers that have operated in Merced County from 1885 to present.
According to the exhibit, “These early dealerships were more than just businesses, they were community hubs where farmers, dealers, salesmen and mechanics formed close bonds.”
The only problem for the research project was the lack of historical photos and the presence of direct storytellers.
According to Roduner and Scoto, there just wasn’t a lot of images that depicted the actual dealerships in the area. Farmers and owners never really bothered to take a lot of pictures of the industry itself. It wasn’t a thing back then for farmers to have their photo taken with a brand new tractor at the dealership.
The two researchers also said that they regret not recording specific history, or doing the exhibit sooner, because they knew many of the more modern dealers when they were younger, but many have passed away. And it’s hard to find family members who have kept memorabilia.
Unfortunately, Jerry Shannon passed away in 2020, and he surely would have been a great help to the exhibit. His father, Ralph Shannon, started Shannon Tractor and Pump Company, an Allis-Chalmers dealer, in Merced back in 1947. Interestingly, a memorial for Shannon is being held on Saturday, the same day as the exhibit opening. (See Page 3 in this edition.)
Another challenge to get the exhibit up and running was the COVID-19 pandemic of the last two years. The exhibit was first scheduled for March of 2021, but it faced several delays.
Despite the struggles, Scoto had many items in his collection to donate to the show. His favorite — depicting pre-tractor technology — can be seen at the entrance to the exhibit, in a glass case. It’s a salesman’s sample of a plow — a tiny version that’s an exact, scaled-down, working model of the much larger actual plow.
Says Scoto, “The salesman would conveniently show up to your farm with the sample because he couldn’t afford to have the inventory. If the farmer liked the design and function, he would order the plow to be delivered.”
As for Roduner, he’s bringing an old tractor “that they no longer make” to the opening day event. It’s a vintage Ferguson — before they made Massey-Ferguson models — from the early 1950s.
“It’s the first tractor I ever learned how to drive,” he says. “A lot of farmers did keep their old tractors. For some it was sentimental. Others thought it was bad luck to let them go.”
The “Tractor Dealerships in Merced County” exhibit will run through June 5. For more information, contact the Courthouse Museum at (209) 723-2401. Admission to the event is free.