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October 22, 2019

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All these machines, no place to show them

Rural collector of antique equipment had hopes for a museum dashed by economy

Tractor museum

Leila Navidi

Ron Dahl tries to start a 1958 motor, part of his antique farm equipment collection on Oasis Ranch, his property in Amargosa Valley on Friday, June 5, 2009.

Tractor Museum

Ron Dahl tries to start a 1958 motor, part of his antique farm equipment collection on his property Oasis Ranch in Amargosa Valley Friday, June 5, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Among the many victims of the recession are the arts and museums. Especially vulnerable are proposed museums, including one that would be built around 500 tractors.

The tractors belong to Ron Dahl and many of them are a century old.

Dahl has lots and lots of them, plus some tugboat motors, fire trucks, castoff amphibious military vehicles, an ancient milk truck, pneumatic mining jackhammers, an ore tower and several guard shacks from the Nevada Test Site.

How does such a collection happen?

“I had no limits and no boundaries. I didn’t have a wife to stop me. I just kept collecting and it got to the point where I wanted to open a museum,” Dahl says.

He was talking to a few people about turning his tractors into a museum, but Dahl says, “as the economy went to hell and the country went to hell, people kind of lost interest.”

Right now, he’s just holding on to his tractors, figuring they’re money in the bank, plus a winding maze of surprises and delights.

And they work. “These old critters will all run,” Dahl says, which sounds doubtful, given that the most popular color for these tractors is ferrous red. Many of them are missing parts and panels and have their wheels sagged flat to the ground.

Dahl approaches a particularly skeletal and suspect tractor, connects a battery and starts it up on the first try. “Like a Swiss watch,” he says.

His original goal was to collect all the tractors from the year of his birth, 1950, and before. But there was, as they say, mission creep. Not only was there a lot of old stuff, there was a lot of stuff people were just going to throw away even though it worked perfectly well — industrial swamp coolers, metal sheds, half-wrecked cars full of perfectly good parts. If Dahl didn’t take this stuff, it would just wind up in a landfill. So instead it sits in heaps on his 52 acres in the Amargosa Valley.

“It’s not a hobby, it’s a disease,” Dahl says.

Although Dahl has all kinds of equipment, his first love is old tractors with extinct names on them: Graham Bradley, Ingersoll Rand, Minneapolis Moline, Oliver, Farmall, Massey Harris, Allis-Chalmers, Continental. And then there are the oddities — tractors with giant engines added, tractors welded together like Frankenstein’s monster, even an old Ford Model T converted into a tractor (which Dahl thinks he could get running in a day or so). Nobody, Dahl says, could invent like a farmer in need. There were no computers, just ingenuity and hard work.

“All this stuff built the country. And that country is gone now,” Dahl says.

The collection is also a personal history. He has tractors that neighbors of his family bought to replace their horses. He has tractors of old friends long dead, tractors that he plans to restore in their memory. He has a twin of the first tractor he ever drove, back when he was 11 and took his first job, with a neighbor in Kingsburg, Calif. Dahl’s family needed the income.

“My dad always had a job but never seemed to have any money. My mom was usually at home with an ailment,” Dahl says. “It was not a real pretty youth, but it taught me a lot of things that not everyone learns.”

Dahl worked hard. By the time he was in high school but before he could drive (legally, that is), he harvested grapes from a couple of vineyards he leased behind his high school. Over the years, Dahl has worked as a truck driver and a welder and fabricator, but he always had farming in his life. Twenty years ago, he moved from California to Amargosa, searching for a life with fewer people and fewer rules. He grew alfalfa in Amargosa and Pahrump. And whenever he’s come into money, he’s bought tractors.

Now, though, Dahl is 59 and suffering from the injuries a life of hard work brings: a hernia, fused disks in his back and only partial use of his right arm. He still works some land in Pahrump and he putters about his property and his tractors with a cat for company.

And Dahl wonders where he and his tractors are going.

“I’ve hired a couple of million kids, hoping someone would take an interest, but they didn’t. I don’t have any siblings. I don’t know what’s going to happen to all this,” he says.

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