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Published August 15, 2008, 12:00 AM

A machine-making man

Colfax farmer revives old farming tools
From his cap with mesh netting in the back to his vice-like handshake to his weathered work boots, Neil Nelson is a farmer from his head right down to his soles.

By: J. Shane Mercer, The Forum

Richland County, N.D.

From his cap with mesh netting in the back to his vice-like handshake to his weathered work boots, Neil Nelson is a farmer from his head right down to his soles.

And if further proof of the 71-year-old’s connection to the land is needed, there’s his little collection of horse-drawn machinery. Nelson estimated that his collection numbers around 50 pieces, including a grain drill, a hay loader, a covered wagon, manure spreaders and hay cutters.

A large storage building next to his house eight miles southwest of Colfax is home to most of collection, which includes 20 to 25 pieces that he has restored.

One of the gems of his collection is a hay loader, a machine used to pick up cut hay and elevate it onto a rack for transport.

Nelson is “kind of proud of that,” he said. “That was a challenge and it turned out pretty nice.”

That piece is now at Fort Ransom State Park, where he and other members of the Fort Ransom Sodbusters Association demonstrate horse-farming techniques twice a year during Sodbuster Days. The next event is set for Sept. 6 and 7.

Many of the pieces he owns await restoration.

“I may never live long enough to get it all done, but it’s just a hobby,” Nelson said.

Some of the pieces he acquires are already functional when he gets them. Others are not. As his wife Anne said, “There are some that are probably firewood or scrap iron.”

But, as a look around the machinery reveals, Nelson transforms them into colorful, ready-for-the-field farm implements.

He can still purchase some of the parts he needs to get the machines back to top condition. He makes other parts, and sometimes he creates “one good machine out of two.”

Not only does he make the non-functional functional, but he also strives to be authentic to the machinery’s original color. That includes a John Deere spreader that is partly red. And though some have tried to correct him, Nelson said, “back years ago, they did use some red.”

Anne said the hobby is good for her husband.

“When you get older, you have to have a hobby to keep yourself busy,” she said.

She’s impressed with the results, saying, “They look almost brand new when they’re done.”

Nelson is drawn to the ingenuity of past generations.

“I’m so impressed with our ancestors, the knowledge they had,” he said. “They had nothing to go by.”

And he said some of the mechanisms they developed are still employed in equipment today.

Nelson, a mostly-retired farmer, still dabbles in his trade, working 11 acres of his 23-acre farmstead.

“He always did farm all his life and raised livestock,” said son Brian Nelson. “And I suppose this machinery is part of that heritage going back.”

Brian Nelson also noted his dad’s long-standing interest in horses. Neil Nelson said he’s always had horses on the farm, and he now owns four Belgian draft horses and three other cross-breed horses.

Despite the impressive size of his collection, Nelson is still in the market for additions to it if the right one comes up.

“Right now, I’m kind of looking for a corn planter.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

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