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VENTURA COUNTY FAIR : Tractor Collector Is Driven by His Love for 'Old Iron' : Jon Peterson buys rusting relics and restores them to gleaming beauty.


Men and machines: a never-ending love affair.

Just the two words together call to mind scenes from the past--of men whose hearts beat to the throb of pistons set in steel.

In Jon Peterson's case, it's a love affair with tractors.

Now, Peterson's not talking about your air-conditioned, suspension-seated, electric-starting "limousines" that carry farmers over sod nowadays. He's talking about what affectionately is called "old iron" by men who covet it: relics that have been parked for decades behind sagging barns, building up layers of rust like debt on a farm.

"I have always been intrigued by tractors, even as a kid," he says, looking over a cache of pathetic-looking vehicles in a lot behind his Camarillo home. Leaning crazily in two uneven rows, most of the machines appear to have found their final parking places. Their tires are flat, their paint is a memory.

Peterson beams at their ranks. He knows them like old pals.

"Here's a '36 'D' I got out of La Junta, Colorado," he says, looking like he might reach out and pet the sorry-looking tractor. "A friend found it and called me up. I told him, 'I'll go $1,500, and don't go any higher.' He bought it for $950," he says happily.

The old John Deere looks like it might bring $20-and-change on the scrap market. But this tractor has a different destiny.

Its owner will bring it back to life: Sand its rust, replace what can't be sanded, overhaul its two-cylinder engine, check in with a vast network of suppliers to find its missing parts. Then he will spray its chassis bright pea-green, its wheels yellow, and likely drive it in one of the parades he is often invited to join.

Next week, Peterson will be displaying his restored tractors at the Ventura County Fair. Last year's display was one of the most popular draws in the Ag Building, said fair spokesperson Teri Raley.

"People just stood there, their mouths agape, going, 'Omigosh! They accomplished what farmers do today with this equipment?' " she remembered. "They were just intrigued."

Unlike most tractor restorers, Peterson has never farmed and never driven a tractor professionally.

As a kid in Michigan, he broke into tractor riding on his family's small garden model. Later, he learned to tinker with machines at his father's mushroom and cannery business, after the family moved to Whittier.

Twenty years ago he launched a mushroom business of his own, Mushrooms, Etc., in Camarillo. And recently his eldest son, Louis, took charge of operations there, leaving his father to launch a hobby.

No one was surprised when that turned out to be tractors, according to his wife Susan.

It began on a trip to visit friends in Missouri in 1990. The Petersons made a side trip to Waterloo, Iowa, to take in Expo II--which is to tractors what the Indy 500 is to race cars. The only difference was: The tractors don't go anywhere. They sit on the grass, looking as elegant as tractors can.

The biennial event is sponsored by the Two-Cylinder Club, an organization of 26,000 members that exists solely out of nostalgia for the John Deere tractor.

Jack Cherry, historian and editor of the club's magazine, estimates that one-quarter of John Deere's 1 million classic tractors (those produced from 1918 through 1960) are still around, restored or capable of being restored.

"It was the Rolex of the tractor industry," he said in a recent telephone conversation. "You would think they were the only ones built because they have survived so well."

Peterson found two old Deeres in the summer of '90, and had them shipped back to California. From there, his pastime picked up speed like a Deere in neutral rolling downhill.

He now has 26 machines, eight of them in the Midwest waiting for transportation to Camarillo. He goes there about three times a year to haul one back, but usually locates another one in the process.

Coming back across the Great Plains trailering a tractor is fun, he says. When he stops for gas, little knots of admiring men circle around, reminiscing about old iron.

The star of Peterson's hoard is a rare 1926 Deere Model D, which he recently refurbished. He shows a photo of it as it appeared when found in Salinas, looking as if it might have been pried off the deck of the Titanic.

"I paid $1,800 for that tractor. Everybody thought I was nuts," he says, grinning. "Everything was froze up tight. I had to knock the pistons out with a sledge hammer."

The restored machine sits gleaming in front of his house, looking like it just rolled out of the factory. Peterson lists its features: 27 horsepower at the pulley, two forward speeds, an engine capable of running on stove oil. Also, it boasts one of the first solid flywheels for starting up the engine-- a refinement that was to save farmers' hands from being torn off as they sometimes were in the spokes of earlier styles.

"I could put an electric starter on it, lights and stuff, an easier ride seat," its owner says, "but I like to restore to the original. I like hand- start tractors."

So far, he has has completed six Deeres and entered one of them in the nearest tractor show in these parts: Tulare.

In California it's a lonely hobby. Most tractor fans are elsewhere: some in New England; a huge following in the midwest, where there are "more shows than you can get to in the summer."

Sometimes he considers going there to stay, getting "a nice farm in Nebraska" where land is reasonably priced and he could actually do something with his machines--besides dust them off and ride them in parades.

He is planning to work them for the first time this fall: to pull out a row of old lemon trees on a back lot and put in a riding arena.

Heady stuff for a man who has waited a lifetime to hitch something up to a tractor. It may be very hard to figure out which one to choose.

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