Harry Studebaker's a firm believer in the idea that one man's trash is another man's treasure. He's been putting that idea to practice for about as long as he can remember.
"When I was a little kid, I used to drag all kinds of stuff home," Harry says, despite numerous warnings from his dad, who couldn't see much use for the things Harry collected. But while a father's words rarely go unheard, it seems as though in Harry's case they did go unheeded. At the age of 64, Harry's still "draggin' stuff home."
Now, wife Carol has learned to live with Harry's habits. Forty years ago, she and Harry bought a house and 4 acres alongside Highway 26 in the city of Milton, WI. Those 4 acres have since been the canvas for Harry's creativity, so to speak. The yard now serves as display grounds for the antique farm machinery and other items he's collected through the years. And if Harry doesn't feel as though one of his treasures belongs in the yard, it often finds a spot in his shop, in the basement of his home, or in one of several display cases within the house.
Harry's definitely a collector of sorts - a collector of all sorts, that is. His collection of farm machinery includes 12 antique tractors, a tobacco planter, a rake, a grain drill, a grater, several plows, wagons, a mower, a cabbage chopper, a bobsled and a dirt mover. But while farm antiques make up the majority of his collection, antique gas pumps, railroad crossing signs, bells, telephone booths, a swing set, a teeter totter and a merry-go-round also claim ground at the couple's home.
Of the items he's collected, Harry's bought some, he says, but a good portion has been given to him. "People give me things because they know I'll keep 'em," Harry says. "I don't ever get rid of nothin'." And besides attending an infrequent auction, Harry doesn't go looking for new items to add to his collection either. "I've already got enough junk," he admits.
Every so often, however, Carol will run across an item "she tells me I've gotta go get," Harry says. No matter what it is, "I always seem to find a spot for it," he says. Such was the case with a couple of old telephone booths. "Everybody needs one of them," Harry says. And a flatbed trailer loaded with industrial-size winches? "Now why would anyone want those?" he queries. Shrugging, he says, "I don't know, but here they are. I'm dumb enough to bring 'em home."
Harry's not one to mix words. He admits the only other place he's ever found such a "collection of items like his is "the junkyard." And while Harry says many of the items he's collected have been salvaged from such a fate, he doesn't like to think of them as junk. I can always see the good in things," he says. "I enjoy everything I've got."
Whether it's tractors or railroad rails, Harry finds a use for even the most quintessential piece in his collection. When it comes to tractors, "Everything's gotta run. They might not've been started for a month or two, but they'll run," he says. He's used many of his tractors in shows and parades.
And when it comes to other objects -- like railroad rails, several-thousand-pound stones from a local quarry, or cement telegraph poles once used by the city of Milton -- Harry finds other creative uses. Among his creations are a gazebo, swings and several benches and tables. The project he's working on now involves cutting and welding railroad rails to support a 400-pound antique bell from Michigan.
"I'm always fiddlin' with somethin'," Harry says. And while he's always been one to "fiddle," he's undoubtedly found more time to work on what he calls his "projects" since retiring from the plumbing business three years ago. That's when an aneurysm and two strokes rendered him barely unable to walk for about a year. Harry's belief that "determination is over 50 percent of getting better" has gotten him to the point he's at today, he says. And that's busier than ever.
"I'm not smart enough to just sit around and enjoy home," Harry says. "I'm out here in the shop every day. It's hard tellin' what you'll find me doin'."
Harry's grandson Aaron can vouch for that. "Sometimes you can't even find him," says Aaron, 8, who, along with his brother, Cole, 4, enjoy spending time at their grandpa's place. "He's got lots of stuff," Aaron says, "and there's always something to do."
While the grandkids are visiting, Harry says he tries to "find a project we can all work on." The two boys have helped their grandpa build a wagon, among other things. And they seem to be picking up some know-how from Harry too. Aaron's beginning to know some of the tractors - a John Deere H, A, B and G, a Farmall H and M, two International 1020s and a Case 800 - like the back of his hand. And Cole - climbing on an old Cub Cadet lawnmower, inquiring why one of the shop fans doesn't work and asking what a nut splitter does - takes an interest too. There's one thing, however, the kids haven't yet picked up - or at least been allowed to pick up - from Harry. "Their dad doesn't let them collect things like they'd like to," Harry notes.
For the most part, Harry says, having the grandkids around is rewarding, but he admits there are times his temper has been tested. He recalls the time a few years back when Aaron took his grandpa's horseshoe collection and scattered it on the lawn. It wasn't until Harry tried to mow the lawn that he realized what Aaron had done.
"It's a full-time job with the kids and the dogs," Harry says, referring not only to Aaron and Cole, but to his two canine companions as well --a German Shepherd named Nick and an English Springer Spaniel named Bud. "The wife has Nick trained to find me when I can't be found," Harry says.
While Carol may have trouble finding her husband at times, Harry assures he has no problems finding any of his tools, or anything else, for that matter, amid his conglomeration of collectibles. "I know what pile it's under," he says.
Although the image of piling scrap metal and tools may not paint a very pretty picture, there's a certain order to the Studebakers' place. And there's a serenity there that only Harry can describe. He says he's enjoyed several peaceful nights peering out of an open shop door from the comfort of a lawn chair.
"There's nothin' prettier than sittln' out here at night, listenin' to the birds and watchin' that old windmill," he says, referring to the antique Aeromotor windmill he placed at the front of their drive. Harry says the atmosphere takes him back to his childhood days on his family's farm just east of Milton. "Dad was a plumber and farmed," Harry says. 'We had sixty cows, a hundred and fifty head of hogs, and chickens, ducks and turkeys." He recalls being a freshman in high school when his family "got a single Surge bucket. We never milked over 35 cows by hand," he says.
Those tranquil nights in the shop also remind Harry of a time when Milton wasn't such a booming city. 'When we bought this place, we were out in the open," Harry says. "Now people are movin' in all around us," he says. A golf course, a new road, several houses and a new apartment complex are among the developments quickly claiming ground around the Studebakers' home. It's a good thing the couple's four acres is enough to satisfy Harry, who admits "I don't belong in town. If I haven't got room for kids and tractors, I'm not happy."
The wide open spaces Harry prefers, however, also mean plenty of time spent on a mower. Maneuvering around all the farm equipment, it takes Harry seven hours to mow the yard using a 7-foot mower, and 12 hours to weed whip, he says. Still, "I enjoy home," Harry says. 'You're liable to find me sittin' and thinkin' out in the yard or in the shop."
It's that last fact for which Harry has been known to take some bantering from his friends. The "old cronies" Harry sees at the local restaurant every morning tease that "there're chairs everywhere you look in the shop." But those chairs have come in handy over the years when visitors have stopped by the Studebaker place to meander through Harry's yard of farm machinery, or chat with him about his collection.
"People have come from allover," Harry says. "I've had people stop from Maine, New Hampshire, California, Texas, Arizona - all over. The wife got me a ledger so I could keep track of 'em." Harry says he's "met a lot of nice people" - many of whom had "granddads or dads that used to have a tractor like one of mine. Sometimes it's not the most opportune time to sit and talk," Harry admits, "but you do it anyway."
With the interest he garners from visitors, he "could probably sell a hundred tractors a year," Harry says. But he'd have none of that. All the items in his collection have found a permanent home with him, he says. "I always tell people I'm not sellin' anything," Harry says. 'I'm keepin' this stuff. I like to see it and I like to have it here."
As a result of Harry's stubbornness, "A lot of people can't wait for me to die," Harry reveals. In fact, not long ago, "the 9-year-old neighbor boy asked me if I'd be buried here," he says.
It's not that Harry's all that difficult to live with; rather, it's the fact that "some people can't wait to get their hands on my stuff," Harry says. Even grandson Aaron says he'd "like to be the first one in the shop when Grandpa dies." But he and Harry both know he's not alone in that wishing. So, for Aaron, Harry has just one piece of advice: "You're gonna have to be quick."