Sight of the Week: Aug 24-30, 2015 | Archive

A century-old Waterloo Boy entices John Deere fans into the tractor museum.
A century-old Waterloo Boy entices tractor fans into the museum.

John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum

Field review by the editors.

Waterloo, Iowa

John Deere's powerful tractors mean more land can be farmed with less farmers, which should mean less potential visitors for John Deere's tractor museum -- or so you'd think.

In the groove: the green light is a rare reward on the interactive plow exhibit.
In the groove: the green light is a rare reward on the interactive plow exhibit.

The museum, which opened in 2015, counters what could have been an attendance death spiral by offering a diverse range of exhibits designed to please several key audiences. It aims to appeal not only to farmers, but to the many John Deere employees who worked in its gigantic Waterloo tractor factory, and to non-Deere outsiders who visit because a trip to Iowa is incomplete without a trip to a tractor museum.

Speaking for the third group, we'd say the museum does a good job.

Its first display, "Can You Imagine Work Before Machines?," sets the tone (Answer: you can, but you really don't want to), then quickly moves to "Working the Land," whose exhibits reveal the feebleness of the human body. Just try to hold the interactive horse-drawn plow steady; you'll wind up with a lot of red danger lights and "you failed" buzzers. The "Want to Make Some Horsepower?" exhibit, according to curator Josh Waddle, had to be wimped-down to horsepower fractions because so few people are strong enough to make even one.

Evolution of the tractor seat: 1914-1960.
Evolution of the tractor seat: 1914-1960.

This 1928 John Deere was worked so hard in dusty fields that all its paint wore off.
This 1928 John Deere was worked so hard in dusty fields that all its paint wore off.

Then it's on to the farm tractors, beginning with pre-Deere rattletraps such as the 1892 Froelich and the 1914 Waterloo Boy. Deere was so intrigued by Waterloo Boy that it bought the company that made it (the $2.25 million check is exhibited) and built its first tractor factory right where the museum currently stands.

City folks can play farmer through exhibits such as "Please Be Seated," which allows your derriere to experience decades of tractor seat design in a few moments. The "Start Your Engines" display is geared for diehards, who test their ability to recognize a tractor simply by listening to the sound of its laboriously cranking engine ("Hssss chunk gu-wugga clank rattle gu-wugga-wugga" is the Waterloo Boy).

Tractor POV.
21st century tractor POV. Imagine that the video monitor is a field of corn.

"In the old days tractors didn't have keys," Josh said. "The joke was, 'If you're smart enough to start it, you can have it.'"

Many people who would've been farmers had it not been for John Deere's efficient tractors found jobs in John Deere's Waterloo factory, designing, manufacturing, and assembling those same tractors. An appreciative chunk of the museum is devoted to them. The "What Does it Take to Build a Tractor?" exhibit notes that by the 1960s John Deere's office staff used 55,000 pencils a year and made 750,000 photocopies a month. Another display touches on employee bonding fraternities such as the factory softball team and John Deere's men's chorus, the Melodeers.

The last museum gallery is reserved for the newest John Deere tractor, built right in Waterloo, "the biggest one we could get in here," according to Josh, with multiple touch-screen computer controls and an in-cab refrigerator. Visitors are invited to climb inside for a 21st century farmer's-eye view, perhaps fantasizing that the museum floor is instead a mile-long field of soybeans or some other agribusiness staple, tended efficiently and comfortably through modern tractor technology.

Waterloo Boy.

But despite the glorious present, it's the older machines that will probably always be the museum stars, tugging the heartstrings of America's heartland, evoking images of John Deere grandparents showing children how to crank a motor or operate a drill press. "We do get people in here that have an emotional response," said Josh, "people in their sixties, seventies, eighties that just come to tears over the memories evoked by some of these machines."

It's a delicate balance for a tractor museum that wants to be more than a tractor museum, and Josh conceded that this broad vision will always bump up against geography. "We're in the middle of Iowa," he said. "Go down the road a mile and you're gonna be in a cornfield."

John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum

Address:
500 Westfield Ave., Waterloo, IA
Directions:
North side of the city. US Hwy 218 exit 181 or 181B. Turn east onto Commercial St., then quickly turn right onto Westfield Ave. You'll see the museum entrance on the left.
Hours:
Tu-Sa 10-6 (Call to verify)
Phone:
319-292-6126
Admission:
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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