Restoring old tractors is a labor of love, 3i Show exhibitors George and LaDonna Brown said. They'll be at the show with 10 vintage John Deeres and an International Farmall.

Amid the cutting-edge machines, techniques and services on display throughout the Western Plains Expo Center lot sits a collection of agricultural history providing a clear reminder of how very different it was not so long ago.

A cohort of tractors in showroom finish John Deere green, and a lone International Farmall H decked in red, was restored by George and LaDonna Brown of Hodgeman County, and aside from a John Deere model B purchased to complete the set, the couple has used a model of each of the tractors they’ve repaired and shined.

"She's the chief mechanic," George says of his wife of 56 years. "I've got it made because she likes them as much as I do."

"You get one done and you say, 'Well, what do you want to do next?'" LaDonna said.

Other couples they meet at other ag shows have made it clear this hobby is usually a singular pursuit, the Browns said. "I married a city girl and made her into a farm girl," George said. LaDonna was born in Dodge City; George was born a mile and a half south of Windthorst.

Their latest restoration is a 1929 model D with steel wheels, a tractor that didn't run for 60 years before they repaired and started it up. Very little of the sheet metal was salvageable, but an extensive aftermarket helped replace the body panels.

"The labor is free," LaDonna said. "The parts are high," but seeing one start for the first time in decades is a joy. Since restoring it, the 1929 model D has been run about a dozen times and by its own power was driven up the trailer that holds it.

The couples are sticklers for authenticity and try to get them as close to showroom perfect as possible. While painting the 1929 D, the green coat developed fisheyes — the paint sprayer was pushing too much pressure.

"She said, 'You'll have to redo it,'" George said, "so I gave it two weeks and sanded it down again. That tractor's got six coats of paint."

"They think I'm crazy at work," LaDonna said. She responded to a small classified advertisement for their diesel-powered John Deere 830, or "basically an R on steroids," George said, and purchased it herself.

George jokes about his handiwork, and the mental acuity of someone who would maintain the old machines in working condition. "It's a love thing. It's history."

Paint streaks, he says, add a little character and "You've got to have a little character."

Among the small details are the hand-painted insignias along the fairings or below the seat, the result of a body of knowledge that came from first-person experience, George said.

"I've ridden them all my life. I was born into John Deere. I've spent more time on these than, well, I spent a lot of time. Hours and hours. When you run these things for all your life, you get to know them," he said.

He said he remembers being skeptical of the 1929 model D but was reminded by his elders of the work it would take to tend to four horses, harness them and try to work a field behind them before mechanization.

Compared to the work horses, "You'd see something like that like a new Cadillac."

Surrounded by dealers with GPS-assisted combines and radio controlled drones loaded with sensors, the collection of tractors provides a good point of reference for how the world has changed. It also reminds them of the amount of work, and the number of people that it used to take to farm and the community that surrounded that work.

"We might have been living in the best time in history," LaDonna said.

"But, we don't really know," George added. For their great grandchildren's sake, "I hope all this is making the world a better place."

Either way, with the antique tractors "It's neat to see what replaced horses," George said.

Likewise, "People ought to look back at where we came from," LaDonna said, or we might end back there again.  

This will be the third year the Browns have been invited to display their vintage tractors by Western Kansas Manufacturers Association President Eddie Estes. "We're really honored to be here and we hope people want to come out and see them," George said.