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Collection pays tribute to perfect tractor

Jim Powell’s farm near Limestone is surrounded by a sea of soybeans and corn undulating dramatically at the foothills of the Appalachians.
A lot of the tractors used to plant those crops were of the John Deere variety, but Powell, who raises beef cattle and hay, prefers another manufacturer: Farmall by International Harvester.
Actually, it’s not just a preference, but a passion.
Inside an unassuming warehouse at the crest of a hill sit nearly 80 gleaming, cherry-red testaments to the entrepreneur’s true manufacturer of choice. Each of Powell’s antique Farmall tractors — mostly from the 30s, 40s and 50s — are presented in immaculate condition, as if it just rolled off the assembly line. In Powell’s showroom, the polished red tractors with their black tires are lined in sharp rows, looking more like supersized toys than farming machines.
This is the fruit of a labor of love for 78-year-old Powell, who founded the Johnson City-based construction and mineral processing firm Powell Companies in 1969. Growing up on a farm near Nashville, his family’s first tractor was a Farmall F-12.
“It’s a whale of a collection to be put together in two years’ time,” says Ken Nelson, 71, a gushing font of tractor history who has become a curator of sorts for Powell. Nelson has called Powell a friend since Powell bought the Limestone farm in 1984 and became his neighbor.
Entering Powell’s warehouse through a side door, visitors are greeted by three Farmall Cubs from 1957, 1954 and 1947.
Rounding a corner, the big room is entered and it’s a sight to behold. Every inch of the concrete-floored expanse is starkly illuminated. The floors and ceilings are an antiseptic white, unadorned aside from a tidy gallery of photographs next to a diesel-powered beast called the Super MD-TA.
The oldest photo shows a 5-year-old Powell atop the family’s F-20 on their Nashville farm. Newer photos show a fleet of Powell’s first 12 acquisitions lined up in the circular driveway of his home.
“We were real proud of those 12,” says Nelson.
Aside from a few politicians like Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. and former Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe and Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, who have appeared in parades riding in buggies pulled by Powell’s tractors, the collection is not open to the public. It’s not a museum, but it could be. Nelson isn’t a professional tour guide or historian, but he could be. He has the appearance of a farming lifer, with his frayed green trucker’s cap, hardscrabble face, and coarse, generous handshake. He’s also right at home in front of a camera, resting one arm comfortably on a big rear wheel and gesticulating professorially with the other.
“It was inexpensive, fairly economical to operate,” says Nelson, speculating on the enduring appeal of Farmall tractors. “It was just the tractor of the farm.”
His knowledge of tractor history is expansive, but Nelson says he doesn’t do research.
“I’m 71 years old,” he explains with comic bluntness. “I was born on a farm.”
Nelson will tell you that wide-front tractors are harder to find and harder to drive, even though most people assume they’re easier; that the International 100 Powell just acquired was probably assembled in Moline, Ill.; and that the Super MD-TA is most likely one of only 500 left in the United States.
Even when asked about parts of the collection as mundane as two flatbed trailers, Nelson’s eyes still light up.
“Oh, they have a story of their own.”
The International 100 is the first Farmall in Powell’s collection not painted red. Consensus around the barn is that its vibrant, primary yellow paint job signifies that it is a prototype.
As Jarrod Bennett drives the machine into its new home, it harmonizes with its surroundings like the condiments on a technicolor frankfurter.
The International is a relic of the late 1950s, but, as with all Powell’s Farmalls — from the hand-cranked ’37 McCormick-Deering W30 to the gas-burning ’84 M-TA, you couldn’t tell by looking at it. That’s Bennett’s handiwork. He has taken on the job of refurbishing each of Powell’s tractors.
Thirty-seven years old, Bennett owns an auto repair company in nearby Chuckey. Like Nelson, he has studied at the school of experience, claiming “no formal education” in machine repair.
“It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid. I was always working on something.”
Arriving with the banana yellow International are two small Farmalls that have seen better days. The red paint is matted and chipped, the tires are earth-crusted. Bennett says the process takes anywhere from one to three months, depending on the shape the tractor is in when it comes to him.
Bennett’s longest job took five months, when he had to work with an idiosyncratic engine that ran on diesel, but started on gas. He welcomed the challenge.
“Nobody around here really knows anything about them, so it was hard for me because I had to figure it out myself.”
Bennett’s process is to take each machine apart, inspect every component, rebuild them, then paint.
As for the future, Nelson says he and Powell are on the lookout for high-crop models and a 1939 M, the first year that model was produced.
“I don’t know where this is going to end,” says Nelson. “There’s a lot I’d like to see. We gotta have more barn.”
Max Smith is a journalism student at MTSU. He was one of eight students who recently spent a week in Jonesborough writing stories for the Herald Tribune.