EXETER – Traditionally, people attend cruise nights to marvel at beautifully-preserved classic cars.
When Randy Rusk takes his vintage vehicles to these events, visitors are treated to something entirely different: examples of a way of life, the family farm, that’s rapidly disappearing.
“Rhode Island, surprisingly, has a lot of restored vehicles and a vibrant cruise community,” Randy observes. His cruising vehicles are a 1966 three-quarter ton Chevy farm truck and a 1954 Model 50 John Deere tractor.
These pieces of vintage equipment – plus an antique hay rake and a huge hay wagon that are part of his growing collection – are tangible reminders of Randy’s childhood growing up in Kansas.
A former U.S. Navy flier and a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, his happiest memories are of spending time at his grandparents’ farm.
“It was small, 200 acres, in east Kansas. In 1966, my grandfather, Roy Slyter, bought a brand new farm truck. It was used to haul grain, pick up hay. It was the first vehicle I learned to drive on; four on the floor, no power brakes, no air conditioning.”
After Roy passed away, Randy’s mom gave him his grandfather’s wallet and a box of other treasures. He found the cancelled check from the purchase of the Chevy – Roy paid $2,276.30 – and had it laminated. He keeps it in the glove compartment of the truck, which he lovingly restored.
Randy’s baby sneakers, also saved by his mother, are hanging from the truck’s rearview mirror.
His grandparents sold the farm when he was 14 and, in the 1980s, when Randy was in college, he grandfather gave him the truck.
“He knew I would take care of it,” Randy recalls. “They’d moved to town and he knew I liked it. It was pretty beat up, had a lot of dents from hard daily use. I wanted to hang onto it.”
In 2000, he began to restore the Chevy.
“It was a lot of work. I took it apart, took half the frame off. I pulled the engine, the transmission. I tried to keep it as original as possible, including the factory color which is deep forest green. It’s an ongoing project: I keep making tweaks. It took two to three years to get it close to where I wanted it.”
The truck has 76,000 miles on it – 58,000 more than when his grandfather gave it to him.
Randy added to his mini-farm fleet in 2000 when he stopped at Howard Johnson, a tractor equipment company on Route 108, and asked if anyone knew of an old John Deere tractor he could buy and restore.
“The [proprietor] said he had one,” he recalls. “It’s a 1954 Model 50. It’s pretty close to what we had on the farm.”
The tractor went home to the rural area of Wolf Rock off Route 2, where Randy lives with his wife and two children. It joined an expanding collection of farm equipment that includes the truck, an enormous wagon and a vintage hay rake. The tractor is the original “John Deere green” with canary yellow trim and the rake is painted to match.
The tractor “was in fairly rough shape when I picked it up,” he says, but with technical support from the Howard Johnson people, it now looks as though it just rolled off the assembly line.
In fact, if you attend this week’s Washington County Fair, you’ll see Randy’s John Deere exhibited with other equipment belonging to members of the Rhode Island Antique Tractor Club which boasts between 60 and 70 members.
Randy bought the rake, which was essentially a hunk of rust, in Connecticut. He sanded and painted it and it occupies a prominent place in a small meadow between his home and the barn he built specifically to house his hobby.
A farmer’s version of a man cave, the barn is spacious – big enough for two vehicles and decorated with memorabilia that pays tribute to the golden age of farming and the internal combustion engine.
He has a schedule he follows each year, giving himself a month before the fair – usually July – to work on gauges, the generator, starter switch, spark plug wires and all the other components that always need checking. He takes the tractor to the fair, parades in Westerly and North Kingstown, and seven or eight tractor club events.
Randy, 51 and a former professional bicyclist on the European circuit, has been a pilot for FedEx for 16 years. In the evening he flies a Boeing 727 from T.F. Green Airport, returning by 6:45 the following morning.
It is, he says, the ideal job, freeing him up to work on his projects during the day and also offering plenty of time to reflect on a simpler time when kids knew how vegetables grow and where milk comes from.
The truck is a tangible symbol of a wholesomeness unimaginable today.
“It’s a connection between me and my grandfather. Some day it will go to my son.”
Randy’s son’s name is Roy, after his great-grandfather.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .