Shelby County farmer Steve Kenkel has lived on a century farm his entire life, growing corn and soybeans today with all the trappings of modern farming.
But in three buildings on his property he has amassed a collection of equipment, advertising signs and seed corn sacks that document the transition from traditional hand or horse-drawn tools through the arrival of hybrid seed corn and into the mid-20th century’s gas or diesel-powered tractors. His Hybrid Corn Pioneers Museum showcases his 20 years of collecting.
“I have the whole revolution of the corn planter, when it was invented in the mid-1890s to the 1950s,” he says, “when we got away from check-planting and started drilling corn.”
Check-planting was a method that resulted in a checkboard look on a field and Kenkel revisited it every other year for his Expo. For those events, he used some of the equipment in his collection to plant corn from three different centuries and took pride in sharing the demonstration with visitors of all ages. He says often older people would come to his museum and then return for a second visit with kids or grandkids.
He’d hoped to parlay his private collection into a county discovery center that would also include education and perhaps job training.
“I don’t want the younger generation to forget why we have it so good today,” he said. “If I wasn't raised during that era, I don’t know that I would be the farmer I am today…it was a heck of a lot of work, but we never gave them enough credit,” Kenkel said. “The ingenuity and the simplicity of the equipment, it’s kind of astonishing how far we’ve come.”
After five years of working with local officials and searching for sponsors and other funding, Kenkel decided the numbers just don’t add up.
“It takes a lot of money and, as you know, with agriculture today there’s not a lot of extra money out there,” he said. “It’s tough out there in ag and agribusiness right now.”
Over the years, Kenkel has refurbished tractors, planters and other equipment, and he’s collected seed corn sacks from more Shelby County companies than he knew had existed.
“I found 18 seed corn companies that started, were raised in our county, more than any county in the United States,” he said. “So then I started collecting sacks. At one time I had close to 2,000 sacks nationwide.”
His entire collection goes on the auction block in Earling Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14.
“I never did any of this to make money or sell anything,” he said. “That’s why it’s a little hard to see it go.”
But Kenkel says he made his kids a promise that he wouldn’t hang onto everything forever. He hopes at lesat some of his collection will wind up on public display in museums or other settings.
As a lifelong collector, he says he’s certain he’ll find something else to focus on. But he also made his children a second promise: “whatever I collect now, you’re going to be able to put in a suitcase.”
More information about the auction is available here.