The Caretaker: Stew Paquette and the Historical Farmall Tractor Museum
This week's column is going to be a little different. Today, I'm talking about Stew Paquette and his legendary collection of all things IH in Florida.
As some of you know, Stew passed away about six months ago, and the collection is about to cross the virtual auction block in a series of online sales hosted by Aumann Auctions.
I'd always heard that Stew's collection was amazing. Unfortunately, I was never able to get to Florida to see it.
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The wild thing about this collection is the breadth of it. I remember hearing Stew say, "We want to collect one of everything Harvester ever made..." in an interview with Brian Baxter for Classic Tractor Fever. To be honest, he gave it a heck of a run. He didn't collect it all, but he probably came closer than anybody else.
We'll get into some of that in a bit. But before we do, here's the link to the six auctions.
Who was Stew Paquette?
Stew was not your ordinary red collector. He didn't start collecting until later in life, and he didn't really have any ties to farming, either. He lived in New England for half of his life and ran a paving company with his dad, AJ. Stew didn't move o Florida until 1974. Once he was there, he started another paving company in central Florida he owned until 1998.
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It wasn't until 2004 that he bought a tractor (a Farmall 560), at the age of 66. I think the intention was to fix it up and use it to maintain his acreage. On a family trip to Vermont, he noticed a collection of red tractors lined up on a back road near the town of Derby. He fell in love pretty much instantly and marched up to the door and asked to speak with the owner. The lady who answered looked at him and said, "No. We're about to sit down to dinner. Come back later."
So that's exactly what he did.
The man he talked to was Pinky Provost, and he brought six of those tractors home with him that day. They also became life-long friends.
That was the day Stew fell down the rabbit hole and became a red collector. By the time he passed, he'd built a collection of over 200 tractors, plus all the other stuff.
Here's the funny part about those tractors he bought from Pinky; he told the family he was going to fix them up so his grandkids could drive them around the acreage on visits, and learn to appreciate America's farming heritage. Anybody want to guess how many times the grandkids actually drove them?
One of the buildings in the museum complex is an accurate recreation of a 1940s Farmall Dealership — complete with a parts counter. I only know of two other such dealership recreations on the planet, and they're both from different decades.
The collection was always referred to as "Stew's Stuff." If I had to wager a guess, I'd say Helen (his wife) probably coined the term. Check out some of the machines on the sale — nearly every one has a "Stew's Stuff" decal on it (similar to Jerry Mez's signature pinstripes on a lot of his tractors). As Stew added stuff, he built several buildings to house it all, one of which is a pretty authentic recreation of a 1940s Farmall dealership. Eventually (I believe it was in 2012), he began opening the collection to the public.
It didn't take long before the news of a Florida Farmall museum became the talk of red collectors everywhere. "Stew's Stuff" became a destination for thousands of vacationers, and Stew was always there to show them around. For him, there was no better way to honor Harvester's heritage than to see the people — especially the kids — walking through those buildings. Furthermore, with Florida being such a vacation destination, the museum drew a lot of international guests as well. In one interview, I think he said they'd hosted guests from at least a dozen countries.
I'm told this was a common sight at the museum: Stew taking little kiddos on a tour of the grounds in his Farmall train!
Stew also hosted tractor shows, rides, and tractor pulls at the Leesburg facility. I'm pretty sure they pulled everything from antiques all the way up to the hot stuff there.
What drove Stew to do this?
Recently, I had a really nice conversation with Tia, one of Stew's four children, and I asked her that question. She told me that for her dad, it was about four things: the history, the hunt, the travel, and most importantly, the people.
Stew was a huge history buff. He absorbed history like nobody else. He felt that to know where you were going, you had to appreciate where you'd been. To that end, when he read Barbara Marsh's book, A Corporate Tragedy — a book that details the agonizing downfall of IH — he set out to preserve as much of the company's history as he could. Whether it was nuts and bolts, tractors, refrigerators, or anything else ever stamped with a Harvester logo, he wanted to own one. He wanted to keep that history alive so people — especially kids — could understand how IH changed the face of this great country we live in.
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(By the way, if you've never read that book and you're an IHC fan, you'd best get on that link quickly. The original is long out of print, and Super Scout Specialists is the only place that has reprints available. It's $40 well spent.)
Talk to any collector, it doesn't really matter what they collect. Most of them will tell you that the thing they enjoy most is the hunt. It doesn't matter if it's tractors, coins, or old fountain pens, the fun part of the hobby is finding them. There's actual science behind this, too. Chemicals in our bodies are released with the anticipation of discovering something we've searched for. At the end of the day, for Stew, finding a rare tractor gave him the same adrenaline rush a skydiver gets when he jumps out of an airplane.
According to Tia, Stew was a serial collector, too. He had all sorts of collections: Revolutionary War muskets, coins, 1955 to 1957 Chevys, you name it. Stew had an affinity for old stuff.
Stew loved to explore the world. He never let the grass grow under his feet. He loved to go on tractor rides, attend shows, tour collections, and see the country. It was a part of collecting he really enjoyed, because it meant he could absorb more of Harvester's history with other collectors.
It's been said that Stew never met a stranger, and I believe that. As best as I can tell, he was about as much of a social butterfly as I am. He loved meeting people and sharing his passion like I do.
I know a handful of people who have made the trip to Stew's museum, and every one of them tells the same basic story. They all say the collection was cool, but getting to meet Stew was the real treat.
This is a phenomenon I've written about before. Coincidentally, when I wrote about it the last time, it was with another red guy: Jerry Mez. I'm convinced Jerry and Stew were twin sons of different mothers. They both had the same electric personalities and were both driven by a passion for International Harvester.
Two peas in a pod. I can only imagine the eye rolling when Helen Paquette and Joyce Mez saw these two together.
"Stew's Posse," as Kurt Aumann has referred to it, kind of goes hand in hand with Stew's love of people. When the museum was open, Stew got a lot of repeat visitors from all over the country. Many were snowbird collector-types who went south to escape the cold weather. A handful of those guys got to know Stew well and ended up becoming part-time volunteers. They were there because volunteering meant they got to spend time with their friend Stew and share that passion daily. Not a bad way to spend a winter, as far as I'm concerned.
Here's Stew with a couple of the winter volunteers.
The wildest thing about "Stew's Stuff" is just how wide it is. He probably had one of the biggest collections of IH machinery, signage, and memorabilia out there. From the oldest Farmall known to exist to a replica Cub Cadet dealership (including one machine still sitting in the crate), he's got just about everything. Here are a few photos for you, each one is linked to the auction listing, so you can see more photos, etc.
This is the world's oldest known Farmall. It's a 1923 prototype model, one of two known to exist.
Farmall C Demonstrator. Stew was proud of the white Demos as well as the gold ones in his collection. This one has some leaks and cracks in it, but it's still a nice piece.
Not all of "Stew's Stuff" was pristine. This Farmall M ,with a two-row corn picker on it, has spent some time outside. Still, it would be well-worth restoring. Who knows, maybe this one will end up in the hands of a young kid who'll clean it up and turn it into the cornerstone of his collection.
For you signage collectors, Stew had hundreds of signs. This one stuck out to me because Kyle, our CEO, is from Fairfield, Iowa.
A sign like this one would've hung outside a dealership, if I'm not mistaken. I'm guessing you'll need deep pockets to take this one home.
Here's Stew's recreation of a Cub Cadet dealership, including everything from early model Cub Cadets to a NOS Cub Cadet 1415 that's still on the shipping skid.
The museum had a pretty impressive collection of IH refrigeration products. And yes, that white fridge is just like the one Monica and Chandler had in their kitchen on Friends.
Over the years, Stew collected a bunch of Gold Demonstrators, including a hyper-rare 1026 High Crop. I'm fairly sure there's only one of these known to exist!
Like I said, there’s lots of cool stuff on this sale. I've barely scratched the surface.
Every time a collection like this goes up for auction, inevitably there'll be a bunch of people throwing shade on the sale. They'll say things like, "It's a shame this collection is being split up and sold at a profit; it should stay together so the heritage can be preserved," or something similar.
Every time I see comments like this, I have to bite my tongue.
Since this is my column and my opinion, I want to present a different perspective. This is a complex and heavy topic, and there's a lot that people aren't considering when they make a comment like that.
At the end of the day, none of us live forever. We're just caretakers for the stuff we accumulate. In Stew's case, his kids had a decision to make. It wasn't one they took lightly, either. Keep the museum open, or send it off to new owners?
Ultimately, though it was emotional, it was easy. The museum needed to close, and the tractors had to go. (I know that sounds very callous on the surface. Stick with me, because it isn't.)
Why close the museum?
As Tia very eloquently explained to me last night, "We love the tractors because of who they represent, not what they represent. Those tractors were what he loved. We love them because they remind us of him."
See, Tia and her three siblings are all in their 50s (or getting close). They all have businesses to run, kids and grandkids to look after, as well as their own passions. For them to attempt to keep the museum open would be an exercise in futility. Furthermore, it would do a tremendous disservice to their father.
"We don't know the tractors like he did, and we don't have the passion for it like Dad did," Tia said. "To try and keep the museum going just because 'it's Stew Paquette's wouldn't be fair to us, or our father, or any visitors for that matter!"
She's right, too. It's not a “fake it 'til you make it” kind of deal. The thing that made that museum successful in the first place was the passion of the guy who started it. If you take that out of the equation, all you're left with is a bunch of neat tractors, trucks, and implements.
Why sell the stuff?
Tia explained this one well, too. "We want those tractors and trucks and all of Dad's stuff to go to new homes where it will be appreciated by a new generation of collectors," she said. "Nothing will make us happier than to know that they'll continue to make people happy like they did our father."
Furthermore, as fans of old iron, if we want this hobby to live for the foreseeable future, it means collections like this have to break up at some point. Honestly, for as much nice stuff as there is on this sale, there's a lot of stuff that'll probably go reasonably, too. Those tractors, trucks, and implements can all end up going home with new collectors. That should excite us, not make us sad.
Editor's Note: This column was originally published October 7, 2022, a few days before the auctions went online. You can click on the links below to see what the tractors and other items sold for.
Stew's collection was awesome, and I can't wait to see who it all goes home with! The late-model tractor auction (1954 and later) wraps up on October 11. Earlier model tractors and implements wrap up on October 12. The sign collection, toys and memorabilia auctions close on October 13. And finally, the parts and tools, and antiques and fixtures all sell on October14.
If it were your choice, what would you bring home from "Stew's Stuff?" Send me an email and let me know! Let's talk tractors!
Hi! I’m Ryan, and I love tractors. It doesn’t matter if it’s a showpiece, an oddball, or seen its share of life ... if it’s unique and it’s listed by one of our auctioneer partners at Tractor Zoom, I’m going to show it off a little bit! I think this equipment is cool, and I hope you will too! This is Interesting Iron!