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An Obsession With Rust

Wed July 22, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

“There is a thin line between a museum and a junkyard. I’m obsessed with rust and I can’t throw anything away,” said Steve Yeaw, a robust, warm, engaging Swamp Yankee who was born in the farmhouse across the road from the spectacle of metal he has now rebuilt and assembled on his 35-acre property — the Potterville Museum.

Travelling along the Old Plainfield Pike in the heart of the woods that cover Scituate and nearby Foster, R.I., one can come upon a personal museum unlike any other. In fact, its very name, “Potterville Museum,” is spelled out on one of a dozen antique chainsaws, hanging from a welcoming pole.

It’s not a living museum; rather, it’s more like a once-working museum, as in, dozens of tractors, motors, mills, compressors, engines, corn choppers, potato planters, farm equipment and heavy iron machines — some of unknown origin.

Yeaw has so many machines from so many eras that even curator, founder and mechanic Yeaw, can only speculate and guess as to their uses and purposes.

Yeaw, a white-bearded construction worker who handles modern heavy iron equipment by day, has surrounded his home, garages and lawn with the ancient equivalent by day and night — big iron discards; an antique-lover’s dream, if the lover lived his life on a working farm in, say, 1933 or earlier.

He gathers them from many places — abandoned on job sites, on the sides of roads, and even rotting in the woods.

“When it comes here, I do my best to fix it and get it running. I don’t sell anything,” said Yeaw. “It’s not for profit. I’ll do this ’til I die.”

Yeaw, a mostly self-taught mechanic, takes the machines apart, replaces or adapts engine or other parts and gets the vast majority of his three-dozen lawn tractors to start up, idle and run with the pull of a lever.

“I’m just a shoemaker,” he said of his hit or miss mechanics. “All winter, I make it a point to stay in my garage. I make a list of things to do and I try to do them.”

’It Has to Have a

Resting Place’

Yeaw proudly points to his machines dotting his acreage. “Most of them run. Some are good lawn ornaments,” he laughed. “I try to keep them all running, but it’s a hell of a chore.”

He takes visitors past a vast front yard pocked with a 1932 McCormick-Deering tractor setting behind a 1936 McCormick-Deering Farmall tractor, to the left of a 1936 Silver King tractor, near a rare, free-standing Whippet radiator, year unknown.

“I save everything. I can’t throw anything away,” said Yeaw. “You can’t throw things away. It has to come here. It has to have a resting place.”

Yeaw is grateful for several assistants in assembling his museum. First and foremost is his patient wife, Linda, his jovial accomplice and enabler for some 33 years.

“It’s a two-sided coin because I get to do this,” said Linda, pointing to the gardenias and other colorful flowers she plants in the former rust buckets her husband has gathered. “You have to keep him happy. I can’t even tell you when this all started, but it’s been fun. We’ve gone to so many interesting places like Pennsylvania to buy stuff and we have people drop by our house to give us stuff.”

Shingle and Loving It

Yeaw and another friendly accomplice, the very tall and pointed Tom Boyden of nearby Foster, R.I. – who has amassed quite a heavy metal collection of his own, according to Yeaw – proudly point to something they were “given,” a Chase Shingle Mill, patented in 1889, from a woman that Yeaw still hasn’t officially met.

“A woman called me from Foster and said, ’My husband passed away and he always admired your place.’ People see the place and know I always save the junk and have an obsession with rust,” said Yeaw. “She said, ’We have this shingle mill and I think it will be a good start for you.’ ”

Yeaw wrote the woman and was invited to take a look at the family barn where the mill had once run.

“They ran the belt through the window and ran the mill out of the barn window and I had to cut the whole wall out of the shed to get at it,” said Yeaw. “I brought it here, but I actually never met the woman. I haven’t met her yet. We communicated by letter.”

Yeaw also gathered the “odd, assorted parts” strewn on the ground outside that barn, knowing he would have to figure out where they went to get the mill to operate again.

The shingle mill now runs on a 1930 Model A car engine and a 1928 or 1929 transmission. The engine has a “Caterpillar” shield over it, making it appear that that famous company made the motor.

“It drives Caterpillar people a little crazy,” laughed Yeaw. “They say, ’Caterpillar never made no engine like that!’ We get a kick out of fooling them.”

It took some doing, hit and miss mechanics and trial and error, but once Yeaw and Boyden figured out the timing of running the belt, the shingles have been perfectly formed, spitting out to the delight of audiences everywhere, from exhibits and demonstrations at the recent Northeast Rockbusters Association’s annual summer fair in Richmond, R.I., to the Woodstock, Conn., fair, to the upcoming Foster Old Home Days — events where Yeaw and Boyden proudly show off their impeccable, century-old working mill.

“Next year, I’m going to shingle the front of my garage with shingles I make,” said Yeaw.

“People say, ’How can it work?’ And we say, ’The same as it worked 100 years ago and the same as it would work 100 years from now,” added Boyden, who said that he plays “the mushroom,” to Yeaw’s “shoemaker.” “They made things better 50 to 100 years ago.”

The two men then walked to the most recent museum addition, a sawmill from the distant past.

“We’ve got it on rails,” said Boyden. “We could use a home trailer or a mobile home. Maybe you could ask your readers if they have some old mobile home to put it on, so we can put it on the frame rails, so it can be moved around the yard and potentially to a show. We need a long frame with two axles to hold it rigid, but allow it to move.”

Visions in the Night

Yeaw often gets “visions” or ideas at night, or in his dreams. Looking up, in the center of his museum yard, he said, “I had a vision one day, that I had to have a tractor on a pole.” Now he does.

There also is the draw cut hacksaw No. 2 holding up his mailboxes and the thin metal tractor wheel frames holding up his park bench. Scattered around the lawn are unusual, discarded fire hydrants taken from various construction job sites.

“If they’re neat, they’re mine,” Yeaw said. “I like to have people look at them and say, ’Geez, that’s something.’”

Yeaw said this as he walks among the vintage hay rake, the two corn choppers (“Is that a wood chipper?” “No.”) the “Little Plow” that folks just loved to see at the many, many tractor pulls over the decades, the potato planters, the chain saws sticking out of a bush like Alice in Wonderland flowers or something out of the Museum of Modern Art, and so many more hunks of former rust, now sharply painted, working iron.

Then Yeaw pointed to an imposing farming machine that he restored, whose purpose is a mystery.

“There was a fire in Foster and they were putting out the brush fire and I found this in the woods, and it was on fire, too. So, I brought it here and fixed it up,” he said. “Isn’t it a beauty?”

Another even more imposing machine with several sets of grinding metal teeth, use unknown, may have ground up wood or food or something else.

“I can only guess,” said Yeaw.

He sauntered past a 1950s washing machine in the front of his yard, now a stunning planter, decorated by his wife’s flowers.

“What do you do with a washing machine like this?” he asked. “Well, you can put flowers in there. You can do that. It’s a Maytag.”

He had a “fetish” for a windmill once, so … “I had to have a windmill. So, I contacted a guy in Omaha, Nebraska, who had four or five of them. He sent them here to me in parts and we put it together,” he said of his 38-foot-high, 1929 Monitor Windmill, which could still pump water if it had to.

The general public occasionally mystifies him more than any iron.

“People say to me, ’You let that tractor sit out there in the yard [rusting]?’ Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Yeaw. “How long had it been sitting out there in someone’s backyard before? How many years? Same thing. But now, at least people can see them, and most of them work.”

Ghosts on the Seats

Yeaw pointed to a horse-drawn grader and imagined the ghosts of farmers past in the empty seats. He sees where the two men would have sat to plow a line in a farm’s earth for seed.

“I can see them in my head, one who sat in back, one who stood in front, arguing, ’You didn’t grade that row right. It’s not straight,” said Yeaw.

“One must have been the shoemaker, the other, the mushroom,” added Boyden.

“I’m into having fun,” added the Shoemaker of his ever-growing museum. “Making it run and keeping it together. There’s a story with everything, you know.”

Anyone interested in Steve and Linda Yeaw’s Potterville Museum are welcome to visit most days at 241 Old Plainfield Pike, Scituate, R.I. CEG

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