A Vision on the Plains
Barrel west on Highway 80 until the forested bluffs of eastern Iowa give way to a rolling billiard table of farm fields and the radio stations dwindle to country, gospel and classic rock and you’ll find the small town of Avoca. The home of 1,582 souls is a farming community in Iowa’s southwestern corner that lays claim to a weekly newspaper, a Dollar General, actor Richard Beymer (Twin Peaks), and the nicest Motel 6 in America.
Jerry Mez has spent most of his life in Avoca, and left only to study business at Midland College in Nebraska and to put two years in the Army, most of which he spent in Korea. Those brief stints away from the farm fields and familiar faces on Main Street offered little that attracted Mez. He wanted to do one thing with his life, and it had nothing to do with leaving Avoca.
His father, Max Mez, had been a school teacher in Bendena, Kansas before moving to Avoca to found Avoca Implement in 1943. Jerry was three years old at the time. By the time he was five, Jerry was sweeping floors in the dealership. By the time he was eight, he was driving a tractor downtown to get the mail (something which the local police eventually forbade).
The collection of machines was amassed during Mez’ 40-year career at Avoca Implement. He bought machines that seemed interesting, and had his crew at the shop do the mechanical restoration during downtime. Lee Klancher
“I was raised in it, and I lived that life with Dad,” Mez said. “I didn’t have a lot of trouble knowing what I wanted to do. I can’t even remember thinking about anything else.”
What he wanted to do was live in Avocoa and work in the tractor dealership. But there were some things Jerry needed to do before he followed his path.
Shortly after college, Mez married his wife, Joyce. He was drafted into the Army, and had to leave his wife, Avoca and the dealership. Which was hard—all Jerry wanted to do was work at his father’s International Harvester dealership in Iowa and spent time with Joyce.
He put in two years in service, with 13 months of that in Korea. When he came back from his military service in 1965, that’s exactly what he did. Not long after coming home, he went to work at Avoca Implement.
Shortly before Jerry returned, the dealership’s bookkeeper suddenly quit. The result was chaos. Max never had taken the time to learn the books, and trying to sort them out was a nightmare.
So when Jerry went to work at the dealership, Max made sure his son learned the books. He passed on a hard-earned lesson by making Jerry’s first job to be serving as the company bookkeeper.
After Mez put his time in as the company bookkeeper, he took over as the shop foreman, a position he held from 1965 to 2005. He managed the shop as well as the sales force.
“I liked the shop,” Mez said. “That’s where I started and that’s where I finished.”
Not long after Mez came back from the military, a customer brought the dealership an unusual trade-in. The farmer had five Farmall F-20s. He used them on his farm, and kept each one hooked up to a different implement. He wanted to trade in the entire fleet since he was retiring. Since the machines had each been used for only one purpose, the tractors were in great condition.
Farmall-Land USA is owned by Jerry and Joyce Mez, who ran two area implement dealers for many years. The couple maintains the museum with help from 14 locals who staff the building and keep the tractors spotless. The museum gets about 5,000 visitors each year, and has had people travel from around the world to see the collection. Lee Klancher
Max Mez hadn’t seen anything like this in his 20 years at the dealership.
“Dad suggested to me that I should keep a couple of those tractors just to remind me what he used to sell and what it was like when I first came back,” Mez said. “That’s what started it.”
From that day forward, when an interesting trade came in, Mez stashed it away. He started having his shop guys restore the machines when they had free time. Iowa farmers tend to work in flurries. The planting season in the spring is intense for them, with farmers working long hours to get the crops in once the weather permits.
The same is true during harvest season in the fall. When the local farmers worked their machines hard, the guys in the shop logged long hours fixing equipment that needed to be back in the field as soon as possible.
In the mid-summer and during the long cold winter, the farmers weren’t working their machinery as hard and things were quiet at the dealership. During those down times, Mez put his crew to work fixing his vintage tractors. The guys in the shop would do the mechanical work and paint preparation. Mez would spend his evenings and weekends painting.
“I probably painted 30 or 35 of them,” Mez said. “I could go down and spend a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon and complete a paint job.”
He eventually ceded most of the painting to a professional who does the paint. As the years passed, the collection grew and grew.
The first few machines were stowed away in the dealership. As Mez gathered a few more, he started borrowing nooks and crannies in sheds and warehouses from friends and neighbors.
“It got worse in later years,” Mez said. “It wasn’t bad when you had 20, but when you had 100 it was hard.”
The seed for the museum was planted back in that era. Mez knew he wanted to display the tractors at some point, and he would joke with the staff that when they all retired, they would work in his tractor museum. When a prime piece of real estate just off Interstate 80 became available, Mez picked it up. The site was several acres in size, and sat on top of the hill with a nice view of the farmland below.
In 2005, Mez had Avoca Implement and Greenfield Implement, which is about 60 miles east of Avoca. He sold both dealerships to Titan Machinery, and immediately started work on his museum.
The museum opened in 2006, and Mez added an addition in 2007 and a wing to the back in 2009. The back of the museum is a 30x30 restoration shop.
The museum is a 26,500 square-foot metal building filled with more than 150 International and Farmall tractors as well as thousands of bits of memorabilia, including pedal tractors, toys, literature, pulling tractors, and more.
The large metal building dominates the lot with size, but the true impact of the museum hits you once you step through the two front doors. Inside, the vast interior is open and undivided, filled with row after row of gleaming International tractors.
The tractors are carefully grouped by era and type, with neat placards in front of the rarer machines. Most of the tractors are restored and gleaming, with a few unrestored machines wearing battered paint and rust.
The number of machines is remarkable, and the scope of the collection is astounding. The tractors are from the entire range of IH history, with an early 1917 Mogul 8-16 up to the last tractors produced by IHC. A large number of high-crop, propane and other rare models rest on the floor. A large memorabilia collection is placed throughout the space, grouped into display cases and shelves. A small lounge on one side houses a collection of dolls and NASCAR memorabilia, along with some couches and chairs so visitors can take a load off their feet.
The main portion of the museum was built in 2005, and an addition was added in 2009. Lee Klancher
Equally incredible is the lack of as much as a tiny speck of dust. The tractors and collectibles are immaculate.
The museum uses a special dust collection system, and the building was designed with double doors so that dust from the Iowa prairie can’t blow in. The team of local people who work at Farmall-Land USA go over the machines with a feather duster on a regular basis.
The crew includes Jackie and Merlin Jensen, a couple that worked for the dealership for many years. Merlin and Jerry grew up together in the same town, and worked across the street from each other.
They had been friends as long as they could remember. When Merlin retired from the phone company at age 56, he was looking for something to keep him occupied. His wife was off in the summer as she works in the school in Harlan, so the two took a job helping out at Avoca Implement.
“We were known as the ‘gophers,’” Jackie said. “We only worked during harvest and planting time. We moved parts between the two dealerships, and took parts out to the fields when needed.”
They did that work for about 10 years, and enjoyed it.
“When Jerry built the first part of the museum,” Jackie said. “He asked if we would like to take care of the museum. ‘Oh sure,’ we said ‘We’d be glad to do that.’”
So Jackie and Merlin now are part of the 16-member team of people that staffs, cleans and cares for the museum. “Everybody that works there is a friend of Jerry or Joyce’s,” Jackie said. The group either worked for Jerry at the dealership, were customers of the dealership, or are old friends.
“We always tease him that he’s the owner of our museum,” Jackie said. “We like the museum so much that we kind of claim it.”
One of the remarkable results of the staff’s attention to detail is that the place is so clean you could eat off the floor. The building uses double doors so dirt can’t get in, and a built-in vacuum system that draws up dirt during cleaning. But most of that is the result of pride and hard work.
Whoever opens up the place in the morning does a little cleaning and dusting.
“We don’t dust all the tractors every day,” Jackie said modestly. Perhaps, but judging from the condition of Farmall-Land, they do most of the tractors most days. The machines are spotless.
While Jerry isn’t at the museum every day, he’s there most of them. He likes to stop out and talk tractors with visitors. He still does his own mowing, and Jackie reported he pushes a broom around a fair amount as well.
Jerry was pushing a broom in a dealership when he was five years old. Its no surprise that he’s still doing it, in his shrine to red tractors and loving the life that landed right there in front of him.
Keep reading to see more photos of Farmall-Land. You can also see more of Jerry's collection in the Farmall Calendar series, as well as IH history books like Red Tractors 1958-2013.
This elevated tractor stands just outside the museum, and is visible from the road in front of the museum. Farmall-Land USA is located in far western Iowa, just a few hundred yards off of Interstate 80. Lee Klancher
This super high-crop is a custom machine that Mez purchased for the collection. Custom-built, got it out of NE Nebraska. It’s used to pull three small grain drills to plant winter wheat in standing corn. I understand there were several in that area. The wheels are custom built by a machine shop. Bought from Massena, Iowa collector. Lee Klancher
The museum is packed with collectibles, and Jerry continues to find new items. Lee Klancher
The collection of memorabilia is broad and interesting, and includes a large selection of more than 1100 toys. Mez is always on the hunt for something new. Lee Klancher
Mez’ father, Max, started Avoca Implement in 1943. The family has been in the area since that time, and also operated another dealership in Greenfield, Iowa. Lee Klancher
Mez has a large number of machines from the 1960s and 1970s, including these V-8-powered machines, a 1468 and 1568. Lee Klancher
The collection is mainly farm tractors, but a few IH trucks are included as well. The Scout came from Seattle, Washington, was owned by Jerry’s sister, Janet. She bought it new at Avoca Implement in the early 1970s and was in Seattle until 2005. He has two fire trucks retired from city of Avoca, sold by Mez to the city. Lee Klancher
The scope and quantity of the machines in this collection are nearly unrivaled in the world of IHC tractor collecting. Serious enthusiasts can spend several days in the facility. Lee Klancher
The 4100 and 1962 4300 are two rare machines in the collection. The 4300 is one of 36 built, and is powered by an 817-cubic-inch 200-horsepower engine. Lee Klancher
The 4300 is particularly rare because most of the machines were used hard by construction companies. Very few survive today. Lee Klancher
The collection has four 1206s, including a 1966 model that was originally sold by Max Mez at Avoca Implement. Jerry bought it back from the original owner in 1988. The 1206 is Jerry’s favorite model in the collection, which is why he has four of those. Lee Klancher
Farmall-Land USA features a replica 1066 of the original 5 millionth tractor. Lee Klancher
This 72x130-foot back room was built in 2009 to accommodate about 50 tractors and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia. Lee Klancher
The Mez family was heavily involved in tractor pulling, and the dealership’s modified lawn tractors were particularly successful. The engines are modified Kohler 16-horsepower single cylinder developing more than 50 horsepower. The engines were built by Carl Brandt from Illinois. The engines ran on nitro-methane and alcohol. The kids did the driving when they were 10 and 12 years ago. Lee Klancher
This sign is from the 1960s. It was bought at an auction and needed to have all the neon replaced. Now it's hanging happily in the back room of Farmall-Land. Lee Klancher
The back room is also home for a few of the International Harvester line of freezers and refrigerators. A collection of tractor-related prints and paintings by Charles Freitag and others hang on the walls throughout the museum. Lee Klancher
Most of the tractors on the floor are stock, restored examples. This modified pulling tractor is one exception. The flashy paint is applied by Pudge. “He lives up in Harland, nickname is Pudge.” Mez wasn’t even sure of his real name, and you certainly won’t find Pudge’s business on the Web. In Avoca, Iowa, you don’t need more than a nickname and good work to get by. Lee Klancher
Farmall-Land USA occasionally brings in tractors on loan to display. These two are the first 1924 Farmall Regular sold to the general public, serial number QC503, and the last International Harvester tractor produced, a model 5488 that was built by the Farmall plant in East Moline, Illinois on May 14, 1984. Both tractors are on loan from CNH (Case New Holland). Lee Klancher
The facility is a 26,500 square-foot metal building that is heated and air conditioned. Farmall-Land USA is open Tuesday through Sunday April through October, and available for visits by advance appointment at other times. Lee Klancher
The back side of the museum is surrounded by corn fields and the open space of Iowa farmland. Lee Klancher