Making Photos in Farmall-Land
This article was originally published as a feature in the Ageless Iron section of Successful Farming magazine, where Lee Klancher is a regular contributor.
The magical museum that is Farmall-Land closed recently, so I started digging through my photo archive and realized I had made a lot of images at Jerry Mez’s red tractor palace over the years. I’d like to think I found most every good photo setting within five miles of Avoca, Iowa. I haven’t quite gotten to all of them—there is a grain operation downtown I believe could be gorgeous we never did use—but I’ve hit most of them.
The shoots with Jerry were one of the unexpected rewards of many years working in this hobby. The twinkle in Jerry’s eye was always a pleasure, and working with him and his machines regularly created special images and good times.
Perhaps one of my favorite Farmall-Land stories happened while Jerry was not present. Jerry enjoyed the results of the photo shoots and did most of the tractor driving and such for shoots we did in the early days. As time wore on, however, Jerry lost enthusiasm to sit still while I spent hours fiddling with lighting systems, adjusting angles, or waiting for the sun to rise or fall to just the right spot. He started making a running joke about how many images I would take to get just one shot. “Why does he take so many shots?” he liked to say. “Just take one and be done!”
Jerry also was almost pathologically neat. His tractors and his museum are spotless, and every time I had him drag machines out into fields, across ditches, and such, I think the potential for his babies to get dirty or scratched was a tad worrisome for him. This was especially true for his favorites.
So, during my last few shoots at Farmall-Land, Jerry would pop in to see what was going on, and then leave me to work. The photograph of Jerry’s 1256 used on the cover of the second edition of Red Tractors was one of those shoots. We made the photo at the end of a long day that started at sunrise, and Doug Hrbek, an officer from Nebraska IHCC Club, was helping me out, moving tractors, holding stands, and talking smart. Doug is always game for a tractor road trip and is a relentlessly good-natured soul. He’s also not too far from Farmall-Land, so he has road-tripped to Avoca to help out during shoots.
Doug and I were making the image on a farm near Farmall-Land that had a beautifully weathered old wooden barn, as well as some nice pastoral settings. During that shoot, Jerry called several times to ask if we were done. He was worried about his immaculate 1256—which was one of his favorite machines. He wanted it home as rain was forecast later in the evening. The idea of his sparkling machine sitting out in the rain no doubt gave him ulcers.
While Doug and I were scouting the site, I suggested we photograph the 1256 out under a tree in the pasture. Doug eyed up a deep, manure-filled mudhole the tractor would have to cross, and suggested I skip that spot as we would make an absolute mess out of Jerry’s pristine machine.
His eyes lit up, however, as this gave him an idea for a prank. A few hours later—after the shoot was done and it was after dark—Doug called Jerry’s cell phone.
“Jerry,” Doug said, “Do you have a nice big chain?”
“Yes,” Jerry said slowly. “I do.”
“Is one of the big tractors running?”
“Maybe . . . why?”
“Well, Lee wanted to photograph the 1256 under the tree in the cow pasture and when we drove it out there, it sunk right up to the axles.”
There was a long pause.
“Don’t worry,” Doug said. “I think with a good hard tug we can get it out without tearing off the front end.”
There was a longer pause.
Doug eventually explained that he was joking, and that he would put the 1256 tractor back in the shed that evening, before it rained. Jerry sighed with relief. And hung up.
While I know Jerry missed his museum as much or more as people will miss being able to visit the place, I suspect he didn't miss the worry and headaches of keeping his machines up to his high standards. Or, perhaps, worrying about his tractors being dragged Lord knows where by a well-meaning but at times over-zealous photographer!
He certainly made the red world a bit richer with his shrine to machinery, and I’m happy that I had the privilege to record some small portion of that with pixels and print.
This article was originally published before Jerry Mez passed away in September 2021. He is greatly missed, and left behind a legacy built with his dedication to machines, community, family, and kinship with those who shared his love of machines and history.