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Tracing Tracy Territory

The history and future of a Vernalis tractor museum

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Yes, I get out and about on occasion these days, and it’s not only to golf courses. As many readers will recall, two weeks ago I reported on my visit to the Pebble Beach Golf Links for the U.S. Open Golf tournament.

But two other visits I’ve made recently have nothing to do with golf. Both have unique and interesting connections to agriculture.

First off, not far from Tracy near Vernalis, just south of Highway 132 on River Road, lies the Frank Bettencourt Memorial Museum. It has special standing as the largest collection of restored John Deere tractors outside of the John Deere Co.’s own collections.

Saturday was an active day at the museum. It was the second annual open house and barbecue fundraiser. Along with fellow Barista’s coffee-sippers Dave Kaiser and George Ayala, I arrived for a tour as preparations for the meal were underway.

Rich Bettencourt, whose father, the late Frank Bettencourt, established the museum in the 1980s, showed us around the heart of the museum: 35 restored John Deere tractors — mostly wheel tractors along with several crawlers. There is one Case wheel tractor.

The wheel tractors, normally parked inside a spacious steel farm shop building, were lined up outside to make room for dinner tables.

Dave, before retiring, farmed close by at the K&L Farms near the New Jerusalem Airport with brothers Ed and Steve Kaiser. He had a special interest in the restored tractors, several models of which he had used while growing row and tree crops.

George had been a heavy-equipment operator before he, too, retired, so the mechanics of the farm machinery were of interest to him.

Rich told us that his father started collecting and restoring the tractors in 1986 after retiring from active farming. His first restored John Deere was a 1927 Model D given him by a neighbor, Ed Maring. The collection was swelled in succeeding years mostly by donated tractors from nearby farming operations.

An exception was a purchased 1917 Waterloo Boy kerosene-powered tractor built at John Deere’s original tractor factory in Waterloo, Iowa.

With not-too-hot weather and a good crowd, Saturday’s open house and barbecue proved a success, Rich Bettencourt told me Monday.

“We had about 250 people here, and they all seemed to be having a good time,” he said. “The kids really liked climbing onto the tractors.”

Funds raised at the gathering will help finance purchase of the 1.46 acres of land where the museum is located. After Frank Bettencourt died in 2016, the museum’s tractors were donated by Rich and his two sisters to the Patterson Township Historical Society, but the land has remained in family ownership.

“A group of society members called ‘the Barnstormers’ are taking care of the tractors, making sure they remain in restored condition; every one still runs,” Rich said.

The museum is open to the public, and reservations by individuals or groups to see the tractor collection can be made by phoning Ken Herger of the Barnstormers at 681-2005.

There is no admission charge, but donations are accepted. In fact, any direct financial contributions can be arranged by calling the same number.

Several 4-H and FFA groups have visited the museum over the years, as have a number of tour groups. Last year, three busloads of Japanese tourists stopped at the museum.

“Visitors from abroad and out of the area are great, but we also want as many people in Patterson, Tracy and other nearby towns to know about the museum,” Rich said. “This is an important part of the farming history for this area.”

Next week, a visit to a unique winery with plenty of bubbles.

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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