How one couple transformed a turn-of-the-century cattle farm into a shrine to streamlined style.
Four years ago, Diane Flis-Schneider and her husband, Chuck Schneider, bought the farm – literally.
“We purchased everything – rusty farming equipment, 30 head of Scottish highland cattle, all the furniture in the house, the hay in the barns, even the cats,” Diane says. For the next year, fixing up the 240-acre spread outside the tiny town of Hadley, Michigan, pretty much swallowed the newly retired couple whole. A construction crew was on the scene. Painters, pavers and rattling cement trucks were coming and going. Locals began to worry that a new housing development was going in.
And then the train arrived – a genuine caboose. A team offloaded it on the hill beyond the white horse fence now surrounding the property, just through the wrought iron gate with the words “Stonegate Farm.”
What were they up to?
Sixteen years ago, after meeting at the National Street Rod Association’s Nats North event in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the couple became regulars at every major classic car show.
They shared a love for the sweeping lines and functional elegance of the Machine Age. This post-Depression, art deco–inspired industrial movement produced now-rare and extremely sought-after collector cars and trucks, such as the 1937 Hudson Terraplane “Big Boy,” 1937 Studebaker Coupe Express Airflow sedan, 1935 Delage D8 85 and 1940 Fleetwood Convertible Coupe, which all now have a place in Diane and Chuck’s jaw-dropping collection.
The couple soon channeled this passion for the old fashion into the opening of a bed-and-breakfast-style conference center with 12 bedrooms that each featured a different theme, showcasing a dizzying array of collectibles.
Then, in 2005, they unceremoniously got out of the B&B business. Selling the conference center meant they needed a unique and fitting place to showcase all their treasures – not to mention a growing fleet of classics, which included more than 15 cars and trucks, a handful of vintage travel trailers, and an astounding collection of 45 tractors.
The farm was another in a long line of lucky finds for Chuck and Diane – maybe even their greatest acquisition and restoration project yet.
Even before the renovation crews were hard at work pounding nails and slinging red paint, Chuck and Diane were busy seeking out and restoring some of the most rare orchard tractors in America.
“We do business the old-fashioned way,” Diane says. “We like to meet the people, so we seldom buy at auctions. It’s all word of mouth or through ads in club magazines.”
She adds that sometimes people simply call to say they have an old tractor they want to go to a good home. “One time, at a show in Colorado, we met a guy through another collector and ended up in Nebraska,” Diane says. “We wound up looking at tractors and trucks for two days, going into barns that hadn’t been unlocked in years.”
By the time the construction crews were finished and packing up their tools, Diane and Chuck had grown their amazing collection to roughly 90 orchard tractors alone – a stunning display of models from Silver King, Oliver, John Deere, Moline and more.
They now own 140 tractors in all (believed to be the largest private collection of orchard tractors in America). Orchard tractors comprise most of the 74 that are completely restored. “Our goal has always been to own every make and model of orchard tractor made prior to the peak of the 1950s,” Diane says.
By their account, they only need a handful of orchard tractor models to complete their collection – tractors like the Waterloo Boy by John Deere, a rare Huber B and the Moline Jet Star.
“We think we only need six, but seem to always find out about a new make and model we didn’t know existed,” Diane says. “Like the Rumley Oil-Pull that we didn’t know about until we stumbled upon a brochure at an auction last year.” With the help of a friend, the couple recently found one in Indiana and set about having it restored.
BETTER THAN FACTORY
These days, near constant flows of orchard tractor enthusiasts make a pilgrimage to Stonegate Farm. Some just want to see the massive collection that fills the three big red barns on the property. Others come with their notebooks and cameras, looking to put the finishing touches on their own restoration projects.
“You never find an orchard tractor in complete condition,” Diane says. “The very things that make orchard tractors so coveted and unique looking – namely those fenders over the tires and a steering column shield designed to deflect branches – are what farmers typically took off and tossed in the scrap pile the first time they had to replace the bearings or fix a blown tire.”
She adds that every person has a different definition of restored. “Ours is better than factory,” Diane says.
While it can be a relatively inexpensive collector hobby to get into, Diane says classic tractors are becoming more popular. “Not only farmers and the children of farmers are collecting anymore,” she adds. “Shows and auctions are beginning to attract big money, white-collar buyers, which – at a recent show in Illinois – resulted in a vintage model Case selling for more than $400,000.”
PUMPS, SIGNS AND NEON
Stepping through the door of the barn at Stonegate Farm, visitors are immediately hit with a funky glow of neon gleaming off the chrome bumpers, grilles, mirror-polished doors and hoods of dozens of shiny vintage cars and trucks.
Overhead the hot light pulses from scores of rare, two-sided tractor dealer signs. The sheer volume of stuff – car-related antiques and automobilia occupying every square inch of wall, floor and ceiling space – renders most guests either speechless or playfully incredulous.
“Everybody says either ‘whoa’ or ‘why,’” says Diane, pointing out the far walls where glass cases contain hundreds of die-cast model cars and trucks, board games, record albums, and car-related magazines and books. Not one, but two 1930s-era bars are set up along the perimeter, fully stocked and totally restored. Old gas pumps are scattered around the floor, and vintage metal gas station signs advertise everything from Coca-Cola to Red Man chewing tobacco.
Diane has a story for everything in the room. There’s the vintage 1932 custom travel trailer that she and Chuck bought in near mint condition from the one-time chauffeur of a wealthy Canadian dairy owner. And the 1946 Minneapolis Moline Z she plans on driving across Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge this year at the annual antique tractor crossing.
There were only 100 Moline UDLX tractors ever made, and they have two on display – plus an even more sought-after Moline UTLX Open. There’s a 1946 Hudson pickup, a 1957 Dodge Sweptside D100 and a 1934 Chrysler Airflow.
“We own the only Plymouth orchard tractor in existence and a Sheppard Diesel, one of only 12 ever made,” Diane says.
But why the devotion? “For me, the fun is sharing this all with people,” she says, adding that the only thing better than helping preserve history is listening to people’s stories whenever they walk the floor of Stonegate Farm.
For Diane and Chuck, buying the farm came with a few perks – and treasures without end.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.