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Altamont Fair Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 12, 2010

Mattice makes old machines sing again

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Alton Mattice talks about old machines as if they were old friends. He knows them intimately and can coax them into action.

Now the superintendent of the Farm Machinery Building, Mattice, who is 55, started coming to the Altamont Fair when he was 10.

“My uncle used to show cows and I used to run the farm equipment with some of the old men from Gallupville many moons ago,” he said.

His grandfather, Nathaniel Mattice, “was a country boy,” and taught him about the old machinery, said Mattice. They used to scour the countryside together to find unused equipment, back before it was so rare, and bring it to the elder Mattice’s workshop to restore.

Now that Mattice has retired from his career with the railroad, working on derailments and repairing boxcars and freight cars, he’s returned to his first love — the Farm Machinery Building at the Altamont Fair.

“I want to re-live it again,” he said.

“The fair has a lot of rare old stuff, and it’s been kept under cover so it’s in great shape,” he said. “Anyone from young kids to old folks will like seeing these machines,” said Mattice.

Free souvenirs will be handed out to kids who come to see the Farm Machinery Building this year. White cedar, donated by Long Lumber in New Scotland, will be cut by an early 1900’s buzz saw into disks; each disk will be stenciled with a farm animal.

“We’ll make ’em right in front of the kids and hand them out,” said Mattice.

The display is educational as well as fun. “We’ve got a lot of teachers who videotape it and show it for lessons in school,” said Mattice.

The lessons of Mattice’s youth have stayed with him for a lifetime.

His hero is the late Gifford Mabie, an Altamont doctor who collected antique machinery. Mabie’s family donated the pieces to the fair after his death.

“He was my idol,” said Mattice. “He was in charge of running this stuff at the fair. I learned from him.”

Mattice named several others who have helped, in recent years, to keep the old farm machinery running, most notably Wayde Bush and Randy Mohler and his son, Wyatt.

Mattice himself has repaired many of the engines that will be on display next week. They range in size from a two-horsepower washing machine to a 32-horsepower irrigation pump.

Mattice recites its dimensions with pride in his voice: The 1912 pump has a six-ton engine; the flywheels on either side each weigh a ton and a half. The pistons are 12 inches long and have a 24-inch stroke. The connecting rod is five feet long. The machine is about 15 feet tall and 20 feet long.

The pump was originally used for irrigating a citrus farm in Florida. The draw of restoring such a huge old machine is what got Mattice back into antique engine repairs, he said. The project took him two-and-a-half years.

“I pull it on a dump truck,” said Mattice. “It’s worth coming to the fair just to see this run.”

Despite the machine’s massive size and power, Mattice stressed that fair-goers have nothing to fear. “It’s nice and quiet,” he said. “It won’t scare you. I’ve got it idled way down.”

Several of the displays in the Farm Machinery Building are groups of machines working together to complete projects the old-fashioned way. For example, there are machines to husk, shell, and grind corn. “They do everything to make it into chicken food,” said Mattice.

Mattice worked in the blazing heat on Monday, cutting logs and loading them into his truck.

“It was mighty hot,” he said, as temperatures soared to 90 degrees.

He’ll truck the logs to the fair. There, a belt-driven log saw from the early 20th Century will cut the tree trunks into foot-long pieces. That machine runs on a six horsepower Witte engine.

Once the logs are cut, they’ll be split by a 1900’s wood splitter, which Mattice totally rebuilt, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the fair’s International Harvester Upright.  It’s unusual, he said, because “the cylinders are straight up and down instead of horizontal.”

The machine is cooled by water pumped over a screen.

Wheat that was harvested on Settle’s Hill in Guilderland, on Everett Rau’s farm, with an 1885 reaper-binder will be threshed at the fair. (See related picture page.)

“I re-did the thresher; it has all new belts,” said Mattice. The thresher is a Campbell, made in Schoharie. “She’s a real old girl and just beautiful,” said Mattice. “When I linseeded her, all the original decorations came up clear.”

The thresher will be powered by an F-12 Farmall tractor from the early 1950s, which Mattice also rebuilt.

After the wheat is threshed, an antique machine will bail the stalks.

The hay press is run by a nine-horsepower Hercules, donated years ago by the Jimmy Gage family of Berne. It has a fly-wheel motor, which Mattice restored this year with a new magneto.

“It will probably go to a farm to use for bedding,” Mattice said of the straw’s final destination.

The Farm Machinery Building has been refurbished from top to bottom: Its roof is newly repainted, and it’s got 30 tons of new stone dust on its floor.

“We’ve still got a to-do list,” said Mattice the week before the fair opens.

Restoring an old engine is not a quick fix, he points out. “I have to have parts made,” he said. “It’s nothing you can go to the store to buy.”

Mattice carefully fashions each missing part out of wood, and sends the wooden models to a forger who works for a museum in Pennsylvania. “He casts it and makes it out of steel,” he said.

Mattice plans on being at the Farm Machinery Building every day of the fair and at all hours. “I don’t dare go away,” he said. “It can be dangerous. This machinery is unforgiving. If you get your hand in it, you lose it.”

He concluded, “I’ll get there at eight in the morning and leave at 11 o’clock at night….I love it.”

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