While modern tractors boast space-age technology, air-conditioned cabs and incredible power, steam-powered tractors built over a century ago can still capture hearts.
- A group of volunteers in northern Tasmania helps preserve one of the largest collection of steam-powered tractors in the southern hemisphere
- They recently restored a 1926 Aveling and Porter steam engine, which cost $100,000 and took two years
- The family behind the collection has set up an exhibition celebrating women on the land
In Westbury, in Tasmania’s north, a diverse group of volunteers maintains one of the largest collections in the Southern Hemisphere.
At Pearn’s Steam World, they are all united by a love of steam.
“It’s just the smell and the motion and the people that I love,” said steam enthusiast Paivi Sims.
“And it’s really good for mental health because you feel like you’ve achieved something.”
Steam engines are relics from a time when life was slower.
It takes about two hours to safely fire up the old boilers to prevent damaging the tractor.
It’s no surprise that steam power was readily superseded by diesel after World War II, and many engines were used for scrap metal.
But Tasmanian brothers John, Verdun and Zenith Pearn refused to let their precious machines be dismantled.
Westbury Preservation Society secretary Robert Hill said they were third-generation harvest contractors and obsessed with engineering and machinery.
“They were like magpies,” Mr Hill said.
“They ended up with a vast collection.”
The collection was first displayed in the 1980s at the old Westbury Saleyards which were refashioned into Pearn’s Steam World.
In 2002, it was signed over to the Westbury Preservation Society, which now runs the museum.
Volunteers tinker with the machines in the onsite workshop.
For some precious engines, expert help is sought.
A recent highlight is the restoration of a 1926 Aveling and Porter engine.
It cost well over $100,000 and took two years to bring back to life.
Boilermaker and welder Michael Howe was responsible for the restoration and loved being part of it.
He had the enviable task of driving the Aveling and Porter for its debut at the museum’s recent open day, called a Steam Up.
“I wish I was born 100 years ago and had this as my full-time job,” Mr Howe said.
“It’s the joy of sharing it with people.
“And that’s what it’s about, seeding the disease in the next generation.”
Telling an untold story
Alongside the story of progress in machinery is a parallel but invisible story about the enduring role of women on the land.
In the museum established by their father and his brothers, Pearn sisters Jean Weeding, Anne Heazlwood and Ruth Paterson have set up an exhibition about rural women.
“Women have always contributed to life on the land,” Ms Paterson said.
“And we thought when she died, it was really important that we recognise her contribution.”
Until 1994, the legal status for women on farms in Tasmania was “sleeping partner, non-productive”
But Ms Paterson’s great-grand-mother, Edith Pearn, was a pioneer.
“In the late 1890s, Edith and her husband, John, bought a steam engine and went agricultural contracting,” Ms Paterson said.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.