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The 1929 Travel Air 4000 N3977, now on display at the Heidrick, served many years as a crop duster in the fields around Lodi.  Originally manufactured as a passenger plane, the N3977 was purchased and retrofitted when the four Precissi brothers (Lou, Augie, Joe, and Frank) established the Precissi Flying Service in 1945. To preserve its important contribution to agricultural history, the N3977 is now owned by the California Agricultural Aircraft Association, which loaned it to the Heidrick.

As a crop duster, the N3977 was mainly used to apply sulfur, a fungicide that helped control powdery mildew and pests on Tokay grapes, popular table grapes before the Thompson seedless variety.  The N3977 was also used to dust tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and sugar beets – all common crops in the 1950s.

To load the hopper, located in front of the cockpit, the crew piped the contents of 100-pound bags of sulfur (see photo).  When loaded, the N3977 could carry a payload of about 1,000 pounds.  As the plane flew over the ag fields, the sulphur was air driven through the distributor on the bottom of the plane directly onto the fields.  A glass window in the front of the cockpit allowed the pilot to monitor the amount of material left in the hopper.


Because the N3977 carried a fairly small payload, the Precissi brothers set up many small air strips throughout the Lodi area so the plane could land and be reloaded during a job.  A flagger was responsible for calling each pass that the pilot made, working with the pilot to coordinate the exact placement of chemicals or seeds (see photo).  Together, the flagger and pilot took great care to avoid unwanted drift onto irrigation channels or adjacent properties and to protect any people in the vicinity.

Contemporary ag planes typically include a GPS* unit to guide the drop. Ag planes seeding rice, for example, may seed several varieties in close proximity, each carefully placed by the pilot, with the help of GPS.

*Global Positioning System

Notes:  Thanks to Don Precissi for his assistance with this article, the Yolo County Archives for photographs of H.H. Weggers Airplane Seeding and Dusting, and “Serving Agriculture from the Air, the Story of Precissi Flying Service,” The San Joaquin Historian, The San Joaquin County Historical Society, 1990, Vol. 4, No. 1.

The Hey Day of Hot Rods

Nearly 150 hot rods and muscle cars cruised into the museum on Saturday, April 5, to launch Hot Rods: Wheels in Fields. More than 1,200 guests marveled at the new exhibits created by So-Cal Speed Shop of Sacramento, as well as Gus Gustafson, Rich Cleland, Bruce Woodward, Joe Heidrick, the Tuesday Volunteer Crew, and our dedicated staff and volunteers.  So-Cal Speed Shop of Sacramento engineered a historical replica of a garage and air tower like those found on rural properties during the 1930s and 1940s where amateur mechanics created hot rods. These high-performance customized cars reflect the qualities of innovation, resourcefulness, and independence we associate with the culture of agriculture. 

New cars were too expensive for many people during the Great Depression, so young car enthusiasts refurbished old cars rescued from junk yards, often swapping out engines, transmissions, and other components.  Innovations led to distinctive cars with more powerful engines and other improvements. 

Hot-rodding stalled with the outbreak of World War II, however, when many young men were drafted into the armed forces.  Gasoline was rationed and auto and tractor manufacturers turned from making peacetime vehicles to assembling tanks and warplanes. 

By 1946, decommissioned young men coming back from overseas brought the mechanical skills they had gained during the war, and returned to souping up cars in abandoned hangers.  Roadsters were all the rage, and by the late 1940s hot rods were popular.  1946-1949 is now considered the hey day of hot rods. 

See magnificent examples of this legacy at the Hot Rods: Wheels in Fields exhibit in the Heidrick Ag History Center. The East Wing is open to tours only so be sure to call in advance.  Watch for more surprises at the Heidrick Ag History Center!

From Gow Jobs to Hot Rods

When is a hot rod not a hot rod? When it was built in the 1920s and 1930s.  At that time, a hot rod was called a “hop-up,” “soup-up,” or  “gow job” (from “gowed up,” meaning intoxicated).1  The typical gow job started from a Ford 4-cylinder Model A (1928-32) or Model B (1932-34) that had been stripped down and performance enhanced for speed.  As one hot rod enthusiast notes, “Hot rods are built to burn rubber.”2

A Model A’s top speed was 55 to 60 mph.  To increase this top limit, a gow job mechanic would remove anything unnessary – fenders, bumpers, windows – to improve the power to weight ratio.  The roof could also be lowered or the windshield removed. 

The real action was under the hood (if it still existed). The mechanic intent on speed could choose specialty parts from a variety of SoCal manufacturers.  Stripped down, souped up, a Model A or B could go 80-90 mph, with the fastest cars topping 100 mph.3 

Farmers with a talent for mechanical ingenuity took their souped up cars out on country roads to race.  Later, meets were held at dry lakes where the cars could really be opened up and safety was less of a concern.  One of the earliest timed dry lake meets was held at Muroc Lake, Kern County (now part of Edwards Air Force Base) in 1931.  By 1938, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) was operating time trial meets, and over 300 racers participated at Muroc Lake.4

Hot rodding still attracts numerous car club enthusiasts throughout California, and the SCTA still holds land speed trials at Bonneville Flats, Utah, where some of the fastest .

 See a slice of Hot Rod history at the new exhibit

HOT RODS: Wheels in Fields

 Sponsored by 

 1 Gow was derived from “yao-kao” – Cantonese for opium. 2 Vincent, Peter, Hot Rod An American Original, 2001, MBI Publishing, St. Paul, MN.        3Montgomery, Don, Hot Rods As they Were, 1989, AM Graphics, San Marcos, CA. 4 Vincent.vehicles in the world come to make their mark on history. 

The Russell Steamer, Adding the Finishing Touch (3 of 3)

In blog post No. 2, it was noted that the water tank and fuel storage bin at the rear of the Russell Steamer were fabricated as part of the restoration process.  As a finishing touch, the Russell & Company trademark, with its characteristic snorting bull and the words, The Boss, were painted on each bin.  The images were signed by Roy Martinez.*

The company went through several name changes before it was ultimately dubbed Russell & Company in 1878.  Likewise, the Russell & Company trademark went through several permutations.  Roy Martinez’ version was based on an image on page 51 of the August 1915 issue of The American Thresherman and Farm Power.

Roy Martinez’ version is similar in many respects to the beautiful Russell & Company trademark displayed as a water tank decal on the National Russell Collectors Association website.  The snorting bull and The Boss are recognizably similar.  However, there are at least a half dozen (or more) differences between the two trademark images. 

How many differences can you find?  The person who identifies the greatest number of differences will win a prize from the Museum!**

The Russell & Company trademark, interpreted by Roy Martinez

The Russell & Company trademark, courtesy National Russell Collectors Association

 *Who was Roy Martinez?  If you know, please comment on this blog post.  **Please note – differences in the pastoral background scene count as one difference.

The Russell Steamer, a Feat of Restoration (2 of 3)

The Russell Steamer on view at the Heidrick Ag History Center today was the result of years of painstaking restoration. Fred Heidrick acquired it in the 1960s, and he and Joe Heidrick took the faded hulk and turned it into a gem.  Their efforts combined careful research, fine craftsmanship, and a penchant for detail to create a fully operational, restored steam traction engine.

The steamer was mostly intact when purchased.  A photo taken around the time of the 1967 state fair shows Fred at the controls.  A photo of Celeste Burnham, State Fair Model, cheerfully perched atop the steamer, also gives a good sense of its condition prior to restoration.

Several important parts were missing, however, including a shade canopy and water and fuel bins on either side of the rear platform. The steamer also lacked the Russell trademark with its characteristic snorting bull. Documents in the Heidrick archives reveal the meticulous care that was lavished on restoration projects. A letter dated July 28, 1970 to Mr. Neil McClure of Colchester, Illinois, requests photos to identify “…the spacing of the rivets on the fuel storage bins and water tanks, the [tank] measurements and other pertinent details…” A hand-drawn diagram (shown below) details the replacement tanks that were to be fabricated.

Similar attention was given to replicating the original paint colors:  black for the body; red for the flywheel, nose, and parts of the engine; yellow for the wheels, and silver for the smokestack. The desired location of each color was carefully drawn on a diagram of the steamer before it was painted.  Gold and silver trim were added for a decorative flair. The finishing touch was the handpainted Russell trademark on the water tanks (the subject of Blog 3).

The steamer was restored to operational condition, but has not been fired up for many years.  Help us bring this remarkable piece of machinery back to life by making a donation for reconditioning.  Visit our website at and select the Russell Steamer option in the drop-down menu.


Russell Steamer (1 of 3)

If you’re curious about early tractors, consider the steam traction engines or “steamers.”  At the turn of the 20th century, steam vied with draft animals as the primary source of agricultural power. Steam traction engines were used to pull ag machinery such as combines or harvesters (hence the term “traction”) or could also be driven into the fields to power drive belts for ag equipment.  The 1915 Russell Steamer on display at the museum is connected by a drive belt (see photo left) to a Waterloo thresher. 

The Museum’s Russell Steamer was manufactured by Russell and Company in Massillon, Ohio.  It is 18 feet long, weighs 17,350 pounds, and moves at the glacial pace of 2.1 miles per hour.  The steamer is powered by a standard boiler that can run on wood, coal, or straw.  Fuel could be stored in the tank on the right rear  side. 

Russell steam traction engines were not known for their innovative design, but for their ease of use and maintenance.  All moving parts were located in plain sight and were accessible to the lay mechanic.  This made it simple for a farmer to adjust and repair a steamer using ordinary tools. 

Like any vehicle, the Russell Steamer needs regular attention to keep it in good running order, and we plan to recondition it in 2014.  Once reconditioning is complete, you’ll be able to see it in operation at the Museum in all its noisy, smoky glory. 

Won’t you help us bring this remarkable piece of machinery back to life?  Consider making a donation today!  Simply visit our website at and select the Russell Steamer option in the drop-down menu to contribute to the care and maintenance of this historical marvel. 



Help Us Restore the 1917 White Truck

The Museum is restoring a WWI-era commercial truck and we need your help!  This beautiful cherry red, “C-cab” commercial truck just needs some finishing touches before we can add it to our  ever-growing transportation collection.  In addition to a few mechanical adjustments, the White truck needs solid core tires and rear wheels that fit.  Would you like to adopt the White truck?  Make an on-line donation at and select “White Truck” in the drop down menu.  We’ll post updates as the restoration proceeds.


Why did Holt Manufacturing name their early tractors “caterpillars”?

Learn the answer and hear other stories about agriculture history and the Heidrick Ag History Museum’s collection by activating the Guide by Cell tour during your visit.  When you see the blue Guide by Cell symbol, simply use your cell phone to call the number provided and follow the instructions to select the story you want to hear.

Each Guide by Cell story uses historical vignettes and tantalizing detail to provide in-depth information about select items from our collection. For example, hear about the invention of the self-laying track or how WWI changed the tractor industry. All stories are available in Spanish or English.  The visually impaired will find that it can enhance their enjoyment of the Museum. 

We are always looking for ways to improve the accessibility, comfort, and convenience of the Heidrick Museum, and we welcome your suggestions.  To give us suggestions via Guide by Cell, simply select “0”, followed by the “#” sign to record your comment.  Or if you prefer, drop a written comment in the suggestion box in the front reception area after your visit.