Tag Archives: Heidrick


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 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 https://www.aghistory.org/support-us/donate/ and select the Russell Steamer option in the drop-down menu.