THOMPSONVILLE, Ill. — The east edge of Thompsonville, right at the edge of town, is home to what some would spot and declare as derelicts resting in a field.
There's an Oliver, a Ford, a Massey-Ferguson and a few other varieties, but they aren't the most important objects in the field.
Important to owner Robert Parks are the pieces of farm machinery that give evidence of once having been painted a bright orange, the showpieces of the farm field: Allis-Chalmers.
They are resting in the field, awaiting the magic touch of Parks to send them back to farm fields.
Parks, now 81, has devoted much of his life to repairing Allis-Chalmers tractors and on many occasions, bringing back to life a tractor that had long been thought abandoned.
Parks suffered a devastatingly severe stroke about three years ago that set him back a bit in his restorations.
Shortly after the stroke, while recuperating in a nursing home, he had a goal of walking 10 feet. He met the goal.
"I am on my way back," he declares.
He has been able to take his walking from 10 feet to about 200 feet, he said.
"You have to have the willpower. You can't just sit around and wish it back," he says.
Along with pushing himself forward in recovery, he is continuing his interest in restoring tractors. In fact, he and his grandson, Matt Lee, have just completed a restoration and it now has the bright orange finish of Allis-Chalmers.
While Parks was not able to do much of the physical labor, he is proud he was able to paint the wheels of the restoration.
Making derelict tractors return to like-new condition has a been a source of satisfaction to him for about 60 years.
A journeyman mechanic, he has worked on the smallest Allis-Chalmers to some that are the monsters of the mining industry.
He recalls the day five tractors were delivered to his employer at the time, Amax Coal Company.
"They were so big, they had to be shipped in on freight cars and welded together," he says.
Once the monster machines were welded together and ready for use, the operator had to climb in front of the radiator to get to the cab.
"You would sit in the seat and there was a box with numbers," he recalls. Three numbers on three buttons at the left side.
"You would say 'I am a haul truck' and give the number, he recalls, with similar phrases for each number — apparently a method of timing for the start.
As he remembers, the vehicles also were equipped to detect an overload.
"If you overloaded it, it would not start," he said.
"I haul coal or rock," was another phrase before the pressing of a button.
"Then I would turn the key on and if I done right, I would hit the starter and it would start."
If there was an error, the operator would have to wait before trying again.
The procedure eliminated the possibility of a vandal starting the engine, Parks recalls.
While the mine's Allis-Chalmers equipment was impressive, Parks said he owes much of what he has done and much of his knowledge to a friend and long-time employer, Arthur Neal, "the Allis-Chalmers man for Benton."
Parks began repairing tractors for Neal in the 1950s.
When not working, Parks would take drives through the countryside looking for abandoned tractors and when he found one, he would negotiate its purchase and take it back to Thompsonville.
He has had as many as 50 tractors parked near his home, he said.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy," he said.
Tractor by tractor, derelicts became operating machines with new coats of A-C orange and, for the most part, they went back to the area's farm fields.
A few tractors may have made it into collections, he said. However, "Most of what I repaired, I sold for re-use.
"From the front bumper to the tail end, I've repaired everything on one."
While Allis-Chalmers as a company is out of business, you can still get parts, Parks said.
He points out Allis-Chalmers was environmentally friendly many years ago, putting out a "green" tractor with a bright orange propane tank that rested in front of the steering wheel.
The LPG model — one sits in the side yard at Thompsonville — was one of many variations on the D-17 Allis-Chalmers.
"For years, the D-17 was a real popular tractor," Parks says. "With 52.8 hp;, it would outdo anything that was around."
Even though there were many variations of the D-17, Parks says, "They didn't make one that I can't put back together.
And, Parks emphasized, all the credit goes to Neal.
"Without him, I wouldn't even have started," he says.
Allis-Chalmers has been a big part of the life of Parks, as has been his religious devotion.
He was a rough-and-tumble youth, he says.
Born in Thompsonville, "I've just about whipped every other boy here.
"My daddy said 'never run; stay and fight,' and I did."
Parks currently attends Little Chapel Church, located just north of Harrisburg. But Little Chapel is not his first church experience.
"Joe Harvey Kimmel came over to convince me to go to church," he recalls.
"I told him 'I don't even have a pair of slippers to wear.'"
Kimmel headed to Benton to buy dress shoes for Parks to wear and on his way back, made a stop at his own home.
"He brought me a Bible, King James version. It was his daddy's Bible; his daddy was a preacher.
"He took me to the Pleasant Hill Church."
Parks recalls continuing to attend the church with his family until one Sunday on the return from church, he pulled into the driveway and the family left the car.
He kept the car running and was thinking.
Suddenly, he started to back out, not knowing his wife had grabbed the door handle.
"She asked me what I was doing. I told her, 'I've got to go see the preacher.'"
Parks headed off to the home of Clifford Sullivan.
"I told the devil he was defeated. I was going back to Clifford's house," he said. "There I was saved. The devil almost got me; I was headed the wrong direction," he said.
"When I left Clifford's house, the day was the brightest day I've ever seen. The sun just shone so pretty," he recalls.