NEWCASTLE, Neb. | Anyone who thinks they've seen it all when it comes to tractor-related toys, collectibles and knickknacks hasn't met Gene Blatchford.
Most of us are familiar with mailboxes tricked out to look like tractors. You can buy clocks, drapes, coffee cups and just about anything else that sports images of tractors.
Few of those items match Blatchford's creations for creativity and quality.
For the past couple years, he's spent hours in the shop behind his Newcastle home turning old sewing machines into replicas of tractors.
At first glance, it's hard to tell that the tractors sitting in Blatchford's kitchen were once household implements. It's a common reaction Blatchford gets when showing his creations at area craft shows. Most people, he said, have never seen such a thing.
"A lot of times they don't even recognize it as being a sewing machine," Blatchford said. "They can't believe how much it looks like a tractor."
The resemblance, especially after Blatchford adds wheels and re-creations of brand-specific seats and fenders, topped off with fresh paint and decals, is nearly spot on. He'd never seen such a thing himself until coming across one at a craft show in Spencer, Iowa, two or three years ago. As a former farmer, he was intrigued.
"It looked just like a tractor, and my wife said, 'you could do one of those couldn't you?' The shape of the sewing machine looks so much like a tractor that I thought I'd try it," Blatchford said.
Once he got an old sewing machine, it took him three or four days to turn it into a tractor. He's since made about 35 of them, getting ideas from similar creations he's seen on Facebook and Pinterest. Blatchford has sold many of his tractors at craft shows. He'll also make specific models upon request.
He just needs the right sewing machine. Each machine looks a bit different, he said, just like tractors do.
"I go by the shape of it to decide what kind of tractor it would make the best," he said.
It takes about 15 hours to transform a sewing machine into a tractor. After taking off the base and turning it around, Blatchford adds frames for the wheels. He uses lawnmower wheels for the tractor's back wheels. Wheels from baby strollers make good front wheels. Fenders are cut and shaped from flat metal. Seats are made from flat metal or old spoons. A sewing machine motor can be reattached to the frame to look like a tractor engine.
Blatchford leaves on as much of the sewing machine's chrome and other dials as possible to add character to the tractor. The sewing machine's hand wheel serves as the tractor's steering wheel. After painting the tractor, Blatchford affixes authentic-looking decals he buys from a South Sioux City print shop.
Unlike many farmers, Blatchford isn't partial to any specific tractor brand. He's got John Deere, Farmall, Oliver, Ford and Allis-Chalmers replicas sitting in his kitchen.
That love of tractors comes naturally, as does Blatchford's skill for working with his hands. He farmed half his life, he said, then was a school custodian before teaching industrial arts at Newcastle High School until the district consolidated with Hartington in 2014. He needed something to do during his retirement.
"I've always got to be doing something. I don't like to be sitting around," he said. "I like to work with my hands."
That's obvious. Sculptures he's made out of scrap metal decorate his yard. He also makes jewelry out of old pieces of silverware. In the winter, when it's too cold to work in his shop, he carves wood.
He also tinkers with real tractors, too. In the same shop in which you'll find a number of old sewing machines awaiting their transformation into replica tractors are four antique tractors -- a John Deere 60, Farmall H, Allis-Chalmers C and Ford 2N -- Blatchford has restored and drives in parades.
Those real tractors are getting harder to come by. But with a steady supply of sewing machines to be found at rummage sales, antique stores and Goodwill, Blatchford should have no problem staying busy for the foreseeable future, or "as long as my health keeps up."
For the tractor and memorabilia collectors out there, here's hoping for Blatchford's good health. There's more than enough commercially made tractor-related stuff out there. But a unique, hand-made replica is something to be valued as much as a dependable tractor.
LE MARS, Iowa | Legal action is forthcoming, as the wide differences between Woodbury County and two other counties in a regional mental health services entity continue to fester.
The chasm between Woodbury County on one hand and Sioux and Plymouth counties on the other side was in full display Monday during a meeting of the Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services Board.
The push by Woodbury County elected officials to not only leave the Sioux Rivers regional group but also to disband the entire agency failed by identical 2-1 votes at the meeting in Le Mars. Two representatives from each county serve on the board, with each county holding a single vote.
After the meeting, Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor said a lawsuit will be filed against Sioux Rivers to allow the county to voluntarily exit the group. Taylor, one of the the two Woodbury supervisors on the Sioux Rivers board, said he has been consulting with the Heidman Law Firm of Sioux City.
"Unfortunately, there will be a legal process. We have every right to withdraw," Taylor said.
In early October, the Woodbury County supervisors voted, 3-2, to leave Sioux Rivers at the end of the current fiscal year in June 2018, citing its longstanding displeasure with the regional group. Two weeks later, the board also voted to pursue getting the three-county agency dissolved.
At Monday's meeting, Sioux Rivers CEO Shane Walter, of Sioux County, spoke briefly against the dissolution.
The four supervisors voting against both motions were Don Kass and Mark Loutsch of Plymouth County and Mark Sybesma and Denny Wright of Sioux County.
In an interview after the meeting, Loutsch said he is resigned to the fact that Woodbury County likely will sue to get out.
"They've been threatening it for two months now, so I expect so...I would love to still see it be a region," Loutsch said.
About 60 people crowded into a meeting room in the Plymouth County Courthouse. The audience included some former Woodbury County Board members, county sheriffs and mental health care providers. The dissolution topic was discussed by Kass, Taylor and others using the word "divorce" in analogies.
Taylor said legal action will be pursued as the next course of action, and Kass said the representatives from the other counties will likewise follow legal advice taken from their lawyers.
At the last Woodbury County Board meeting in which the topic was discussed on Oct. 17, nine people from the public spoke against exiting Sioux Rivers. Some people said they feared services to people with mental health needs could be negatively impacted. Others that day said it appears Taylor hasn't been able to compromise with Sioux Rivers officials.
On Monday, Taylor again asserted Sioux and Plymouth counties could not stand alone as a region if Woodbury leaves. Taylor authored the Oct. 3 Woodbury County resolution that said the region has "demonstrated an unwillingness to operate in a transparent and equitable manner to ensure that appropriate mental health and disability services are provided to the residents of Woodbury County.”
Keith Radig, the other Woodbury County supervisor who also serves on the Sioux Rivers board, said, "I prefer to be in a more organized region."
One victim of the disagreement Monday was a proposal for the Friendship House project of Siouxland Mental Health Center in Sioux City to move ahead with a $675,000 plan to buy a new building that reportedly would better serve people.
Friendship House official Kathy Roberts noted the $675,000 expenditure was agreed to in April, but Sioux Rivers board members postponed action on the plan Monday.
"Whether you guys are divorcing, we are the kids and you need to take care of us," Roberts said.
Wright said of that Friendship House funding, "Stay together (as a region), we'll move forward in a minute."
The state changed from a county-based to a regional method of delivering mental health services for low-income people in 2014, and counties joined together into regions.
Woodbury, Sioux and Plymouth counties formed the Sioux Rivers group in July 2014. Over the subsequent months a rocky relationship developed, with other Woodbury County supervisors threatening to leave the group in August 2016.
There is a sharing agreement specifying duties and other items of Sioux Rivers region functioning.
The Iowa Department of Human Services oversees the division of counties into regions.
The Woodbury supervisors in October began looking east when trying to find a new group of counties to join. In that action, the supervisors embarked on negotiations with Rolling Hills Community Services Region, with members from Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford and Ida counties.
Another regional option may exist with Southwest Iowa MHDS, which includes adjacent Monona County and seven others down to the Missouri state line.
SIOUX CITY | Though Siouxland Paramedics Inc. will cease providing 911 services in the Sioux City metro at the end of this year, the nonprofit ambulance service plans to remain in existence to continue providing non-emergency transports between medical care facilities.
SPI announced Monday that it will retain a staff of about 15 to 20 paramedics and three ambulances after Dec. 31.
"The only difference (from our current model) is we won't respond to 911 calls unless there's a mass casualty or mass emergency," said Karen Van De Steeg, the executive director of Health Inc., the governing body of SPI.
SPI announced in mid-August that it would cease providing 911 services to Sioux City and North Sioux City by year's end, citing financial difficulties.
Van De Steeg said while the nonprofit was unable to sustain its 911 service, it can continue non-emergency services because the reimbursement rate from private insurers and government insurance programs like Medicare or Medicaid is better for those patients.
"911 services for the most part go un-reimbursed. You can only do that for so long," she said. "Whereas with medical transports, most people have insurance or the ability to pay for those, so the collection rate isn’t wonderful but it’s something we can do."
Sioux City Fire Rescue will take over emergency ambulance operations in Sioux City and is working on hiring 27 employees, some of them current Siouxland Paramedics staff, to comprise the new division. The city expects the new division will require an annual subsidy of about $600,000.
North Sioux City Fire Chief Bill Pappas said Monday that the Dakota Valley Emergency Services District -- which includes Dakota Dunes, North Sioux City and the Big Sioux Township -- is looking into whether it should contract with a new private ambulance service to fill its void, or whether it should staff its own service.
Pappas said the board is seeking bids from a number of private firms and hopes to have enough information within a few weeks.
SPI completes about 2,500 non-emergency transports per year, Van De Steeg said, with the coverage area ranging from transports between two Sioux City facilities to transports from Siouxland cities to other states.
The organization had previously employed 57 people, 31 of whom are full-time employees. Van De Steeg said she believed between SPI's continued service and Sioux City's new division, no jobs will be lost.
Other community services provided by SPI that will remain in place include the organization's involvement as instructors for local EMS continuing education classes and its offerings of community education on safety issues, first aid and CPR.
Members will also continue to maintain and support the Siouxland Paramedics Tactical Medical Response Team, which is available to law enforcement agencies throughout the region.