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.