Tractor Fest, Ripon: Meet the stationary engine enthusiast all revved up for Tractor Fest this weekend

Stationary engine enthusiast Mike Milestone will be among those taking part in Tractor Fest this weekend. Chris Berry reports.

Vintage tractors and engines are on display this weekend at what has become the UK’s largest show of its kind at Newby Hall, near Ripon.

“It’s more or less the key event of year for the entire National Vintage Tractor and Engine Club organisation in the UK,” says Mike Milestone, chairman of the East Yorkshire Group, which is one of the three groups, including the West Yorkshire and Pennine Groups, that put on Tractor Fest each year with the considerable assistance of Newby Hall.

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“Last I heard there are over 1,100 tractors entered and about 320 stationary engines. It’s still the biggest engine rally in the country and the biggest tractor show.”

Tractor Fest 2023 at Newbt Hall, Ripon. Picture Gerard BinksTractor Fest 2023 at Newbt Hall, Ripon. Picture Gerard Binks
Tractor Fest 2023 at Newbt Hall, Ripon. Picture Gerard Binks

Stationary engines may sometimes seem to have a little more work to do in attracting the attention of some visitors, not necessarily being as glamorous as their tractor counterparts, but Mike says the popularity of engines and how they work always fascinates.

“The engine lines are packed and kids enjoy seeing them. Some exhibitors go out of their way to entertain them, maybe using a water pump and putting rubber ducks in so kids will see them floating around; if it gets people interested in how things work it’s got to be a good thing.

“People can see how engines work, every last detail. It’s not hidden under a bonnet, but it’s more than that. What lot of people don’t realise is that it wasn’t the tractor that brought mechanisation to the farm. It was the stationary engine. A lot of stationary engines were in production from the 1860s onwards. The first tractor didn’t come about until about 1889.

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“A stationary engine would do anything that a modern electric motor could do. It would drive things like a water pump, it would generate electricity, you would have one, back then on a generator, generating electricity for country estates. Newby Hall itself probably had an engine house for its early electricity.

Mike Milestone with his 1909 Walsh and Clarke, Victoria engine made in Guiseley. Picture Bruce RollinsonMike Milestone with his 1909 Walsh and Clarke, Victoria engine made in Guiseley. Picture Bruce Rollinson
Mike Milestone with his 1909 Walsh and Clarke, Victoria engine made in Guiseley. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“It would be used for driving mills, for milling corn, driving a track cutter for cutting the feed for the cattle, driving a thrashing box. It would be in its own unit and have a big belt driving it.

“At this year’s Tractor Fest you will see them doing all kinds of jobs from powering saw benches; cutting chaff for the feed; doing water pumping, generating electricity with light bulbs going, anything they would have been used for in the day. Some will cut a log up from a felled tree, cutting by powering the saw which then goes mechanically backwards and forwards, all by an engine.”

Mike says providing variety of the uses of a stationary engine is all part of the appeal, that often results in the three groups attracting new members who get into the restoration and showing of vintage engines.

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“We try and get a variety of different designs and types where you can see everything, such as the crank shaft going round. Particularly with earlier technology there were a lot more moving parts to be seen, later on it was deemed that any moving parts wanted to be housed inside where general dust, sawdust and rubbish couldn’t get in.

Part of the joy of vintage stationary engines is that you can see everything working, see the valves opening, the crank and piston going round. You don’t see that on a lot of engines. And they are basically the principles of how an engine under a car or tractor bonnet works.

Mike says that like most collectors, engine collectors have more than one stationary engine and that the hobby is relatively easy to get into.

“Between me, my dad and my younger brother we’ve got 90 engines. Whereas with tractors you can often pick a working vintage tractor up for under £1000 or a wreck for say £400-£500, with engines you could pick one up for less than £50 in rough condition and spend £150 restoring it. On the other side I’ve seen engines sell in excess of $350,000 in America.”

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And there are some well-known names in the vintage stationary engine market.

“Generally, the most popular ones were made by Lister’s in Dursley, Gloucestershire. They were biggest manufacturer in Britain.

“There were several Yorkshire engine manufacturers, including John Fowler in Leeds who made steam engines and 1000s of stationary engines, petrol, paraffin and diesel in the 30s and 40s. I’ve five of them, and smaller businesses like Walsh & Clarke in Guiseley who built ploughing engines and agricultural equipment. I’ve one that was built in 1909 which, as far as I know, is the oldest in the country. I think it used to drive a thrashing drum.”

Involvement with the vintage machines and the East Yorkshire Group is a real family passion for the Milestones.

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“Dad, Andy, has been collecting and restoring them since the early 70s. He got into it in his later teens. He started going to a couple of shows, found he liked it and ended up buying an engine. He’s been into them ever since. He’s had all sorts of things. He used to have an old Austin K2 military ambulance, he’s had a double decker Beverly Bar bus, he’s had all sorts.

“He’s been treasurer of the club for the last 22-23 years. We’re all involved – me, my brother James and dad. He started taking me to meetings when I was a kid. When our previous chairman passed away I was volunteered for the job and have been doing it for the past seven years.

“We’ve come on amazingly since the first Tractor Fest in 2007 when we had 360 exhibits. We now have around 2000 and 12,000 come every year. I worked it out that last year, taking in the camping area and car park, Tractor Fest now takes pla over 140 acres.”

Tractor Fest takes place this weekend (Jun 8 and 9)

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