EAST AMWELL, NJ - At age 93, Ernie Johnson figures it’s time to step aside as chairman of the Antique Tractor Display at the Hunterdon County 4-H and Agriculture Fair. He’s been heading up the popular attraction since the fair was first held 16 years ago.
The Delaware Township farmer told the fair board recently that he’s retiring as the guy in charge. But he said his sons Bob and Ted will gladly take over and “I’ll continue to help them as long as I can.” While many area fairs have old tractor displays, most are outside; only Hunterdon has a 60 by 160 foot enclosed building to house the antiques, just about all of them restored.
This year’s fair included 75 tractors in the building and another four machines outside. Overflow tractors as well as steel-wheeled versions and crawlers -- which would damage the concrete floor -- are displayed outside, under a lean-to roof extension.
“Our display is the biggest I’ve ever seen,” commented fair President Roger Everitt of Raritan Township, a farmer and retired farm equipment dealer who has attended many fairs in the Northeast. He was a key organizer of the first tractor show. That was in 2000, when the inaugural Hunterdon Fair, successor to the Flemington Fair, was held at the Flemington site. Since 2004 it’s been at what became the new county fairgrounds near Ringoes.
Johnson’s son, David, who passed away in 2012, along with Bob and Ted and longtime friend Gordon Reid (in Ernie’s words “my right-hand man”) of East Amwell Township have helped with the display. The tractors come mainly from Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer and Warren counties in the Garden State as well as across the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pa.
Tractors were displayed in a rented tent - the biggest on the fairgrounds - until 2013, when the Grandview Grange of Flemington agreed to pay to construct the building, which cost around $215,000. It features bright lights, making it easier to see the exhibits regardless of the time. Besides its use during the fair to show tractors, the Grange Building is home of many other events during the year.
The building donation was a natural for Grandview because the Grange organization, formed on the national level in 1867, was originally for farmers and rural residents. Now it’s a community service group, open to all. Grandview had some money from selling its hall in Flemington to a church in 1998 and wanted to do something “special” with it, President Claire Grissett explained when the donation was announced.
Johnson is quick to thank the many folks who’ve helped him out with the show or building project, and paid tribute to them at during the Opening Ceremonies at this year’s fair. He listed his wife Doris; Everitt, “who has done such a terrific job coordinating so many of the fair aspects;” Jim Johnson of Hopewell Township, a longtime state Grange leader; and Grissett, for arranging the Grange donation; former Fair Treasurer George Conard; and son Bob’s wife Gwen. Johnson noted that Ginny and John Terrault helped out for many years, and after John passed away, she re-married and now she and her husband Abe Polhemus volunteer. Johnson also thanked the Walker farm family of Hunterdon, which has shown tractors since the display started. This year, they brought seven.
Reid, he noted, helps out starting “days before” the fair opens and is at the display all during the five-day event, and “with his knowledge of a lot of the equipment being displayed is very valuable to those passing through and asking questions.” He and his family display several tractors.
Johnson, a founder and director of the Hunterdon fair, has also been active in numerous other farm-related organizations, such as Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead Museum in Delaware Township, the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township and the Pennington Grange. For him, the tractor display is a lot of work – but also very enjoyable. He farmed in Pennington for many years until the Mercer County Park Commission acquired the land to make Rosedale Park. The Johnsons moved their Saddle Brook Farm operation to Delaware Township. And he worked for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District for 35 years, as a bus driver and then transportation coordinator, retiring in 1991.