He bought a place and a few tractors for his grandchildren to enjoy. Today, it houses a museum, gift shop, and hosts a variety of entertaining events.
Story: Chris Gerbasi // Photos: Fred Lopez
Stew Paquette seems like an unlikely owner of a tractor museum.
He didn’t grow up on a farm, never plowed a field or raised crops, and his distinctive New England accent is a far cry from the Southern drawl of a country farmer.
But here he is, carving out 50 acres of land south of State Road 44 in Leesburg, surrounded by buffalo and cows, and operating Paquette’s Historical Farmall Tractor Museum.
The museum is a tribute to International Harvester farming equipment, a subject Stew has studied since 2004, when he bought six tractors for his property because he thought his grandkids might get a kick out of them.
“I didn’t know anything about them—nothing,” says Stew, a native of New Hampshire who moved to Florida in 1974. “I’ve never been on a farm. I’m not a farmer. I didn’t know anything about tractors.”
But he did know the International Harvester name. His father, A.J. “Tony” Paquette, owned an excavating and concrete company that used IH trucks, and Stew used them for nearly 25 years when he ran Paquette Paving in Leesburg.
Stew also was inspired by the history of International Harvester, which began in 1902 when rival harvester companies McCormick and Deering joined forces and eventually would rule the machinery world for decades.
“They made everything,” Stew says. “And they were at the cutting edge at the time. Everything they did was just a bit better than anybody else’s.”
Now his collection totals nearly 200 tractors, all made by International Harvester—no Fords allowed. He collects them from around the country and restores them onsite with mechanics such as Lonny Loudin. The tractors cover all years, all models, from a 1934 O-12 orchard tractor to a 7488 Super 70 Series from the 1980s.
Stew, who lives on the grounds in a large farmhouse, opened the museum to the public in 2010. The campus includes a Tractor Barn with endless rows of red tractors, a Show Barn that hosts musical acts and events, an IH dealership building that’s a replica from the 1940s, and a 22,000-square-foot Hall of Fame that houses Stew’s rarest tractors.
One recent morning, Stew donned a white sweater with the red-and-black IH logo on it, greeted customers and answered questions about the displays.
Larry and Deanna Sextro were visiting Paquette’s for the first time and called the place “fantastic.” The couple from Kansas farm country had an appreciation for Stew’s International Harvesters.
“I’ve farmed all my life,” Larry says. “That’s what I grew up with. My Dad had International tractors.”
“It’s good there are people like him that want to hold on to the history of farming,” Deanna adds.
The couple watched a farming video on a movie screen in the Show Barn, which has an entertainment stage with a 40-foot U.S. flag as a backdrop, state flags lining the walls, and seating for 250 guests.
Over at the Tractor Barn, small tractor models and baseball caps with farming logos fill shelves along each wall. Stew has thousands of pieces of memorabilia, signs, posters, and other IH products, such as refrigerators, freezers and A/C units.
But the tractors were the big draw for Ohio couple George and Kathy Gulbis. They were making a return visit after seeing Paquette’s profiled on “Classic Tractor Fever” on RFD-TV. The museum has been profiled on several TV shows, and even landed an article in a Denmark magazine.
“It’s just kind of an interest and a passion of mine,” George says. “It’s fun to look at this stuff, especially such a beautiful collection as this. It’s just amazing that everything’s so perfectly restored, and it’s a complete history of International Harvester. It’s a fun way to spend a day.”
The Hall of Fame holds Stew’s favorite tractor, a 1206 model made in 1967 and specially painted in white on the grill, wheels, fenders, air breather and seat. The model was the first tractor with more than 100 horsepower. The hall also includes some of the largest tractors on display, and some of the oldest equipment, dating to 1920s hay binders and threshers.
The business has evolved from a few people driving by to look at tractors and family gatherings in the barn to a year-round museum with special events that attract 10,000 visitors a year, says Stew’s niece, Jennifer Sidelinger, who runs the office and organizes events.
“It’s unique in that people from all over the world come here,” she says after a group of young adults from the Netherlands arrived.
Jennifer’s background in tourism management has helped elevate the museum’s musical offerings and group tours. The museum also hosted the 10th annual Tractor Show this February and sponsored last year’s Vintage Tractor Caribbean Cruise.
“People are excited about getting here,” Jennifer says. “They make it a point. They’re here on vacation, and they’re excited when they come and overwhelmed when they leave.”
Stew’s family never is far away. Three of his four children live onsite, and his sons, Fay and Jay, own a nearby road building company, Paquette Co. A family photo hangs just inside the entrance to the Show Barn, and photos of Stew’s father grace the garage at the dealership, including one of A.J. standing in front of a 1934 C-60 International Harvester truck.
Stew followed in his father’s footsteps with Paquette Paving. But after he sold the company in 1998, he asked himself, “What am I going to do now?” Tractors were the furthest thing from his mind until he and his wife, Helen, bought the house and land where he now lives. After Helen died in 2007, Stew got the idea for a “little museum.”
“This sounds crazy, but something kept eating at me about doing something,” he says. “God was good to me. I wanted to give some of it back. I wanted to do something that I thought would be worthwhile doing and I could enjoy it.”
If You Go
Paquette’s Historical Farmall Tractor Museum, 615 S. Whitney Road, Leesburg, is open from 9am to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday year-round, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The museum accepts donations of $15 for adults or $10 for groups of 10 or more. Children are admitted free. For information, call 352.728.3588 or 352.267.4448.