SPRING LAKE, Fla. (AP)--Steve Melton cut imaginary stalks of grain with a sickle and promised a thorough survey of farming history.

"I'm going to take you back to biblical times," he said.

He also promised, improbably, to be brief.

"This will be a short trip."

When he began talking, the afternoon sun was shining brightly on the Hereford cattle outside the barn where he keeps his collection of old farming equipment. As he finished, the sun was starting to set.

He explained the workings of tractors, reapers and threshers. He marveled at the cleverness of corn planters and post-hole diggers and the sturdiness of the original Snapper mower--which featured a cast-iron head of its namesake, a snapping turtle, jutting from the front of the mower deck like a hood ornament.

"I just thought that was kind of neat," he said. Other pieces were "great." Many more, he said, he was "real excited about."

Melton's enthusiasm for collecting tractors and tools is not that unusual; it is a well-established and growing hobby. But he is one of the few collectors who still works in agriculture full time.

His jeans were grimy from spending the morning in the seed barn. He perspired easily when demonstrating hand tools because he had been sweating most of the day.

Melton, who at times has been almost enslaved by farm work, understands the fascination with tools that save labor. At 54, he is just old enough to have acquired a taste for agriculture as the communal activity it used to be. That it is no longer, he blames mostly on machines.

"When I get into my combine I can do 10 times the work I used to do. But once I get in that cab, I'm all by myself for eight hours," Melton said. "I come home and I tell my wife, I got to see somebody today. I had a real nice conversation with the lady at the 7-Eleven."

A hand-carved wooden sign hanging from the rafters of the barn says, "Melton's Machine Museum."

But it is not open to the public, and Melton seems less a guide than an actor. The cowboy hat and plaid shirt he wore to work are the perfect costume. He is 6-foot-3 and slim, with a graying mustache. Slipping into character is as easy as talking in the first person.

Cut grain, he explained, walking down the center aisle of the barn swinging a scythe, would be gathered by women and children a handful at a time. He demonstrated, bending over and raking the floor of the barn with his fingers.

"Stoop labor," he said.

To thresh the grain, farmers used a tool so crude it gave its name to a word for ineffective labor.

"This is one of my most prized possessions. It's called a flail," Melton said, holding two hardwood rods, connected by a loop of cracked leather.

Farmers beat the oats or Wheat on the ground, as with nun-chucks, then raked away the straw.

"I've tried it several times just to see how much was involved in getting out a quantity of grain," Melton said.

The Melton family's main business is cutting and processing bahia grass seed from farms across central Florida.

During summers when he was a teenager, Melton drove to fields as far away as Arcadia. He ran a combine all day and, after driving back in the evening, shoveled 5 tons of seed from his truck onto drying beds at his father's farm east of Brooksville.

When his dad installed a conveyor system in the barn about 1970, the loads could be dumped rather than shoveled, and Melton was suddenly free of the farm's hardest job.

"It was so exciting not to have to throw all that seed by hand," he said.

So he has an idea how farmers felt about the arrival of the bright red Fairbanks Morse hit-and-miss engine, patented in 1908. It turns a drum that, by way of a canvas belt, could power a lathe, a wringer washer or a pump.

When idling, it fires only once every dozen revolutions--the source of its name--popping loudly and then taking in air with a sound like a grunting pig. It is almost as large as a modern V-8 and, with a block of solid cast iron, probably heavier, but generates only 3 horsepower.

Still, Melton said, "Can you imagine what this meant before electricity? Now little Johnny, who was pumping water all day, can finally go do something else."

The John Deere No. 999 corn planter, parked outside the barn, was the first to drop kernels at precise intervals--42 inches apart. This made it possible, for the first time, to cut weeds between the plants with a a horse-drawn cultivator.

"Now I don't have to hoe my field at all any more," Melton said. "That saves a tremendous amount of labor."

If his barn will never be a true museum, Melton plans to start giving tours to community and school groups.

"I've just gotten so excited having all this stuff, and it's just such a thrill telling people how it was used."

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