Ray and Mary Fenley’s brick ranch house surrounded by white pipe fences presides over 10 serene acres on a hilltop in Copper Canyon. Mature oak trees rustle in the constant breeze above fat-bellied goats focused on the grass. “Those,” Ray says with a ready smile, “are my lawnmowers.”
Local coyotes ate his lawnmowers last winter. He shakes his head. “Their appetites are a regular problem.”
Four horses snort in the stable and corral. Does he ride? “No, I rent space to high school rodeo girls. I like to help the kids by keeping their costs economical.”
During the warm part of the year wooded hills and green pastures roll to every horizon right there in the middle of the Metroplex. The energetic 76-year old points past a jumble of rusted farm primitives, hand ploughs and tillers, toward the hardwood forest that crowds the big lean-to sheltering his farm tractor collection. “During the winter I can stand right here and see the AMC Theater in the Highland Village shopping center.”
Suburbia came to southern Denton County after the Fenleys bought the acreage in 1964, to rear their children “out in the country” where life was simpler.
Ray preserves concrete memories of the way farm families worked in the old days of his youth. “A man can never have too many tractors,” he says with a laugh about his 16 machines.
Most of the relics do not work. “They decorate the property because I’m not an engine mechanic.” Restoring a tractor is expensive. “You can expect to spend $1,000 just on the big back tires.”
A new John Deere or International tractor costs upwards of $15,000 without necessary attachments to plough, till, lift, shred, bale or rake.
He wiggles his eyebrows like a conspirator. “I have to sneak new old stuff in after dark or Mary will ask what junk I bought now. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
The last of 10 children, Ray spent his childhood on a labor-intensive sharecropping farm in tiny Tioga, TX north of Denton.
That agricultural institution took hold in the American South after the Civil War, when plantation owners needed laborers, and emancipated field slaves needed land. The landowners rented unemployed freedmen a fertile parcel, a shack, equipment, seed or animals, and store credit in exchange for 25-33% of the harvest. The landowners controlled all the prices, and thereby trapped laborers with high costs and only enough pay to cover expenses year after year. This serfdom stood one meager step higher than enslavement.
Over the decades, poor land management, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl drought combined to drag bankrupted white family farmers into the rental farming system.
Ray, the voice of experience, stares into the distance. “Sharecroppers didn’t make a living, they made a bare existence.”
The arrangement collapsed when mechanization arrived at agriculture’s doorstep in the 1930s and 40s, and sharecroppers of all races abandoned the land for factories and cash pay.
After his 1955 high school graduation, Ray, who had no assets, announced he wasn’t going to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a sharecropper. He headed for the city.
“Dad couldn’t manage the farm alone, he couldn’t afford hired labor, and I was his last son,” so the 18-year old’s decision ended sharecropping in the Fenley family.
“I moved to Dallas and found work at Vought Aircraft. They sent me to machine shop school where I learned to cut metal.”
Cutting metal is trade slang for steel fabrication or producing mechanical parts from iron and steel bars. In the 1960s, tooling shops changed from handmade to automated products.
“Automation made for uniform and more predictable parts. Now it’s computerized too.” Ray pats his modern lathe, a gigantic power tool enthroned amid piles of shiny metal shavings in his workshop behind the house.
‘Workshop’ does injustice to Fenley Wood & Metal and Farm Primitives, his large, crowded steel building with a John Deere logo sign above the door.
A small, gray cannon on pioneer wagon wheels with rusty iron tires greets shop visitors beside a flagpole from which Old Glory flutters. “I made that cannon myself,” he said. “I’m 76 and retired, but I work here from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. most days.”
A poster child for active retirement, Ray divides his time between the private manufacture of parts for oil and gas production equipment, and his true love–restoring antique farm implements and toys for his impressive private museum housed in another big steel building next door to the shop.
Remember those old push pedal toy tractors boys rode instead of trikes in the 1950s? If Ray hasn’t restored them all–with attention to minute historical detail–he’s close. Every item looks brand-spanking new with its shiny, detailed green, red, yellow, or orange paint job. Each one has a ‘before’ photo attached to its chassis. The miniature tractors are Cinderella stories for guys with a metal fabrication turn of mind.
“I find these at swap meets all over the country.”
Some toys were no more than a sorry steel frame with maybe a seat and steering wheel before they met Ray.
But the Denton County antique collector has a wide ranging eye for original goods that, from time to time, attract the attention of film and video producers.
Need an old wall phone, as in Alexander Graham Bell original wood boxes with bulbous brass ringers and black horn-shaped mouth and ear pieces? Ray has a dozen without so much as a visible scratch or dent.
“The oldest thing I own is a 200-year old meat roaster.”
The manufacture date on the gizmo is 1820, only 44 years after the American Revolution. He points to its four 6-inch fishhooks hanging from an iron cylinder in good condition. “They put pieces of meat on these then hung the roaster over the fire on a hook or a tripod.”
Shoving a special ratchet into a hole in the cylinder’s side, he twists the key several times until the little machine produces the sound of cogs in action.
“I like anything that moves,” he says with a happy tone of voice.
The suspended hooks begin to rotate in slow motion. It does not take a lot of imagination to hear fat crackle and smell the aroma of grilled meat.
Ray keeps busy with here-and-now activities too. As president of the Denton County Antique Tractor, Farm Equipment and Primitive Club, he initiated the group’s annual college scholarship fundraising picnic, auction, garage sale, and handmade quilt raffle.
The scholarship, administered by Denton’s Blue Ribbon Club, is open to Denton County students who grow livestock or produce to show at 4H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) events.
“I won my first animal, a pig, in a 4H essay contest,” Ray says. “I didn’t give it a name because you can’t get attached to animals that are raised for their meat.”
Tractor Club scholars may attend the college or university of their choice, and select any major they like.
“We just help them get to school,” Ray said.
To date the club has given away six scholarships worth $500 each.
“We expect to raise enough money this year to surpass that total. That donated pickup over there will pay for three scholarships by itself. My sister makes our auction quilt every year, and members donate to the garage sale and auction.”
The club became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization under Ray’s able leadership. “I’m very proud of that.” Donors may take an income tax write off for all contributions to the scholarship effort.
Contact Ray at 940-241-2700 for free pick up and information.
The club’s webs
ite with lots of photos, including Butch Hunt’s flag-studded International Tractor parade wagon, is www.Texasplowboys.com.