The ‘custodian’: Zionsville man collects, restores antique heavy construction equipment

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Jim Carter pauses by a piece of construction equipment at his Zionsville home. (Photo by Lisa Price)

By Heather Lusk

Jim Carter’s earliest memories are watching orange backhoes and red bulldozers push dirt around Keystone Avenue.

“Mom never had to worry about where I was. She just stuck her head out the door and listened for an engine running somewhere,” he said. “Follow the sound, and I was sitting in a dirt pile.”

Now, Carter has made a hobby of restoring antique heavy construction equipment from the 1950s and 60s.

“I admit it’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” he said. “Think of it as a bigger sandbox with bigger toys.”

When Carter and his wife, Bonnie, began to build their Zionsville home in 1980, the childhood interest “came roaring back,” he said. They were doing much of the work on the home themselves, so he purchased a 1952 Insley Model L dragline to dredge the pond on the property. Soon realizing that the pond needed to stay, the dragline sat at the end of his driveway for several years. The couple rented a bulldozer, which Carter’s wife learned to drive,  to move dirt on the property.

“She may be the only Junior Leaguer who knows how to drive a bulldozer,” Carter said.

Carter now owns or has part interest in six draglines and cranes and four tractors and bulldozers acquired at auction or found “looking so forlorn” while Carter drove around the area.

Tracking down some of his machines, “I can just smell them,” he said.

Although he’s purchased other equipment, he prefers the revolving shovels with a machinery deck and attachment on a round pivot to swing freely.

“Bulldozers are fun, but the ride is rough,” he said, adding he prefers mechanical equipment versus  hydraulic machinery.

“It really is just Stone Age technology,” said Carter, who does most of the restoration himself.  “If you’re remotely mechanically inclined, you can usually look at it and figure out how it’s supposed to work.”

With the acquired manuals he can figure out how to do the adjustments.

“I’m a one-man show, and some of this stuff gets incredibly difficult to work on. It’s heavy and complicated,” he said. “Most of the machines that I have purchased have been pretty well cared for.”

One of his more recent pieces is also the tallest, a 305 Excavator made by Koehring with a boom that reaches 35 feet.

“This is probably the best one I own,” he said. “In its life it probably needed the least work to make it functional.”

Carter doesn’t care as much about the outward appearance of the equipment as long as it’s mechanically sound.

“I want it to operate the way it’s supposed to,” he said.

A recently purchased military loader has proved the most challenging. It was built by Case but with an engine by General Motors, making repairs difficult.

“There was one tiny little crack in a piece that was causing all of the problems,” said Carter, who eventually found someone familiar with the equipment who fixed it.

“I own four pieces of military equipment now, and it finally dawned on me that this stuff was meant to go out onto the battlefield and be destroyed before it needed major work,” he said.

Carter takes his machines to historical construction equipment shows across the nation and stores several pieces near Pittsburgh in a location that has a museum and operates a biannual show. During the shows, most equipment is used for demonstrations so visitors can see how they once operated, bringing the equipment back to life.

“This is the equipment that built this world that we live in,” he said.

Carter appreciates being able to keep the equipment functioning for future generations.

“I’d really like to find a young person who has that fire, that interest in it,” he said. “I don’t look at myself as an owner as much as a custodian. I’m just keeping this stuff until I can pass it on to somebody else and let them get some enjoyment and let other people see how the old stuff used to run.”

Jim Carter uses an antique crane at his Zionsville home. (Photo by Lisa Price)

See the equipment 

The Historical Construction Equipment Association (hcea.net) in Bowling Green, Ohio, organizes events where visitors can see the equipment operate as it did in the past. Carter also brings his equipment to the I&I Tractor Show in Penfeld, Ill., every July.

“You get to see the sights and the sounds of the machinery actually working,” he said.

The National Pike Steam, Gas and Horse Association has shows annually in May and August on 100 acres in Brownsville, Penn. The show originally focused on horse-driven and steam-powered equipment but now includes mechanical equipment from the mid-20th century.

“There’s a little bit of something there for everybody,” Carter said.

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