My Minnesota: Fair vendor puts tractor parts in whole new light

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2014 - 5:36 PM
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Shawn Carling

The Minnesota State Fair’s West End Market has a new store: Machine Age Lamps. Vintage industrial remnants and tractor parts turned into light fixtures with bulbs that look hand-blessed by Tom Edison. It’s the work of Shawn Carling, who’s enjoying his first year as a fair vendor. A birthday gift got him started.

“My dad’s the kind of guy, if he wants it, he buys it. He has everything. So I wanted to get him something really different and unique, and started to pull out old photos of a tractor we had, a Farmall 560. I’ve always tinkered with stuff, always had a knack for fixing stuff, so I found some parts and turned it into lamp. I thought it was funny, but people said, ‘Can you make one for me?’ ”

Thus a career was born — partly out of necessity.

“I worked for Best Buy by for about 25 years and got an early retirement when they downsized. I’ve been doing this ever since.” No regrets: “I was a corporate office guy, marketing, and it turns out I was miscast.” He laughs. “Every day is a Saturday now.”

Where do you find all the parts?

“At first, it was really difficult. I was looking at flea markets and Craigslist; my wife was e-mailing scrap yards that pull tractors apart. Now people send us e-mails all over — yesterday I got one from John Deere Model B radiator tops, and was I interested?”

So the Old Iron exhibit of ancient tractors on Machinery Hill must look like a tempting source of material.

“I always think these guys will be upset when they see the lamps. They’ll say I’ve been looking for that radiator top for two years!’”

Clients range from a guy who wanted a lamp made from the dash of his old tractor and some scraps of the barn to Gordon Ramsey: He just did three lamps for the TV chef’s new restaurant in Hong Kong. Three hundred models in a year and a half, and not always to clients whose decor is “early barn.”

If you don’t care for tractor parts, they have lamps made from aviation gear as well. And in a nice twist, Shawn’s dad, Charles, helps make those.

Twenty years from now, will someone will be converting an old dead iPad into, say, a device that syncs with subatomic vibrations to bathe the user in a field of calming invisible rays?

“Boy, I wonder. A group of kids come past the stand, and they were arguing about Xbox vs. PS3, and I thought, what could we possibly turn into lamps in 30 years?” Good question. Something that’s no longer used but could be repurposed for a new generation. Maybe … incandescent bulbs?

James Lileks

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