FARMER-CUM-BUSINESSMAN Bill Kemball started collecting old tractors and equipment soon after leaving school to help on his father’s farm. He has about 200 tractors, 14 steam engines and a vast array of old machinery – and is still collecting.
Most of the collection is stored at Mr Kemball’s 710ha (1750-acre) Wantisden Hall Farms, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. But under a recent plan, the cream of the collection will be transferred to specially prepared buildings at Bentwaters, a disused air base adjoining Mr Kemball’s land.
A former RAF airfield, it was taken over by the US Air Force and became an important bomber base during the Cold War.
When east-west relations thawed, the base was no longer needed and Mr Kemball was able to buy the 405ha (1000-acre) site including the buildings and two-mile long concrete runways.
Most of the buildings have been redeveloped as industrial units, but the heritage centre forms a major part of the Bentwaters plans. The first part opens early next year, majoring on the airfield’s role during the Cold War.
More attractions will open later in the year, and the Ferguson and Fordson sections of the tractor collection have already been moved to the airfield.
Mr Kemball’s business interests also include a road haulage company, and this prompted him to build up a collection of vintage trucks and vans that will form the transport section of the centre.
His son John’s military vehicle collection will also be on show and one of the companies based at the airfield will add a marine section.
The agricultural collection will feature a large number of rare tractors. At the top of the wish list for most Ferguson and David Brown collectors would be a Ferguson Model A. The Kemball collection boasts three of them – an early version with a Coventry Climax engine, a later David Brown-powered tractor, plus a rare orchard model.
American tractors from World War One and the 1920s figure strongly in the collection, including a big Case 20-40, a Rumely 6A with a six-cylinder engine, a Wallis Cub Junior – the first tractor of a frameless design – and a rare Interstate Plow Man.
There are no less than three International Harvester Titan 10-20s, and a Fordson Model F from the original 1917/18 batch built for the British government – thought to be Britain’s oldest surviving example.
British tractors from this period include a Crossley, plus one of only two surviving Fowler petrol-powered cable ploughing engines.
Mr Kemball’s favourites include a more modern half-track Fordson Major E27N – one of three new Fordson Majors his father bought when he started farming in the 1940s.
Mr Kemball is optimistic about the prospects for the heritage centre. Based in an increasingly important area for tourism, near the Suffolk coast, not far from the music centre at Snape and close to Sutton Hoo archaeological site, it nestles among some of the biggest tourist attractions in East Anglia.
And the Kemball family already has plenty of experience of attracting visitors, having developed the Wantisden Valley conference centre on their farm.
It is also licenced for weddings, and the programme of events includes the local hunt ball, a Christmas craft fair plus the Power of the Past tractor and steam rally attracting about 20,000 visitors each year.