Randy Vess grew up in McDowell County, in a family that kept alive many traditional occupational skills that were common in the mountains in previous generations. Vess’ grandfather and great-grandfather were both millers, running a water-powered mill. His mother’s parents, who lived on the land where Vess lives today, didn’t have their home electrified until the mid-1960s. Vess and his cousins learned first-hand how hard one had to work in the days before electricity, and heard their uncle’s stories about chopping and hauling wood three times a day for the woodstove on which their grandmother cooked every meal, and for the fireplaces that heated the house.
This early exposure to the old-time ways of running a homestead led to a life-long enthusiasm. Vess continues to be fascinated by mountain farming practices, and in particular by the machinery that was in common use in his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ days. He owns numerous farm machines, both hand-powered and engine-powered, some of which he inherited from his family and others that he acquired in later years.
Vess particularly enjoys demonstrating farm machinery to children. Favorite implements are his cast-iron corn sheller, a wheel-turned machine that strips a corncob of its kernels and spits out the cob; his corn grinder, which pulverizes the kernels to feed and meal of various degrees of fineness, from coarse chicken feed to fine cornmeal; a 1919 grass cutter, which works as well as a modern lawnmower; and an iron water pump, which he says children find particularly fascinating. Vess also owns a large hit-and-miss engine, which saw service during World War I.
Randy Vess is available (depending on his work schedule, and family and volunteer firefighting commitments) to demonstrate old-time machinery at festivals, schools, and other venues, for audiences of children and adults.