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Old Tractors Never Die

I see that the conversation on this website has turned lately to old tractors. On this subject I am as garrulous as an old soldier recalling his army days, only old tractors are not past history but very much a current event. Most of us ramparts people depend on them. I own a 1948 WD Allis Chalmers and a 1972 John Deere 2010, both of which run well except the WD’s gearbox is locked up at the moment and needs a visit to the local tractor doctor three miles down the road. These tractors cost me only a small fraction of what new ones of the same horsepower cost and can be kept running indefinitely if you know where to look for help.

In most country areas can be found what I call the Solitary Genius Mechanic who runs a repair shop on his farm. (I don’t know of any women mechanics but would like to.) One I know was for many years a troubleshooter for International Harvester, travelling all of the country to fix machinery that everyone else had given up on. He is also a first rate organic garderner.

The Solitary Genius is a godsend to us ramparts people who operate small farms on the cheap and who don’t know much about mechanics. If you can get your old tractor to him, he can invariably fix whatever ails it. His repair shop may look primitive and junky roundabout, but don’t let appearances fool you. The ones who service farmers in the neighborhood regularly are knowledgeable and fully equipped. They are also delightfully independent philosophers. Most of them don’t charge enough and so I pay more than they ask. Be nice to them; they can be the key to your survival on a ramparts farm.

Mechanics do not usually write and writers do not usually repair tractors, so there seems to be a dearth of information about old tractors and farm equipment. You probably already know this, but there are lots of organizations and clubs whose members spend their time restoring old tractors. Get involved with them and you will learn more than you want to know. To find them, go to country fairs where restorers exhibit their tractors.

Old tractors aren’t all romance and fond recollections. It’s an old joke but I can remember my grandfather lighting a little fire under his Fordson to warm up the oil in the crankcase so the motor would turn over easier, hopefully to make the tractor start quicker. That’s fun to recall, but not any fun to have to do. Starting tractors could be a brutal affair. I was watching when my father was crank-starting our Massey Harris Challenger and the crank “kicked” and nearly broke his leg. Tractors increased the pace and intensity of farm work. Don’t let anyone tell you that the piston engine made farming easier than farming with horses. Tractors just meant you could get more field work done in a day. The wet year of 1947, we kept our tractor running day and night to get the crops in because we could. One afternoon Dad, completely exhausted, put me, a child, on it to “work ground” while he laid down under a tree at the field’s edge and fell asleep. He meant to nap only a little while. I knew how to stop the tractor by turning the key off but I did not know how to start it up again so if I stopped, Dad would have his sleep cut short. When it looked like the tractor was overheating, I just kept going round and round the field till it stopped of its own accord. Dangerous business. One of my cousins in the same desperate situation tied his little boy, age 6, in the tractor seat so he couldn’t fall out and had him “work ground” that way, guiding tractor and disk over the plowed ground while the father followed up with another tractor and the planter and kept a sharp eye on the son. Can you imagine what the labor laws would do to a farmer today who tried that?

In the days when we abandoned horse farming for factory farming, we abandoned biology for machinery and let the futile thought of getting rich override our common sense. After that farming became grueling slave work even if it was faster. We didn’t save time. Lights on the tractor just meant we could work longer. It wasn’t long after 24 hour work days that the Sunday day of rest went off the calendar too. Too bad. Even heathens like me need a Sunday day of rest.

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