I have always loved tractors. While growing up among cultivated fields, visiting grandparents on farms in Missouri and North Dakota or passing hundreds of farms while traveling as a youngster I was enchanted and fascinated by these powerful machines and the many companies which then manufactured them: John Deere, International Harvester, Massey-Harris, Oliver, Minneapolis-Moline, Case, Allis Chalmers, Ferguson and Ford.
I feel very privileged for having farms and farming play such a big part in my life. The church organization in which I grew up maintained a large farm operation to nurture its members. So adjacent to its central New Jersey headquarters were a modern dairy farm and fields of corn and alfalfa to support its operation as well as orchards of fruit and large fields of vegetables produced to eat fresh in the summer or to be preserved for winter consumption.
To work its fields the church maintained a small fleet of tractors and all the requisite implements for them: plows, tine and disc harrows, planters, harvesters, mowers, rakes, balers, choppers and wagons. Fields were plowed, harrowed and planted. Field corn was harvested in the summer for silage and in the fall for poultry feed. Tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables were planted, cultivated and picked. Peaches and apples were grown in the orchards and harvested in summer and fall.
As a youngster I was expected to assist in many of the church farm processes and while I did not particularly enjoy menial tasks like weeding or picking fruit or vegetables, I did enjoy very much the more glamorous and muscular operations like baling hay and transporting and stacking the bales. But the best thing about farming as a child was when I got to drive a tractor. To feel the steady throb of a John Deere two cylinder engine beneath me and to experience its power as I shoved the clutch lever forward to engage the drive wheels, was a huge thrill that I will never forget. Or to feel the smoother pulsation of a powerful International Harvester Farmall four cylinder engine and to feel it surge forward powerfully while smoothly turning over three plow furrows was a wonderful experience.
My father, as I mentioned in a previous article, was a part time farmer in the church and not only assisted in the general farm operations but did some farming on his own to make money for the family. In the early 1950’s he bought a small tractor designed for cultivation of food crops called the Farmall Super A, an improved version of the original “A”. A unique feature of its design was that the engine and transmission were offset, giving the operator a full view of the row of plants that he was cultivating.
Tractor power was often rated by how many plow bottoms could be pulled and the Super A being a small tractor could handle only a single bottom plow. But it was ideal for planting and cultivating the smaller plant crops my Dad raised. I think almost all of us drove Dad’s little Super A at one time or another.
On the church farms, the first tractor I drove was a John Deere Model A. This popular tractor was manufactured from the 1930’s through the early 1950’s and had an enviable record of reliability and longevity.
The several I drove, most likely manufactured in the 1940’s were basic and simple “hand start” models, with no battery or electric starter and the engine flywheel and clutch assembly spinning dangerously outside of the crankcase.The ignition spark was provided by a “magneto” which supplied current to the spark plugs when the engine was cranked or running.
Starting a John Deere A was an interesting process which involved first advancing the throttle, then adjusting the choke, next opening a petcock on each of the two big cylinders to reduce compression and finally grasping the flywheel and turning it by hand until the engine sputtered to life, after which the choke was turned off and the petcocks closed. You just had to hope that you kept your hands and your clothing out of the area of the flywheel once the engine engaged and it started spinning. You also had to beware of an additional risk to your hands, arms and body during the cranking process when a misfire would cause the flywheel to jerk crazily backward while you were trying to turn it.
This model’s transmission had six forward speeds and a hand clutch, a lever that you thrust forward to engage the transmission. Like most tractors of its type it also had separate brake pedals for the left and the right drive wheels whose application was often necessary to help turn the tractor in soft soil.
The trademark putt-putt sound of John Deere two cylinder engines is a precious memory to many who farmed in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. John Deere tractors would sadly lose this charm when the company, its engineers having extracted about all the power they could from two cylinder engines, turned to four and six cylinder engines starting in 1960.
Another of the church farm tractors I operated was the Farmall Model M, manufactured by International Harvester probably in the late 1940’s. This tractor, quite different from the John Deere A’s that I knew, had a battery, a generator and an electric starter. Also different from the John Deere it had a foot clutch on the left and the left and right wheel brakes located together on the right. The M’s four cylinder engine had a very pleasing and powerful sound when working hard. Both the John Deere A and the Farmall M were rated as “3 bottom plow” tractors, quite powerful for that time. The M that I drove had five forward gears and was a special pleasure to drive in fifth, its “road gear”, which was much faster than the John Deere A’s highest gear, its sixth.
The configuration of both of these tractors was, as pictured, with two big drive wheels and two smaller front wheels together giving the tractors a tricycle-like appearance, a “row crop” arrangement because the tractor could work two rows of crops with the front wheels between two rows and the large drive wheels outside them.
I spent a memorable summer in North Dakota in 1957 when I was fifteen years old, working on the farm where my mother grew up. There I was to have the greatest tractor experiences of my life. My Uncle Clarence ran the farm and introduced me to “standard” tractors – squat four wheel configurations made for pulling – usually plows and harrows but really any kind of heavy implement and definitely not for cultivation of row crops.
The prize tractor I got to drive was a new John Deere 720, still two cylinders with massive displacement and the familiar John Deere sound, but this time a diesel. The diesel engine in this tractor was started with a “pony engine”, a four cylinder electric-start gasoline engine, which when started, connected to the flywheel of the big two cylinder diesel engine to crank and start it. This beautiful tractor also had power steering, which I had not previously experienced and which made driving the tractor so much easier.
This was the main tractor upon which I sat hour after hour, day after day, that summer, cultivating the rich black soil in both fallow fields and those being prepared for planting. Fields in North Dakota were usually quarter-sections (“quarters”) of 160 acres so to pull a huge harrow down a half-mile or mile field length and back could take a half-hour or so. This tractor was such a pleasure to drive – the same welcome sound, incredible power and the not entirely unpleasant smell of diesel exhaust instead of gasoline.
My uncle also had three other tractors on the Mylo, North Dakota farm – the familiar John Deere A and two old but still running John Deere Model D’s. I cultivated a large field of corn several times that summer with the A since it was a “row crop” tractor and I drove one of the D’s occasionally to pull harrows and keep them serviceable for when the 720 was not available.
The John Deere D was an amazing tractor. Its two huge cylinders, each almost 7 inches in diameter, provided significant torque and steady and reliable pulling power. It was manufactured from the late 1920’s clear through to the 1950’s and these two, both probably assembled in the 1930’s, again featured the “hand start” fly wheel method of starting. However, the difference in the strength it took to turn the D’s flywheel compared to that of the A was quite concerning. I really had to struggle to start it, even with petcocks open and the compression reduced. The D had only three forward speeds, all frustratingly slow. The “high” gear still couldn’t get this big tractor out of its own dust. One of my Uncle’s John Deere D’s also had concrete cast in both of its huge spoked wheels in order to give it more traction. I really enjoyed driving these venerable behemoths but of course greatly preferred the modern 720 with its diesel engine and power steering. Incidentally, I should mention that the “plow rating” of both the 720 and the D was a five or six bottom plow.
Looking back at my exciting and pleasurable experiences with tractors, I am thankful that I was never injured in an accident, for tractor accidents, especially in the 1950’s, before protective cabs were mandated, could easily occur and were not uncommon. During that memorable summer of 1957, my grandmother Baxstrom used to listen to the news every night sorrowfully sighing “Oh my, oh my” at the accounts of horrific tractor deaths and injuries on the plains of the US and Canada. Tractors turning over on their drivers, farmers becoming entangled between an implement and the drive wheels of a tractor, someone falling off a tractor with the tractor’s drive still engaged and being injured or killed by a towed implement were typical. Fingers and hands would be injured by the spinning external flywheel on a John Deere or feet and legs would be broken or lost by being crushed by a drive wheel. Also not uncommon were injuries caused by hand start tractors being started while in gear and with the clutch engaged. The number and variety of tractor accidents never ceased to amaze me and concern my grandmother.
So I have been fortunate to experience only the pleasure and not the pain of piloting these powerful machines that cultivate our fields to grow our food – a piece of personal history that I recall very fondly.