Phyllis Stephens was only a child when she first operated her father's John Deere tractor. Her father, Cameron St. John, used the 1939 unstyled Model BO as the sole tractor on the family's apple orchard in upstate New York for nearly 20 years.
Phyllis was too short to reach the pedals, so her father operated the clutch and engaged the throttle as he walked beside the machine. Phyllis fondly recalls how she slowly navigated the tractor through the apple trees, while hired hands placed bushel baskets brimming with fresh fruit aboard the trailer behind.
Remarkably, Phyllis still owns the tractor her father purchased new for $935 from a John Deere dealer in Whitney Point, N.Y., just two months before she was born. Judging by its spit-polished appearance, she cares for the farm machine as much as her father once did. 'My dad just loved this tractor,' Phyllis says, choking back tears.
Phyllis shared those memories and showed the tractor last April at the Power From the Past Association's annual show held in Tucson, Ariz. She and her husband, Wayne, are both avid old-iron collectors and charter members of the club since it was founded in 1988. Although they collect many kinds of vintage farm equipment, Phyllis says nothing could ever replace Dad's John Deere.
Yet, the story of her father's tractor almost ended unhappily. Phyllis and Wayne moved to Tucson in 1967 from their dairy farm near Scranton, Pa. When the family decided that Cameron needed to live closer to relatives because of his failing health, he moved to Tucson as well, but not before he auctioned nearly everything he owned - except the Model BO.
On auction day, Phyllis recalls, no one bid more than $250 for the tractor. Since Cameron dearly loved the tractor, he removed it from the auction to keep the orchard tractor in the family. 'He pulled it out of the auction,' Phyllis says. 'And thank goodness he did.'
Actually, that was the second time her father tried to sell the tractor. His first attempt happened in the 1950s, Phyllis says, but no one would pay the $500 asking price. 'I guess it was meant to stay in the family,' Phyllis jokes.
In fact, that's exactly what Cameron wanted. After he died, his children discovered a note scrawled on the back of an envelope stashed away in Cameron's few remaining possessions: 'When I'm done with this tractor, give it to Phyllis,' was all the note read.
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