During the mid-1990s, my older brother, Fred, and I purchased hardwood from the state. We cut, sawed and hauled the cordwood 10 miles to our homes in Pitcher on a 200-bushel barrel spreader modified for this purpose.
One day, I drove the 40-year-old Farmall 400 to the woodlot, pulling the empty spreader. The 400 was running good: With a recent engine overhaul and new brakes, she could climb every hill out of the Otselic Valley, N.Y., in high gear without shifting down. Just before the woodlot, you have to climb the mile-long Bel Mar Hill, which is very steep. The tractor pulled it with ease in high fifth.
Once at the woodlot, I filled the spreader full and rounded high with green maple. On the return trip, coming to the crest of Bel Mar Hill, I disregarded Fred's advice to always shift the tractor to a lower gear, instead leaving it in high fifth. The spreader, loaded with green maple, weighed about as much as the tractor. When about halfway down, I realized too late I should have followed Fred's advice. At that point, there was no possible way to shift down, with the engine screaming and gray smoke pouring off both brakes. I prayed that if I were to wreck, no one else would be hurt. I continued to stand on those brakes as if my life depended on them (and it did).
Bel Mar Hill dead-ends into the state highway with a stop sign. With no traffic in sight and the engine sounding like it would explode, I roared through the stop sign and managed the left turn without losing a single stick of wood. Safely on the main road, I pulled the rig over. A close inspection revealed the tractor and spreader were OK. I continued the rest of the way home with no additional thrills.
When Fred saw the tractor with those blackened brake housings, he lifted his eyebrows and said, "Wow! What happened?" The cost of my foolish act: a new set of brakes, repainting the brake housings (which had been scorched solid black) and chastising myself for risking lives and property just to save a few minutes. Maybe others can learn from my mistake: Always put safety first!
- Gil Raymond