Just Like Dad: Driving Pedal Tractors

Dale Jensen remembers farming with his John Deere pedal tractor as a boy.

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Dale Jensen as a toddler with his “small” John Deere 60.

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Long on desire but short in stature, as children we could only watch from a safe distance while fathers, grandfathers, uncles or brothers confidently and effortlessly wielded the tractors of our childhood. Some among us witnessed steel-wheeled distillate-burners nosily heralding the demise of horse farming. Many of us stood in awe watching legions of post-war, rubber-tired, gasoline-powered row crops working to feed an increasingly urban population. Others gazed upon cab-equipped, wide-front-end diesels, the predeccors at 21st century front-wheel-assisted and satellite-guided behemoths.

Generational differences aside, we were rarely, if ever, denied access to the tractors of our youth. Once the tractors were safely parked, we were encouraged to ascend the drawbars or steps leading to those hallowed thrones of stamped steel or vinyl-covered cushions. Confidently seated with feet dangling years away from distant foot pedals, we leaned forward to grasp a spoked wheel. Turning the wheel left and right cemented a bond between boy and machine. The passion and desire were there; the hands were ready. Unfortunately the feet were not.

Passion and desire notwithstanding, as little children we were simply too small to operate real tractors. On the other hand, breakfast, dinner and supper provided the fuel we needed to power tractors we could own and operate. Coinciding with the introduction of 1/16-scale die-cast toy tractors during the late 1940s and early '50s, pedal tractors also began appearing on farmsteads. Mini Farmalls, John Deeres and other brands operated by munchkin-sized future farmers traversed sidewalks, driveways and farmyards across America.

I was one of those little pedalers. I received my pedal tractor in 1955 for my second birthday. Even though ours was a Farmall farm, my pedal tractor - a used model - was a John Deere 60 (the small one). Perhaps dad decided the bargain price warranted allowing this foreigner on the property. In retrospect, I was so happy to have a pedal tractor I didn't dwell on brand name or color.

At first I had only a green pedal tractor and a yellow wagon. Imagination provided a 2-row cultivator and a hay rake. Thanks to an inventive and creative dad, however, I also had a few actual implements. My first implement was a silage chopper made from a discarded reel mower. Dad simply removed the wooden handle and fashioned a strap-iron tongue that would hitch to my tractor. He also attached a piece of sheet metal above and behind the reel, tapering and rolling it towards the rear to create a discharge chute.

The second was a combine fashioned from oil cans. A rectangular 5-gallon oil can laid horizontally became the main body of the combine. Dad removed the bottom half of the rear end where pretend chaff and straw would exit and the top half of the front end where grain would enter. Another horizontal 5-gallon can cut in half lengthwise and diagonally from the top rear to the bottom front created the header.

An opening cut in the center of the back wall aligned with the front opening in the main body. The attached header formed a "T" shape with the other can. A rectangular 1-gallon can with top removed was bolted to the left side of the "body" can to serve as a grain tank. A 1-by-2-inch board bolted to pivot near the bottom of this can swung out to unload the tank. The entire assembly was attached to an angle-iron frame for support. Another strap-iron hitch, angled to the left, ensured the header cleared the right rear tractor tire. The wheels came from a discarded baby stroller. After one harvest season, I fashioned a wagon hitch that let me pull my wagon along beside the combine just like dad did with our Massey-Harris Clipper combine.

My third implement, one I made (with help), was a 4-row planter. The base of the planter was a 2-by-6-inch board about 3 feet long. Dad drilled a hole in the bottom of four large fruit juice cans so I could screw them to the board for seed hoppers. Two pieces of wooden lath, hinged on each end of the board, were row markers. They were connected with a piece of string looped around a small pulley bolted to a vertical 1-by-2-inch board fastened at the back center of the board. Raising one marker lowered the opposite marker just like dad's 2-row tractor-mounted IH planter. Two caster wheels from the stroller completed my planter. I usually planted soybeans and rarely corn, because my only harvester was the combine. I dreamed of building a mounted corn picker but could never solve the problem of protruding pedals.

All my implements, real and imagined, provided hours of pretend farming. The best farming sessions occurred each summer when an older cousin came to stay for several days. He had a large John Deere 60 with a shift lever. Sometimes he'd let me ride it. I doubt two other small boys ever farmed as intensely as we. I fought back tears every time those get-togethers ended. Today both 60s are restored reminders of childhood days spent growing and preparing for the day when those distant real tractor foot pedals finally came within reach. Passion and desire were fulfilled.

Dale Jensen grew up on a small grain and livestock farm in central Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, he now lives and works in Springfield, Ill. Contact him at wdjensen@yahoo.com