Ask a person who is involved with old tractors about his or her interest in a specific model, and the most common answer will be tied to the tractors used on the farm when he or she was a kid. Affection for a certain make is often the result of time spent on a tractor while growing up.
Owning a similar one later in life makes it possible, to a small degree, to regain one’s youth. We can all understand that. Only rarely does an individual gain ownership of the actual tractor he drove years later. Too many years have passed, and most old tractors don’t survive the rigors of hard use.
That scenario applies to other farm vehicles as well. Those that survive hard use often end up being passed on to a series of owners. For the many readers of Farm Collector who worked on America’s farms during their youth, but who found other work as adults, finding one of the original farm vehicles they used a half-century earlier is highly unlikely. That is especially true if their youthful labor was performed for hire, rather than on the family farm.
An education in old equipment
In our rural grain-growing area in the 1950s, young men (“kids” was the word used then) were expected to start working for farmers as soon as possible. You did it whether you wanted to or not. Sparse population meant a shortage of workers, because in those days, mechanized farm equipment still needed several humans to make it work.
I started working 11 hours a day (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with an hour for lunch), six days a week, at age 13 after a family friend almost begged my parents to send me out to help him. I was willing to give it a try. From then on, my life every summer consisted of farm work. The wage for my labor was $4 a day, plus room and board. (Adult employees got $8 a day, plus room and board, for the same work.)
About the only thing that was halfway interesting in those long hours of drudgery was the equipment I was assigned to use. Most of it was older, because making a living on a small farm at the time was just barely possible. Fortunately, the farmers I worked for maintained the machines well, so it was possible to gain respect (and even some affection) for the pieces I used.
Three-fourths of each summer was spent driving tractors, mainly crawlers. Toward the end, harvest time arrived. That was the best time of the year. As the designated grain truck driver, I hauled the wheat (winter wheat was the main crop) to the co-op elevator several miles away. For one farmer, I drove a 15-year-old Chevrolet grain truck. Most of the time, I drove a 1947 Dodge that was 10 years old the first summer I drove it.
Three decades on the job
The Dodge had a gross vehicle weight of 20,000 pounds. Since the truck itself weighed about 6,000 pounds, it was licensed to haul a maximum of 7 tons. Driving a very heavily loaded old truck that had an 87 hp, 6-cylinder engine was a unique experience. The ability to move down the road at a reasonable speed depended on the driver’s ability to gauge engine rpm and double clutch at optimum times. The truck and I became one as we made hundreds of runs from fields to the grain elevator. I grew to love that old Dodge.
At other times of the year, the truck was used to haul cattle to market. After a newer International truck came to work on the farm, the Dodge still did yeoman duty, hauling the hay bales we stacked by hand. As the hired man, I drove it back and forth to the fields when I worked the night shift, plowing with a Caterpillar D4. I would eat my lunch at midnight while sitting in the truck’s small cab with the little interior light providing illumination.
The old Dodge truck remained on that farm during my 35-year career as a high school teacher. In its final job, it was used as a feed truck for cattle during the snowy winter months. The driver would take it to the feed yard, put it in compound (first gear), pull out the throttle a little and climb on the back to scatter hay as the truck crept along. Even that mundane job came to an end when the truck was about 30 years old. From then on, it just set forlorn and unneeded outside the corral fence for 33 years. What the farmer had proudly driven home in 1947, he now considered worthless. When I inquired about his truck that I drove for thousands of miles years ago, he said I could have it if I wanted to go to the trouble of hauling it away.
Reclaiming the past
Recently the old truck moved again. Its old driver (me) rescued it and towed it to a new home at my place. Due to our dry climate, the truck’s sheet metal is perfect, with the exception of one small dent in the nose. Although it was still in good running condition when parked more than three decades ago, the engine since became stuck and leaf cutter bees filled the honeycomb radiator full of their little nests. The headliner is sagging and driver’s seat has split. Obviously, it needs a lot of tender loving care. It is, however, a blast from the past. When it is returned to nice shape with the cab painted red and the fenders painted black, perhaps my long-gone youth will be rekindled.
Although farming has changed dramatically in the past half century, it is my hope that eventually I will be able to take the truck to a farm and haul one or more heavy loads of grain. Then I will be able to re-experience the sights, sounds and sensations that were so much a part of my formative years. The old Dodge truck holds the key. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email.