Many children raised on farms can relate to riding and operating tractors early in their lives. While my own experiences are very similar, one portion of my life holds a special remembrance for me. It began on a small farm in southeast Iowa on the edge of the northern city limits of Washington, when I was between 1 and 2 years old.
I always felt that I had a good relationship with my dad. I had two half-brothers who were much older than me. Both of them were on their own by the time I was 5. Therefore, in reality, I was an only child, born when my father was 48 years old.
What I have learned over time about my father’s early life provides some explanation for the experiences he shared with me as I rode the fields and lanes of our farm, sitting beside him in a seat he made for me. The seat was built from used lumber, hand-sawed, assembled with common nails and secured to the tractor’s axle housing and headlight mast with No. 9 wire. My father had many useful skills considering he was on his own at an early age, working as a hired hand on various farms. In addition to my tractor seat, he designed and built many gadgets that made work on our farm easier and more efficient.
No one ever told me exactly why he made that seat for me. Later I learned his relationship with his father was rather distant, which might explain why he enjoyed having me close by. Although I was all over the farm and barnyard, experiencing the things most rural children did in the 1940s and ’50s, the one most unique may have been the hours I spent riding beside my dad on his 1942 Farmall Model H.
A natural classroom
While I remember being in that homemade enclosure (it may not have passed OSHA regulations, but it was a very protective location) many times, I do not remember how early I began my frequent journeys as “we” mowed, sowed or tilled farm fields. Apparently it began when I could barely walk. My mother would prepare a lunch, drink and snacks. I ate a lot of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and homemade cookies (and I still like peanut butter). She would dress me according to the weather. The seat, as demonstrated by the model I built, provided some protection from the wind and elements. However, an open tractor is still a place to reckon with in adverse conditions. During my cold weather rides, I probably resembled the younger brother in A Christmas Story. Like him, I could barely move in my winter outfit!
Riding with Dad was not just an outdoor, time-consuming adventure. It was also an introduction to nature. There was a storage space under my enclosed seat where a variety of wildlife and related items were put for safekeeping until we returned home. A number of baby birds, rabbits, toads and a host of insects made the journey with us. We always had the ubiquitous Skippy peanut butter jar with perforated lid close at hand to provide a temporary home for insects.
Learning to love the land
The treasures stored under the seat were only a part of the experience. I became enamored with clouds in the sky, the smell of the air after a rain, and the rich smell of a freshly plowed furrow gleaming in the noonday sun, well populated with blackbirds seeking a tender morsel when earthworms were plentiful. The odor of new-mown hay in late afternoon still brings back images of tractor rides during haying season. All of the changes of the seasons came into full view as I rode along, each with its special offerings and remembrances.
Another passenger also made the early trips with us. I had a particular attachment to a chicken I called “Tutu.” I don’t suppose it enjoyed the outings as much as I did, but it apparently survived the separation from the flock. Tutu was a Rhode Island Red laying hen and was somewhat forgiving when it came to riding with me in the seat. When we changed to Hy-Line layers a few years later, they were not nearly as docile. In truth, they were wild.
The tractor that faithfully carried us over the farm’s gently rolling hills had one special feature added by Dad. He had painted the name “Scarlet O’Hara” on both sides of the hood in neat white letters. Apparently he was impressed by the book or movie, Gone with the Wind. Another unique item on the tractor was what he called the “baby” tank, placed close beside the main gas tank. It was actually used as the gas tank when kerosene (distillate) was used in the main tank. During World War II he had used it that way. When I was growing up, he used the baby tank as an emergency tank if he ran out of gas in the field. I have a picture showing the downspout on the exhaust pipe used to keep the smoke above the level of the tractor operator.
Treasure cast aside
As is always the case, kids grow up. Before long, I was driving the tractor myself and performing various chores around the farm. However, except when the cultivator was mounted, my tractor seat remained in position. Dad was so used to having it there, it became an extra storage compartment, handy for a lunch, water jug and tools.
My father passed away suddenly in 1959, when I was 14. We had two tractors then: the H, with my seat still attached, and a newer Farmall Model 300. We rented the farm to a neighbor and my farming days basically came to a close.
The last time I remember seeing the seat was during our farm sale in 1976. Then only a fading memory of my past, it had been relocated to a remote, musty corner of the machine shed, having lost its prominent location on the platform of the Model H. Preparation for the sale required going through all of the buildings and the house. Sorting and deciding what to discard, what to keep and what to sell resulted in many trips to the landfill. Unfortunately, at 31, I wasn’t wise enough to keep one of the most important possessions from my past that kept me safe, yet close, when riding with Dad.
A worthwhile journey
As time passed, my two sons had rural experiences similar to my own. They rode our tractor with me, then began driving on their own as we lived through the seasons on our acreage, raising crops and animals. In what seemed a very short span of time, they grew up and moved away. I began to better understand why my father wanted to keep his only child close by as much as possible.
Although the seat from my childhood was gone, I needed to build on that memory in honor of my dad. I decided to build a scale model from memory, and the one picture in my possession that shows a portion of the seat on the tractor. I took measurements from a neighbor’s Model H and built the model. That process gave me the incentive to write this story.
The final part of this journey will be the construction of a replica seat that will be mounted on an H and photographed for a permanent remembrance of “riding with Dad.” Thomas Wolfe once wrote that, “You cannot go home again.” However, some things that we can do will get us much closer to home than we ever thought possible. Mine was a worthwhile journey. FC
A retired middle school teacher, Lloyd M. Munson was raised on a small farm in southeast Iowa. He and his wife have spent 40 years on an acreage in southwest Iowa, raising broilers for friends and family, raising a large garden and making sauerkraut. Contact him at (712) 525-1084 or firstname.lastname@example.org.