In Cotton Center, What's Old is New Again

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Members of the Cotton Center, Texas, FFA team and their national champion tractor restoration. Nearly one-third of the Cotton Center high school student body (a total of 45 pupils) was involved in the project.

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Tractor restoration operates like a well-oiled machine at the Cotton Center (Texas) FFA chapter. The award-winning program features an annual restoration project, and has a six-year waiting list of customers. "We're just finishing a Ford 8N," says Chapter Advisor David Howell, a 30-year veteran educator. "A guy left money in his will for that tractor to be restored."

The program began six years ago when a local family donated a vintage tractor and funding for every aspect of its restoration. The chapter sold the completed project and used the proceeds to fund a project the next year. After that, the chapter began accepting commissions from people who had tractors needing restoration, with the tractor owner funding all restoration expenses.

The award-winning 1939 John Deere Model H, for instance, belongs to a Flomont, Texas, man who wanted the tractor dressed up for parades. The tractor hadn't been moved for perhaps 15 years, hadn't been started for 20. "It was completely rusted," says team member Cody Heath. Following the owner's instructions, the students restored the tractor to its original state, down to and including copper lines and John Deere gauges.

The students agreed on a division of labor. While the boys worked on mechanics, the girls focused on body work. "We sanded and primed," says team member Jessica Caswell, "and there were a lot of dents."

Literally every part of the tractor needed attention. "The engine was rusted through," recalls Cody Heath. "We bored out the cylinders, restored them to original, restored the pistons and connecting rods; did the head and valves, and we basically rebuilt the block. Everything is original except the parts we had to replace. The main case had a crack in it, so we had to order a new one. And one of the teeth in the bull gear was broken off. It would have been easier to buy a new one, but we decided to rebuild it."

"You need to understand," says David, "that there was not one part of that tractor that wasn't broken down to its smallest component and then rebuilt or replaced."

Given that the team faced competition deadlines, the project required more than a few Saturday work sessions. "The biggest challenge," Cody notes, "was developing patience. When a lot of people think about restoring a car or a truck or a tractor, they'll spend several years on it. It took us eight months."

No one involved begrudges the time investment. In fact, when they talk about the project, the ups and downs, the tone is decidedly nostalgic.

"There were so many rewards," says Jessica. "We got to go so many places, learn so many things. In addition to just learning about the tractor and all, we went on trips and had so many 'real world' experiences." When the group displayed the tractor at a show in Houston, they were engulfed by visitors who shared memories. "It made the tractors come alive for us," she says. "It wasn't about the restoration anymore, or about going to competition: It was hearing these people talk, seeing their faces light up when they told their stories."

The chapter advisor is equally smitten. "One of the greatest things was that we got to visit with the people who actually farmed with tractors like these," David says. "We probably learned more history from this experience than from anything else we've done. We met so many people, learned where they were coming from, and how we got to the point of enjoying all the things we have today."

With so many young people fluent in digital technology, it almost defies understanding that they might also be captivated by a 65-year-old, 2-cylinder tractor. As it turns out, though, the ties that bind are sometimes crafted of cast iron.

"We're restoring a tractor for my granddad," says Jennifer Heath. "And now that's something that he and I have in common."