Modern Use of Old Machines

Old machines have a special place on today’s farms.

A 1938 Caterpillar Twenty Two

Hauling the 1938 Caterpillar Twenty-Two into the Sawtooth Mountains to do dozer work at a cabin. The truck is a World War II armored half-track that was converted to a cargo truck after the war.

Photo by Clell Ballard

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Even though old machines are still capable of performing jobs just like they did when they were new or almost so, rarely are they utilized. Readily available modern equipment comes to mind when heavy work is contemplated. If a business is involved, time is money — so rapid completion of work is essential. Even if the project is only a personal one, getting something done quickly is desirable.

There are two scenarios where using old machinery is seriously contemplated in today’s world. One is a situation where only old equipment is available. The other is a person’s desire to experience the use of old machines and time expended is not a major consideration.

In rural areas, earth-moving is not an unusual requirement on farms and ranches. “Earth” in this connotation can encompass many substances: soil, gravel, mud, manure, etc. In recent decades, wheeled skid-steer (and now tracked skid-steer) machines have become the standard for smaller jobs. Prior to their development, small tractors of various kinds were utilized. The ubiquitous wheel tractors were pressed into service but the really successful tractors for doing dozer work were tracked.

Beauty of the small crawler

One of my favorite little crawlers was the 2-cylinder John Deere. Not only were they handy, we always considered them cute. Because of their small size, they were used by the U.S. Forest Service to clear trails and clean areas where logging had occurred. An oft-repeated story about their use in that context was how they sometimes proved frustrating when trying to climb over a good-size log. Since the gasoline supply was gravity-fed, the tractor would climb up the front side of the log and just before it could tip down to the other side, the engine would quit. No matter how many times that was tried, there was never enough gas in the carburetor to carry it over. Some other way to the other side had to be followed.

Some time before John Deere built crawlers, small Caterpillars were common on farms. Designations such as “Ten,” “Fifteen” and “Twenty” indicated the smallest models. In the 1930s, a common Caterpillar on small farms was the “Twenty-Two.” I’m not sure if Caterpillar ever made factory dozers to fit on those tractors but individuals often created their own. A Twenty-Two my brother bought from a retired farmer had a homemade dozer attached. Obviously it was built from various components, the only identifiable ones being John Deere plow beams used as lift arms.

The tractor is a little gem in that it can do an amazing amount of work in spite of its advanced age. Like all tractors of that era, it is crank start. The crank, which permanently resides in front of the radiator, is inserted into the front crankshaft pulley so the handle is at the bottom. It is then pulled up one-quarter of a turn. If the engine doesn’t start, the procedure is repeated. With the proper application of choke and the throttle location, it usually needs only two or three tries to come to life. The homemade dozer mounting makes starting more difficult but not impossible.

In addition to regular farm and ranch work, the little Cat has been utilized many times in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho at cabin locations. Roads in those areas are often marginal so to get it where it is needed we haul it in our World War II half-track converted to a cargo truck. The tractor’s weight is a light load for the 2- to 3-ton truck. It is always possible to unload and reload by backing up to a dirt bank and walking the tractor off and on.

Making quick work of snow

Privately owned modern snow removal equipment is almost always adequate even in our area where deep snow is common. Since most snow we get is dry powder, snow blowers are the first line of attack when a large storm dumps a lot of snow on us. However, that snow, when plowed into large banks by county road clearing equipment, often ends up being too hard-packed for snow blowers to move. Then a tractor with a front-end loader is necessary to clear driveways. The average guy doesn’t have one of those so he has to hire someone to do the job.

My brother, on the other hand, has at his disposal a Twenty-Two Cat dozer. The highest, hardest banks and stretches where hard snowdrifts are waist deep don’t stand a chance against his really old equipment. The shed door is opened, a little starting fluid and proper choking are utilized, and the tractor engine coughs to life. Then the operator, clad in warm winter clothing, climbs aboard and walks it out into the white world. A few hours later the snow-blocked area is open and the tractor is backed back into the shed, ready to be called on when the next storm arrives.

Maybe new modern equipment has advantages but old stuff is invaluable when the chips are down. Since the average guy doesn’t have the resources to own (and often even to rent) machines that do heavy work year ’round, obtaining a good old farm tractor is an excellent investment. It’ll do the job! FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell 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 at cballard@northrim.net.