A tradition is building in a small west Texas town, and it has nothing to do with either Friday night football or oil fields. Thanks to the hard work of a local high school's FFA chapter, Cotton Center, Texas, is fast gaining a reputation as a center of excellence in antique tractor restoration. The Cotton Center FFA chapter routinely places in the annual ChevronTexaco Tractor Restoration Competition, held each year at the Future Farmers of America (FFA) Convention.
Since 1995 the competition has rewarded the determination, mechanical skill and business savvy of high school FFA members from around the country. "One of the reasons ChevronTexaco sponsors this program is because it inspires teens to learn," says Kurt Schulte, commercial automotive specialist, ChevronTexaco Products Co. "To finish their projects, kids seek out knowledge from teachers, advisors, family, friends, community and teammates. A program that inspires kids to ask questions, interact, learn and ultimately accomplish the incredible is something we are proud to support."
It was with great anticipation that the Cotton Center High School FFA team (Jesse Masters, Heath Reeves, Sara Barr, Jessica Caswell, Nikki Edwards, Brittany Swoap, KC Garcia, Toby Castilleja, Amy Davis, Cody Heath, Jennifer Heath, Julie Heath, Brenda Marquez and Chapter Advisor David Howell) geared up for the 2004 competition. Teams from Cotton Center had done well in recent years, qualifying for the competition and placing in the top five each year since 2000. But this year's team, composed of 11 seniors and two juniors, had extra motivation.
Two women closely connected with the team were fighting cancer during the restoration process. Robin Heath, mother of triplets Julie, Jennifer and Cody Heath, and Becky Gast, wife of Cotton Center School Superintendent Keith Gast, both became ill around the time of the competition. Robin Heath was diagnosed with breast cancer while the team was in the middle of the project, and Becky Gast underwent surgery and radiation therapy over the summer to treat a brain tumor.
And then there was the matter of bragging rights. The FFA team representing Cotton Center's chief rival, Abernathy High School, had beaten Cotton Center in 2003. Emotions ran high. "It didn't matter where we came in - fourth, fifth, whatever," says Cody Heath, recalling the days leading to the competition, "just as long as we beat Abernathy."
Despite the intense competition between the two schools, the level of enmity is not exactly on par with the Yankees and Red Sox. "It's a very friendly rivalry," says Jessica Caswell. "The FFA members are all friends, and we appreciate the work done by each other."
"One of the reasons ChevronTexaco sponsors this program is because it inspires teens to learn,"
The process of restoring the Cotton Center tractor, a 1939 John Deere Model H, was quite involved. The team split the work by gender: The boys did the mechanical work while the girls took care of the body work and workbook. Competition rules require teams to submit a workbook detailing the entire tractor restoration process, from mechanical overhauls of the engine, transmission and related systems, to the tractor's external appearance.
The team completely tore apart the tractor, rebuilding each component and making a number of parts. "We worked as much as we could during school hours," Cody says, "but most of the work was done on weekends."
Once the work was done, the fun began. Team members agree that traveling to the competition was a highlight of the experience, in large part because Robin Heath and Becky Gast were able to join the group. Both women responded well to treatment and accompanied the team to Louisville. In recognition of their presence, the team dubbed the trip the "Celebration of Life Tour."
At the competition, though, the team was all business. Each team member had put considerable effort into preparing for their presentation to the judges, and was confident that the hard work would be evident. "We all worked together to get the presentation where we wanted it to be," Jessica adds.
The judges agreed, and awarded Cotton Center the Grand Prize in the FFA Chapter category. (Rival Abernathy also had a strong showing, finishing as second runner-up.) "Our personalities put us over the edge," says Julie Heath. "The judges could see how well we got along. We didn't go in there pretending to know everything about the tractor. We just went in and told them what we knew."
After the victory, the Cotton Center team was given a hero's welcome back home. When the group arrived home late Sunday night following the competition, they found the school gymnasium's parking lot filled with cars. As the team members walked inside, a throng of family and friends screamed, "Surprise!" and waved welcome banners.
Reflecting on the experience, the team is grateful for the opportunities provided by the competition. "It's great to see ChevronTexaco investing in the youth," says Jessica. "We're the future of the industry and it's nice to know they care so much about education and developing our skills."
- For more information on the 2005 Chevron Delo Tractor Restoration Competition: www.allen-martin.com/tractor.htm