Old Iron Opens the Door to New Friends

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Photo by Josephine Roberts
After a great deal of time, elbow grease and hard cash, Dennis Hitchcock’s Fergie looked like new again.

This hobby of “old iron” (a phrase I’ve stolen from your good selves, I don’t mind admitting) has led me down some interesting paths over the years. A hobby is about so much more than just having a personal interest in something. A hobby becomes the foundation on which we build our friendships and our social life, the importance of which can’t really be underestimated.

It was all because of tractors that I first received an email from Dennis and Debbie Hitchcock. The fact that they lived in the Catskill Mountains in the U.S. caught my eye first. It sounded like a wild sort of place, like my sort of place. Dennis, a tractor enthusiast and semi-retired carpenter, had an impressive range of American tractors: a 1952 Farmall Super M, a 1950 John Deere MT, a 1944 Allis-Chalmers C and a 1964 International Cub Cadet 100 garden tractor.

He’d also just found an old wrecked Ferguson – a 1951 TO-20 – and was about to do it up. Since this was a British machine, he was keen to tell someone British about it. And I was interested to hear about one of our own tractors so far from home. Another noteworthy fact was that this tractor had been in a hurricane and flood, and was in a very sorry state. Dennis had found the Ferguson by chance. A friend asked him if he still liked old tractors, because he had an old wreck of a Fergie sitting around.

Antique tractor pitched by torrent

The tractor had been badly damaged during Hurricane Irene in 2011, when 22 inches of rain fell in a 12-hour period, causing catastrophic flooding.

The Ferguson was located in the worst-hit village in the Catskills. Not only was it immersed in 10 feet of water, it was also damaged by the sheer force of the torrent, as the floodwater had rolled it over several times. Almost every bridge in that area of the Catskills was taken out, many homes were destroyed and several lives were lost.

The owner’s home floated away downstream and was totally destroyed, along with some 40 other homes in the area. The level of devastation was horrifying, and of course the damage to one little old tractor was very insignificant, considering what the region and its inhabitants had been through. So the little old Fergie was understandably low on the owner’s list of priorities. It had quite simply been forgotten, left where the flood had seen fit to deposit it, and hadn’t been looked at since.

Completely encased in silt

Repairing this tractor was clearly going to be quite a challenge. Many people would have questioned whether it was worth the bother. For Dennis, the Ferguson was something different, so he didn’t think about the practicalities for too long. “I made a beeline to check the tractor out,” he says. “The block was fine, there was gas in the tank and the radiator was full of antifreeze. The owner wanted $200, which I gave him quickly, and the tractor followed me home!”

Over the next few months, Dennis painstakingly restored the Ferguson. The rear tires were fine, as the owner had fitted a brand new pair just before the flood. Dennis drained all the fluids and completely stripped the tractor down, just to make sure. It soon became clear that this tractor had never worked very hard in its life, as nothing seemed to be at all worn. But because it had been underwater, every part had to be disassembled. “To start with, I took apart everything, including every single nut and bolt,” Dennis says. “Everything was packed with silt from the flood. I used the air hose on the radiator fins and removed half a gallon of silt. But the fins themselves were like new, with no dents, which was amazing.”

“The brake drums were packed solid with oil and silt,” he adds, “so I removed springs, brake shoes and all the small parts and cleaned them up. As I finished cleaning the parts I could reuse, I primed and painted them as I went along. I gave the fuel tank a really good clean out, too.”

Restoration becomes labor of love

Whilst cleaning, repairing and reassembling the Ferguson, Dennis managed to learn a little of its history. “The previous owner’s father bought it for him when he was around 7 years old,” he says, “and he’s 60 now, so he’d owned it for 53 years. He said he never used it much. The tractor has been about 15 miles from me throughout its whole life.”

Dennis was well aware of the historical importance of the Ferguson tractor, and has long been interested in these iconic little tractors. “I’ve been looking for years for one, but they are very rare here,” he says, “as everyone bought the Ford 9Ns, 2Ns and 8Ns because of the Ford dealers around here. Most Fergusons I’ve seen for sale have been in Michigan, which is where they were made.”

The restoration process became a labor of love, and what began as a winter’s project turned into a monumental task, costing rather more than Dennis first expected. I received little updates every so often. Dennis was enjoying the work, but there were a lot more expensive new parts required than he had first anticipated. At one point he wrote, “Once you get started on these things, you have to carry on to the end.” Some parts were difficult to come by and incurred high postage costs. This was the downside of restoring a non-native tractor.

It was during one of these emails that Dennis and Debbie mentioned their plans to visit the UK.

“Come to Wales!” I told them, suggesting that they come when the Llandudno Transport Festival was on, as it was an ideal opportunity for Dennis to see a load of tractors in one place, and for Debbie to see a beautiful Victorian seaside town.

By the time spring came, Dennis had finished the Ferguson restoration, and Debbie had forgiven him for spending such a ridiculous sum of money on a little old tractor. We were all looking forward to their visit to North Wales, and my children especially were looking forward to meeting some “real Americans!’”

Admiring a DB Cropmaster

It really is quite a strange thing to get to know people via email, then suddenly meet them in the flesh, but in the end, it turned out that we were all good talkers and quickly felt as if we really had known each other for years. The beginning of May every year sees the start of the annual Llandudno Transport Festival, which always coincides with the town’s Victorian Extravaganza.

Standing out amongst the trucks, bikes, cars and stalls, a mouth-watering lineup of tractors could be seen. The tractor that instantly caught my eye was a 1951 David Brown Super Cropmaster owned by North Wales’ Vaughan Astbury. Super Cropmasters came with full side panels like that of the David Brown 50D, with larger tires and a chaff screen to cover the radiator. This was the tractor that I would most like to take home with me.

David Brown Cropmasters were built in Huddersfield in the North of England between 1947 and 1953, and they have the unusual bench, or double seat, which allows the driver to carry a companion. David Brown was already a well-established tractor manufacturer by the time they built the popular Cropmaster. The company had joined forces with Harry Ferguson in 1936 to build the diminutive Ferguson Brown tractor. Of course the Cropmaster isn’t a rare sight here in the U.K. They were popular tractors in their era, but to Dennis and Debbie they are an oddity.

As we walked around the rest of the tractors, Debbie and I soon realized we had lost Dennis and my partner, Alistair. There was clearly a difference in the way men and women behave at shows. Women wander around, taking in the entire show, chatting as they move, whereas men tend to strike up a conversation near a tractor or vehicle, and just stay there, talking, for at least half an hour. Debbie and I had made our way through the tractors, the vintage camper vans and were in the military truck section when we spotted the two chaps, still standing next to the same Fordson Major tractor, deep in conversation. Whoever said that women are talkers clearly hadn’t met these two.

All in all it was a lovely day, and the big thing I came away with was the fact that vintage vehicle enthusiasts are much the same the world over. Our homes might look vastly different, and our accents certainly are, but at the end of the day we are all singing from pretty much the same hymn sheet. Through an interest in tractors I’d been lucky enough to meet these two lovely people, and that’s something quite special.

No matter where you are, people are at the heart of this hobby

The way in which old tractors can bring people from all over the world together came home to me again in July, when Farm Collector organized a tour of the U.K. that passed by my home. You know who you are! There were 23 wonderful people hailing from Indiana, Colorado, Ohio, New York, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Texas and Michigan, plus editor Leslie and her husband, Jeff, all on a 10-day tour of Britain, taking in England, Wales and Scotland. They visited shows, museums, a couple of historic cities, but mostly they visited the more rural locations. I spent a lovely day in the Conwy Valley with these people and was genuinely touched by their kindness and sincerity. Meetings like this help to secure one’s faith in humanity.

I even found myself in the unusual position of being at the front of the tour bus with a microphone in my hand, telling people about this little corner of Wales. My 11-year-old daughter, Lili, was horrified to discover that I was going to ad lib my way through this. “I thought you would have written some facts down to read out!” she whispered to me.

The truth was that whilst these visitors had come to see the sights of Britain, and perhaps learn a little of the history of the places they were visiting, they had really come to meet people, and to enjoy our differences and our similarities. FC

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.

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