Once farming became mechanized, the agricultural community came to share a lot of daily experiences. Obviously different crops are grown in different parts of the country, farm sizes vary and the climate in our large country has such a dramatic range that no two areas are the same. However, farmers everywhere get up early, work long hours, often do menial jobs and don’t expect anyone to laud them for their efforts.
One element of farming in the early days that’s rarely mentioned and never discussed in any detail is the mind-numbingly long hours spent on tractors in the field. Human nature is such that a person has a natural tendency to remember the good and forget the bad. That is amply evident in the current interest in collecting and restoring old tractors. Owners of old tractors will expound at length on their experiences (usually as a kid) driving whatever tractor is their favorite. But one doesn’t hear much about the boredom produced by that relentless fieldwork. Hot or cold weather is only mentioned in passing. The dust and dirt and bugs that almost drove one crazy for hours on end are largely forgotten.
Rest assured, those now unimportant conditions were front and center at the time the tractors were being used as designed. Operator comfort never figured into the equation. Yes, tractors were noble machines that did amazing things on America’s farms, but the individuals who used them were the real element that made farming successful. Workers today would be appalled if they were asked to do what was routinely done on a daily basis in farming just a few decades ago.
Because of the often repetitive nature of farm work, it is only natural that young farm hands made every effort possible to “have a little fun.” As a kid of 14, this author at one time drove a small Case wheel tractor (I’m pretty sure it had no model identification still visible on its faded paint) mowing hay with a 7-foot sickle. We referred to it as the “pea popper” because it was so small in relation to the farm’s other large, crawler-type tractors.
But it had one feature that no other tractor I ever drove had: a foot throttle in addition to the regular hand throttle. I quickly learned that when moving from one field to another (which usually meant a mile or so of travel) I could double-clutch and go up through the gears. What fun! I would stop several times during the move and accelerate again and again from first through fourth. Total enjoyment time for the whole day was something like 10 minutes.
Top speed for that small Case and most other similar tractors in the 1950s was about 10 mph. That doesn’t sound like much, but compared to droning along 10 or 11 hours a day at a fieldwork speed of 3.7 mph, it seemed like flying. In most farming situations that road speed was adequate to get from field to field. However in the wide open spaces of the West, moving from one field to another sometimes meant travel of 30, 40 or even 50 miles. Today a semi would be used to haul equipment from site to site. In the 1950s, the only way to make such a move was to drive the tractor while towing an implement.
A 15-year-old friend lived about 60 miles south of our high mountain valley. Irrigated row-crop farming was practiced down south; we grew dryland hay and grain. Because our growing season was always behind that at lower elevation, some farmers would make the trip to help us put up our hay crop after theirs was finished. My friend’s boss started him our way early one morning driving a tractor pulling a large New Holland hay baler. Equipped to cultivate row crops, the John Deere Model B tractor was really a little small for such an implement. It was the typical spindly John Deere of the 1940s and ’50s, with a single front wheel. The baler probably weighed as much or more than the tractor because it was powered by a fairly large engine mounted above the front flywheel.
The relative size of the tractor and baler was of little consequence on the flat land where it was regularly used. However, the 60-mile trip consisted of many hills, culminating in a high one just before descending into our valley. The road speed of 11 mph seemed pretty good early on but as the hours went by, it seemed like a person could walk that fast. Some of the smaller hills required shifting down, which dramatically slowed progress. Most of the trip was through an unsettled area with no houses nearby and my friend thought he would never reach his destination.
When he finally arrived at the high last hill, he was bored out of his mind from his long, low-speed trip. He shifted down and the Model B worked hard at gaining the summit. Before him it was all downhill to the valley floor. “Here is a chance to have a little fun,” he thought. “I’ll take it out of gear and coast down.” Although he was familiar with the road, he’d never paid attention to the lay of the land. Thus he began to descend a hill much steeper than he thought it was with the tractor in neutral.
Big mistake! The photo on the opposite page shows the road sign at the top. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there then but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Higher speed was his goal and he didn’t really think about the two fairly sharp corners that needed to be negotiated.
Initially he felt exhilaration, but he hadn’t gone far before he knew he was going too fast. He tried putting on the brakes. As anyone who’s driven a row-crop tractor knows, the individual wheel brakes — one on either side of the John Deere tractor’s platform — almost cannot be pushed simultaneously. While holding the wheel, the driver’s feet must be picked up at the same time and equal pressure applied to the separate brakes. Unequal pressure can yank the front end of the tractor around. His attempt at braking caused the tractor to swerve sideways but slowed it down not at all.
Pushed by the heavy hay baler, the tractor continued to gain speed. All my friend could do was hang on to the steering wheel and try to keep the tractor on the road. One can only guess how high a speed the terrified kid and the machinery he was transporting reached — but there’s a good chance a new world record was set. How do we know? Before reaching the bottom of the hill, the gear oil in the transmission sprayed into the air like Old Faithful through the shift lever slots in front of the driver.
After what seemed an eternity, the tractor reached the bottom of the hill. Just moments before it had seemed a sure thing the tractor and baler would overturn and be destroyed, but that didn’t happen. The driver too emerged unscathed but was covered head to toe with hot gear oil. The final 10 miles of the trip were blissfully uneventful. The kid had plenty of time to get cleaned up before the boss arrived. The young farm hand driver told him then that he thought that maybe the John Deere transmission “might be a little low on oil.” FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind that he lives in Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.