Farm Hand Gets More Than He Bargained For

Young farm hand gets more than he bargained for when he takes a John Deere Model B pulling a New Holland hay baler out of gear

| June 2012

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. 

Occasional diversions

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.