The Fix-It Men Kept Farm Communities in Business

Fix-it men were mechanics, blacksmiths, and troubleshooters, and they kept farm communities moving

| April 1999

During the 1930s, '40s and '50s, each farm community had an individual who acted as blacksmith, mechanic and troubleshooter for the neighboring farmers. These talented men, rarely with any formal training, could repair, modify, build or rebuild almost any tractor, truck, automobile or farm machine. 

In the area where I grew up, South Beaver Township in Beaver County, Pa., the man who kept the farmer's worn-out equipment running was Al McDonald. Al had been in France during World War I, and had taken a strong whiff of mustard gas that left his lungs in pretty bad shape. Even though his health wasn't good, Al managed to support his wife and four daughters with his mechanical skills.

As I recall, Al's first shop was a long, narrow building with a dirt floor. He later moved and used the lower level of a barn as his shop. I believe it had a wooden floor, as well as a lot more space.

The area around such shops was always cluttered with old cars, trucks and machinery in various stages of disrepair. I looked forward to going to Al McDonald's with Dad because I could climb into all those vehicles and pretend to drive them. There were usually two or three men hanging around the shop, and I enjoyed listening to the conversation and the stories they told, which were much more earthy than what I was used to hearing at home.

In addition to keeping our cars and tractors and the old truck running, Al once built us a large wagon using a stripped International truck chassis and, later, a two-wheeled trailer from old car wheels and channel iron.

During the early '40s, tractors were scarce and expensive, and Al built a couple of "doodlebug" tractors. I remember one that was made from an early '30s Chevrolet ton-and-a-half truck. The cab and bed were removed (funny how, in those days, it wasn't a tractor if it had a cab), the frame was shortened, and a second four-speed transmission was added behind the existing one. A large block of cement was chained over the rear axle for weight and, with tire chains on the dual wheels, an adequate light duty tractor was the result. The two four-speed transmissions gave 17 speeds forward (16 in various combinations of gears, and the 17th, a low-low forward speed with both units shifted into reverse). Four reverse speeds were also available.