The Fix-It Men Kept Farm Communities in Business

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The Farm Mechanic: With little if any formal training, these talented men could repair, modify, build or rebuild almost any tractor, truck, automobile or farm machine.

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.

Another of these fine farm mechanics is Dick Ronald, whose shop along State Route 172 east of East Canton, Ohio, was the scene of much farm activity from the mid-’40s to just a few years ago.

Dick told me that he fixed anything that came in the door, or broke down in the field. In the early years, there wasn’t room inside the shop for most farm machines, and he did a lot of the work outside, even in winter. Later, a cement block addition was built, allowing all but the largest equipment to be repaired inside.

When the temperature got down to around zero, Dick always knew he was in for it. Farmers would go out to the barn on a zero morning and switch on the silo unloader to get feed for the herd. The silage would be frozen, and a chain (or something else) would snap. Dick says he climbed many a silo in zero weather, dragging along an acetylene torch to make repairs. One great story Dick tells is about the time a man brought in a corn binder that had picked up a rock, bending parts and breaking gears in the knotting mechanism. “I knew about as much about corn binders as you could stick in your eye,” Dick said. The farmer brought the instruction manual for the machine and Dick welded gears and straightened parts while referring to the book. When he finished, he stuck his shop broom between the binder points and turned the mechanism over with a large wrench. The broom moved at a stately pace through the binder, emerging at the other end with what Dick calls “… the prettiest little knot you’ve ever seen” tied around the handle. “That was probably the proudest I’ve ever been of a job,” Dick says. “I didn’t think that binder would ever tie a knot again!”

Another service both these men provided to area farmers was plowshare sharpening. Dick says he heated and hammered hundreds of plowshares every year. Al McDonald did the same, but he also had another way of renewing worn-out plowshares. He would cut a piece from an old truck spring, angle the end and weld it over the worn point. I remember my father being very skeptical about whether or not it would work, but I plowed many acres with those welded-on points.

Given the shortage of money in the 1930s, and the scarcity of equipment during the ’40s, men such as Al McDonald and Dick Ronald performed a vital role in keeping farmers going. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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