Lessons in Farming with a Tractor

article image

We’ve all heard stories about the neighbor, uncle or grandfather, who after farming with horses all his life finally bought a tractor. Following careful instructions from the dealer, the new tractor owner got the machine started, and was going along pretty well, when some unexpected occurrence (such as the end of a row) demanded an immediate stop. All thought of clutches and brakes fled the operator’s mind and he hauled back mightily on the steering wheel and hollered “Whoa!” for all he was worth, while the tractor continued merrily on through the fence, into the creek, or whatever.

I don’t have any such stories of my own to tell. My grandfather never drove a motor vehicle as far as I know. He owned cars, which were driven by his sons, but always farmed with horses. When my dad and my uncle took over the farm and bought a tractor, Nandad was content to ride the mower or the binder and leave the driving to others.

Sometime ago, a friend sent me an account of his grandfather’s experiences with his first tractor and gave me permission to retell the tale.

Here’s the somewhat edited story:

“My grandparents, who were getting on in age, were ‘dyed in the wool,’ small mom and pop farmers. Their annual income, which was probably less than we spend in a month, was derived from sales of milk, butter, eggs and vegetables taken to a curb market in Franklin, Pennsylvania. With that, the stage is set!

“Sometime about the end of World War II, Grandad was persuaded to get a tractor, as it would make life a bit easier. Tractors were scarce and in great demand, as were a lot of consumer goods after the war. In order to buy a tractor you had to register and you couldn’t get one of the scarce machines until your name came up.

“Well, Grandad’s name finally came up. Oh my! That was a big day! My dad and I went with Grandad to finalize the arrangements. I was pretty young and, while I knew all about what was going on, I don’t recall any of the details.

“The tractor, which I believe was a Ford 8-N (Author’s note: The Ford 8-N came out in 1947. Before that, it would have been a Ford-Ferguson 2-N), was delivered to the farm and that’s when the transition from team to tractor became interesting. Grandad could only afford to spring for a tractor, so all the old horse-drawn implements had to be converted. My dad told him (Grandad was hard of hearing) that we would have to cut off the tongues and bolt on steel to hook to the tractor’s drawbar.

“Grandad at first didn’t want any part of this because he wasn’t sure the tractor would work and he might need to go back to using the team. We got past that and cut off the tongues of the rake, mowing machine, wagon, and binder, among other implements.

“Now, all these machines needed an operator and I’ll tell you about the mowing machine and that’s all.

“Grandad had a car and did a limited amount of driving, which was understandable with the wartime scarcity of tires and gasoline. So, Grandad was proud of his driving ability and determined not to mark or scratch the shiny new tractor. However, Grandad just couldn’t get the hang of stopping the tractor, he was so used to saying “whoa” to the horses.

“I was ten or twelve and not big or heavy enough to lift the cutter bar of the mowing machine unless I slid off the seat, stood on the lift pedal with one foot, and pulled back on the lift lever with all my might. This seemed to work OK and we started mowing hay.

“Remember I said that Grandad was hard of hearing, and he just couldn’t get his brain to instinctively tell his feet to depress the clutch and brake in order to stop quickly. Many times while mowing, the hay would ball up on the cutter bar and I would have to holler Wooha! several times before Grandad heard me. He then would holler WOAHA! a couple of times before it came to him to push in the clutch.

“This caused no real problems in the field, but after you finish mowing a field it’s nice to clean up by mowing around the edge of the field in the other direction. Grandpa hadn’t made a boo-boo in several days of mowing, raking and hauling in hay and he was getting real proud of himself, however this was the final test.

“As you know, there are often surprises when going around the outside edge of a field and we found one. As we were going along, I saw we were getting too close to an old stump and began to yell “Whoa!” When Grandad heard me, he lost it and reverted to the old horse mode by yelling “WOAHA!” By the time we got stopped, the cutter bar looked like a pretzel. I can still remember how the cutter bar hooked to that stump and began to twist and tear itself up as the entire machine swung hard to the left. Yea man! We had an original thrill ride way ahead of its time.

“We found another old mower and robbed enough parts to get back in business, but I remember that after that I was the “designated driver” for some time.”

It’s fun to read these old stories of the real experiences of real people. If anyone has a tale that has to do with using horses, tractors or farm machinery, send it and I’ll see that it gets told.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment