The author reflects on his farming boyhood and his first solo outing at age 12 plowing a field with a McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor.
My foot struggled to push in the stiff clutch on the McCormick-Deering 10-20. I was trying to slip the clutch a little as the front wheel entered the furrow. Holding the metal steering wheel with both hands for leverage against the resistance of the clutch, I eased the big tractor forward until the ribbed rear tire entered the furrow, too. I let go of the clutch and quickly reached back with one hand to jerk the rope that tripped the two-bottom plow, sending it burrowing into the ground.
I pulled the throttle back to the notch Dad had pointed out and glanced back. He was standing, watching me. Quickly, I turned my attention back to the front tire riding the inside edge of the last furrow he had plowed; I dared not let that tractor tire veer right or left, and mar his straight line.
It was the fall of 1952. I was 12 years old and still well shy of a 100 pounds, soaking wet. I had driven the 10-20 alone before, pulling a four-section drag or a disc. Even earlier, I shared the seat with my older sister as we hauled hay, but it had taken both our right feet, hands braced on the steering wheel, to depress the clutch while Dad spread open another sling on the hay wagon.
Here I was at last, though, doing the most important fieldwork all by myself. I was plowing, on my own, all alone on the tractor. Turning the rich earth on our lower Michigan farm had been one of my favorite parts of farming, even before I took the wheel myself. I had ridden along occasionally, sitting on the big, wide fender as Dad expertly guided the tractor around and around the field — the band of rich, dark earth getting wider with each pass. My dad and grand-dad were perfectionists when it came to plowing; both men wanted the furrows straight and clean, even though the furrows soon would disappear under the rollers of the cultipacker or the teeth of the drag.
Dad was one of the few farmers in our area who used a combination of a rolling coulter and jointer. The thin, sharp coulter sliced a straight, clean line through the sod, cornstalks, or whatever was on the surface. The jointer, a miniature of the plow point, rode against the coulter and turned about 5 inches of the soil before the plow point and moldboard finished turning the earth into the furrow beside it.
The result was a sea of brown, clean furrows with not a weed or bit of stubble showing. Dad took great pains to adjust each part of the plow until it laid over these clean, even furrows; with great disdain, he would point out the fields of any neighbor whose plowing wasn't so precise. He also always set the plow depth to pull up just a little subsoil each time and work it into the rich topsoil; the object was to increase the good soil a little each year. He'd checked to be sure I was doing the same when I plowed, and then he'd disappear, leaving me on my own in a field a half mile from the house.
The old 10-20 moved steadily down a furrow, sporting rubber tires by the time I was driving it alone. A torch had been used to cut off the wide metal bands that had thin, bolted-on cleats. Metal rims were welded in their place. The rear rubber tires were filled with a calcium chloride solution to increase traction; the front wheels were used car tires, which made it difficult for a 12-year-old boy to turn the big tractor. Many times I'd turn on the plowed ground and then be unable to straighten out the wheels. I'd have to stop and back up, then start again. They also slid easily at the end of a row, as I turned while tripping the plow to bring it out of the ground. Steel fence posts, long ago rusted off at the ground, then sported curves that exactly matched those tractor tires, testifying to the fact that I didn't always make the turns or get that stiff clutch depressed in time.
The tractor had no muffler, so the roar from its engine was deafening. The exhaust came right from the manifold on the engine's side. The tractor didn't have individual foot brakes either; a hand-lever brake stood beside the shift lever, and even Dad couldn't pull it hard enough to hold the tractor on a hill. There were three forward gears and one reverse; I plowed in second, with both right tires down in the furrow, so I was almost constantly on a slant. A twist clevis held the plow to a flat, wide drawbar on the tractor, and the trip rope attached to the rear of the tractor seat with a metal clip.
The plow, also a McCormick-Deering, rode on three steel wheels and had two 14-inch bottoms. It was all the 10-20 could do to pull it through the clay ground that made up parts of our slightly rolling farmland.
When I'd reach the far end of the field, I would slow the 10-20 to an idle. Because I wasn't strong enough to turn the wheel with one hand and trip the plow with the other, I had trouble pinpointing the exact spot where the plow would leave or enter the ground, although I was determined to keep those ends even - just as Dad did with such ease. So, I'd turn the steering wheel with both hands, then hold it with one and reach back and trip the plow with the other. The tractor would continue straight on, front wheels sliding, despite my attempts at turning, until the plow points were almost clear of the ground. Then, free of the plow's pressure, the tractor would turn normally. Slipping the clutch again as I started back down the other side, I would trip the plow and pull back on the gas throttle. To my great satisfaction, my plow entries would match up pretty well with Dad's.
One advantage of the hard steering and old car tires on the front was that the 10-20 would follow the furrow by itself across the field. By turning the steering wheel slightly, so that the front tire was trying to come up out of the furrow, you could let go of the wheel completely. The friction on the inside of the tire against the still-firm, unplowed side of the furrow was enough to hold it steady. I'd seen Dad get off the seat and sit on the fender, giving the tractor more traction on the high side; he'd ride there from one end of a row to the other.
Our ground varied from clay hills to black marsh soil, so it was necessary to adjust the plow lever occasionally while the tractor was moving. Dad would simply reach back with one hand, squeeze the handle and move it up or down. I couldn't, of course, so I'd let the 10-20 continue on down the furrow on its own while I stood up, turned around, put both hands on the plow lever and moved it up or down. By the time I finished my first piece of plowed ground, I was confident enough to ride the fender just like Dad.
As I sat on that fender as a boy, watching the furrows turn, I learned to recognize a small world in motion around me. The soil was teeming with life. Earthworms by the thousands, upended by the plow, burrowed quickly back into the soft earth. White grubs, propelled by only a few feet positioned just behind their orange heads, responded more slowly to their predicament and made easy targets for the cow birds, meadowlarks and blackbirds that followed along in hopes of filling their bellies. Swallows swooped and dived on all sides of the moving tractor as grasshoppers and other winged insects took flight from the machine's path. Field mice and an occasional rabbit or pheasant darted into the fence rows and marshes, disappearing in a flash.
Farming in the 1940s and 1950s seems to me to have been more 'land friendly' than farming often is today. Crop rotation and spreading manure on the fields in winter were standard procedures, and erosion — never a big problem on our farm — was kept in check simply by tripping the plow out of the ground in places where there was danger of a gully forming.
It seems to be a universal truth that turning the soil, whether by hand, by horse, or by modern tractor, gets into the soul of a man. I believe that's true; it can be addictive. I still can hear that old 10-20, smell the fresh-turned soil and recall all the sights that went with it. FC