Editor’s note: Leonard Rue’s rich and colorful memories of a boyhood spent on a small farm in northwest New Jersey in the 1930s will appear in coming issues of Farm Collector. In this installment, he recalls his first turn at the wheel of the family’s McCormick-Deering 10-20.
We got our first tractor in 1938. It was a McCormick-Deering 10-20 made in 1928. The 10 in that equation stood for 10 hp in the pulling mode and the 20 stood for horsepower off the belt pulley. I didn’t know how they figured horsepower in those days and I still don’t today. I do know that old tractor could out-pull our three horses, which is why we bought it in the first place. My Chevy Suburban, sitting out in my driveway with its Vortec engine, is rated at 405 horsepower. Although I love that car, I know it couldn’t out-pull 405 horses. It probably couldn’t out-pull that old McCormick-Deering 10-20, either.
Whatever paint was left on that old tractor was gray on the main machine, while its wheels at one time, at some time, had been a bright red. I just don’t know when that might have been, but rust is almost red.
It stood sturdily astride four large iron wheels. The front wheels were 30 inches in diameter and 4 inches wide with a 1-inch ridge running around the center to keep the wheels from slipping while turning a corner, and it’s a good thing because it took 30 feet to make a circle as it was. The rear wheels were 42 inches in diameter and 12 inches wide. There were two rows of steel lugs that looked like big V’s with wings. The lugs were 4 inches wide and the points were 6 inches high. There were 16 lugs on the outside rim, then a 4-inch space and 16 lugs on the inside rim. The lugs were offset from each other so that one lug was always buried in the dirt at all times. That is, if the tractor was on dirt. On our farm, that wasn’t often.
Ours was a hilltop farm with lots of slate ridges and lots of loose slate slabs and just lots of pieces of slate. After all, we were only about 10 air miles from the Bangor, Pa., slate quarries. Those quarries were famous because they made the slate shingles that covered the roofs of every house in the area. When those tractor lugs dug into the dirt it gave a tremendous grip. When those tractor lugs hit a rock, a slab of slate or a slate ridge, you had to have a tremendous grip on the steering wheel just to keep from being jolted off. It wasn’t the tractor’s fault. It was just trying to do its job. As each lug hit the hard surface, it bounced the tractor up and down with a force that, if you didn’t clench your teeth, would have cracked them – and it often turned your liver upside down.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. at that time billed itself as the world’s largest store and, with its millions of catalog customers, it probably was. They sold good merchandise; you could count on it if you bought it at Sears and, if anything was ever wrong, they would replace it with no questions asked. Almost everything we had, used or wore came from Sears and most of what we use today still does.
Sears used to sell 8-ounce denim overalls with copper-riveted pockets that they said were “tougher than tough” for 89 cents a pair. And they were tough, but the seat on that old 10-20, when it was being vibrated by rocks and slate, was tougher. In fact, there was a rumor at that time that Sears had made a deal with International Harvester Co., which made the 10-20, not to pad their tractor seats and Sears would give them a cut on every pair of pants they sold. I don’t really think there was any truth to the rumor and I know nothing was ever proven, but I also know that those damned old iron seats didn’t take long to chew through the seat of your pants. Some of the well-to-do farmers used to put an old sheepskin on their 10-20 seats. We didn’t have a sheepskin so we used to pack straw in an old burlap bag, which worked pretty good until the straw, the bag or your rear end wore out. And every time you forgot to take the bag inside when it rained, you were reminded that you should have when you sat on the seat after the rain had stopped.
Cutting edge technology
The tractor had three speeds forward: slow, slower, slowest. I’m only kidding; it did have three speeds forward. First gear got you rolling along at 2 miles per hour, second got you up to 3 miles per hour and in third gear you zipped right along at 4 miles per hour. You didn’t shift from one gear to another as you do with a car; you selected what gear you were going to use according to the work you were going to do and left it there. There was also reverse because sometimes you might not want to go forward. All of this was possible after you got the tractor started.
That old monster didn’t have a battery, lights or a self-starter. Oh, it had a self-starter of sorts, called a crank, and you started it yourself by turning the crank. When you were ready to start the tractor, the first thing you always did was make sure that it was out of gear. It was harder to start when it was in gear, but it could be done. Those who had done so usually had funeral services that featured closed caskets.
After ascertaining that the tractor was out of gear, you had to advance the choke and retard the spark, or maybe you had to retard the spark and advance the choke. The crank was situated at the front of the tractor and was usually held up out of the way on a little wire clip. To use the crank, you took the handle off the clip and pushed the crank in against a push-out spring so that you could engage the two pins on the crankshaft. I used to push in the crank, engage the pins so that the crank was at the bottom of its turn and I would then pull up sharply in a clockwise motion. I didn’t try to make a complete revolution with the crank to “spin it” because, when the tractor started, it was harder to pull the crank forward to disengage it from the engine if you spun it. That slight problem caused more right-handed writers to learn to write with their left hand than anything else that I can think of.
One other thing about that old tractor was its capacity for water. It had a radiator cap about the size of a milk can lid, held in place with a huge wingnut bolt working against a flat bar of metal that fit inside the mouth of the radiator. Filling that tractor was more like watering elephants in a circus; it took bucket after bucket. As you poured, you could hear the water gurgle, gargle and burp as it disappeared down into the bottomless innards.
First time at the wheel
I’ll never forget the first time I drove that old tractor. I was 11 years old that summer and, although I occasionally drove our old International flatbed truck around the farm, I had never driven the tractor. Our hired man drove the tractor; I was still using the horses.
The tractor stood about 3 feet from the barbed wire fence that surrounded our apple orchard and cow pasture. It had been parked there because our water pump was on the other side of the fence and the tractor, as usual, had needed more water, but that had been tended to. All that was left to do was to put the tractor in the wagon shed before it got dark. After supper my dad said, very casually as if it was something I did all the time, “Lennifer, why don’t you go down and put the tractor away?” I could hardly believe my ears, but I was out of hearing range before he had a chance to change his mind.
I checked to make sure the tractor was out of gear. I advanced the choke and retarded the spark, or I retarded the choke and advanced the spark or whatever it took to get that behemoth running. I unhooked the crank handle, pushed in against the spring, engaged the pins on the crankshaft and pulled up. Believe it or not, it started on that first pull, fire flying out of the 5-foot high exhaust pipe. It stood there huffing and puffing, trembling like a fire horse when the bell clanged; it was ready to go and so was I.
I sprang to the seat, being very careful not to look up to the house because I knew Dad, Mom and my sisters were all peering out the windows (although they would be hiding behind the curtains, so I couldn’t see them) to see how I was doing. I pushed in the clutch, put the tractor in gear, twisted around on the seat to see where I was going (I didn’t want to back over anything), released the clutch and, while I looked back, the tractor, like an old fire horse, lurched forward. The barbed wires screeched as they tightened across the front of the tractor, the metal fence posts bent, the wooden posts snapped, and then the wires themselves parted and went whistling away as if sheared by a bolt cutter.
Thank God I got that monster stopped before I knocked over the pump. I hadn’t looked up at the house before and now I didn’t dare to. This time I made sure the tractor was in reverse (I was too close to the pump to make another mistake), backed it up and put it in the wagon shed for the night. We then spent several hours rebuilding the fence I had torn down; it was way after dark before we finished. And it was a considerable time before I got to drive the tractor again.
I had never had that much trouble putting the horses away. FC
Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.