Farm Collector

Embarrassing First Ride on McCormick-Deering 10-20

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.

Bone-jarring ride

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

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.

  • Published on Jul 22, 2013
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