A farmer has to have many skills. He must understand soil and seed. He must be aware of weather patterns and attuned to the seasons. He must be self-motivated.
And beginning in the early part of the 20th century, he had to have some ability to use and maintain mechanical equipment. Some small farmers were good in all of those areas. Others had weaknesses in one or more. Success or failure depended on being able to adapt to all requirements, at least to an adequate degree.
People who lived around farmers as mechanization was taking place often told stories about those who had a hard time adapting to the new way of farming. My late father told of an old-time farmer who bought a Model T Ford in the 1920s. The man was so used to driving horses that when he came to a sharp corner on the road on his way to town, he often tipped the car on its side. He would pull back on the steering wheel and yell, “Whoa!” but of course the car’s speed didn’t decrease enough to safely round the corner. Passers-by tipped the Model T back on its wheels and the farmer continued on his way to town. That happened many times, not just once. Everyone could identify the man’s Model T: It looked new on one side and was badly smashed on the other.
From age 13 on, I worked every summer on local dryland hay and grain farms. The long hours spent day after day in large, flat fields were barely tolerable; time went slowly at that age. About the only thing that made things bearable (the low pay wasn’t one of them, as kids were expected to work for about half of what adults earned) was hands-on experience with tractors and a few other complex mechanical objects. Basic pull-behind implements were boring, but hay balers and grain combines with pulleys, gears, belts and other moving parts were fascinating. Watching them work, learning to lubricate and adjust them, I found farm work a little more bearable. I was fortunate in one respect: All my employers maintained their equipment well.
In our area, farmers were known for what kind of operation they ran. Some were “good” farmers, some were “okay” farmers and then there were those I called “raised eyebrow” farmers, meaning their practices were considered not up to snuff. I never heard other farmers criticize them, but it was understood that they were doing a bad job. Their lapses were easily seen in their fields; their vehicles were easily identified by their sad condition. Some were popularly referred to as “manure mobiles.” Lack of financial success was reflected in their farmsteads and personal activities.
Free to a good home
Those marginal farmers from the 1950s are long gone now, but occasionally one runs across a reminder of how they did things. A few years ago, the Idaho Fish & Game Department bought a large swath of land in the far corner of our county to use as a wildlife refuge. Some of the land is swampy in the spring and waterfowl use it as a stopping-off place during yearly migration from southern climes. New requirements for the land made any trace of human activities there unacceptable; the area was to revert to unspoiled nature. Surviving buildings on the one farm located there could not remain.
It was advertised that everything on the farmstead was to be removed; items could be purchased at ridiculously low prices. For example, the farmhouse (which was in decent condition) was offered at $500, but it had to be moved in a short amount of time. I bought a good outbuilding for $25. My teenage sons helped me load it on a tilt-bed trailer and haul it home, where it became part of a larger building on our rural property.
One item that wasn’t even listed (and was considered worthless) was a dilapidated 1952 Ford 3/4-ton pickup. Its box had been replaced by a crude wooden flatbed. A Fish & Game officer approached me after the buildings had been removed. Knowing I liked old vehicles, he asked if I would get rid of the old pickup. Although I had noticed it when retrieving the outbuilding I bought, I did not give it much thought because it appeared worthless. The best word to describe it was “hulk.”
But having never been guilty of turning down something free, I agreed to his request. One Sunday afternoon I went 15 miles out into the refuge, pumped up the pickup tires with my portable air compressor, attached a tow bar to the front bumper and towed the truck home. I was fortunate to have a place to park it where the neighbors couldn’t see it. It looked so bad they might have complained.
Used hard and put away wet
From my youth I knew of the individual who farmed out near the swamp and had a mental image of an operation only slightly above subsistence level. Although he owned as many acres as his more prosperous neighbors, the one obvious weakness he exhibited was related to handling and use of machinery. Everything mechanical was in a constant state of disrepair. The old pickup exhibited that trait in about as many ways as possible.
When someone mentions the old pickup in the back of my machinery lot, I always say that it is obvious the original owner “drove by sound.” By that, I mean it looks like he regularly drove the pickup until he hit something. Almost every piece of sheet metal has major bash marks, and the surviving windows – the rear glass is missing – are cracked to one degree or another.
Frames and axles are usually pretty much damage-proof, so they are okay. The only other part that is in good condition is the flathead V-8 engine. I managed to get it running. In the process I learned that even it had seen poor treatment. It is a rebuilt engine. The truck has barely 35,000 miles on it, so the fact that the original engine needed to be replaced so early meant it had been badly neglected. To tell the truth, I feel sorry for the old Ford.
The Idaho Fish & Game Department wasn’t doing me a favor by giving me the truck. However, since then the value of scrap metal has gone up dramatically. Depending on its weight, the old truck is now worth $300 to $500. But I have a hard time sentencing the derelict pickup to that fate. It is an amazing survivor and, as bad as it looks, it still goes down the road under its own power, just like it did when new. I guess one could say it is a shabby monument to the hard-working small farmer who struggled with newfangled mechanical objects. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.