Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Oliver B. Cleaver shares the tale of a tractor accident he experienced as a young man.
Several years ago, I wrote a column titled "Kicking 'er Out of Gear," describing the risks involved in taking a tractor transmission out of gear and coasting down a grade. That column prompted a lot of comment, and one great letter from the late Oliver B. Cleaver, who then lived in Ft. Pierce, Fla. Mr. Cleaver's letter is reprinted here, just as he wrote it.
My brother, John, sent me your column headed "Kicking 'er Out of Gear." I have been living on "borrowed time" for almost 60 years. In April 1938, I upset an F-12 Farmall end-over-end, forward.
I grew up on the family dairy farm a mile or so south of Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, where John and his son, Charles, still live. We bought the little Farmall in 1936 and I took on some custom work to help justify the expense. It was soon obvious that the steel wheels were not adapted to roaming the neighborhood, and sometime in winter/spring of '38 I got wheels and tires from Montgomery Ward. I laid the wheels on paper on the cement floor in the barn and poured them level full with concrete. After the wheels and tires were on the tractor, the 11.25-by-36 tires were filled with calcium chloride.
Some other modifications were done to increase power (and speed). Gasoline manifold and carburetor changes, (high) altitude pistons, planing the head and making a thinner gasket from paper flour sack, and governor changes to get more rpm. The F-12 was ready for jobs that mostly needed a bigger tractor, but road speed was still a good brisk walk. (Author's note: The top speed of the F-12 was listed as 3-3/4 mph.)
Thus prepared, I felt ready to range a little farther and agreed to do some discing for a friend who farmed on the ridge between Harrisville and Adena. I don't remember why he didn't use his own tractor, but I was to use his disc so I didn't have to trail any equipment. It was obvious in a couple of rounds that the field was too wet. I headed home again about daylight and was itching to get at something else.
Township roads then were mostly covered with "red dog," the burnt shale that is left when the pile of discarded stone and coal from a mine tipple goes through spontaneous combustion. The road develops mostly hard and bare wheel tracks with loose shale in the center and on the sides.
The start of the trip home was down a winding hill to the valley floor and through the creek-side village of Ramsey. From somewhere near the top I could see most of the hill and on down through Ramsey. Nobody was in sight that early April morning and it seemed like a good time to "kick 'er out of gear." Everything went well through the first curves. I could drop the little front tires in the inside wheel track and the big rear tires didn't mind the loose shale. I could control the speed with the tractor brakes under most conditions. The "12" had a separate hand lever for each brake which is fine for turns in the field, but not so good if you need both hands on the wheel. With a careful choice of brakes and cautious application, my confidence grew and I let the speed increase.
At the foot of the hill the road makes a left-hand curve to parallel the creek bank. From farther up this looked easy and I was "letting 'er go." About the time I was aiming the front wheels for the inside track on this last curve I could see a washout across the track to the left side ditch. It was too deep to risk hitting it with the little front wheels at the speed we were going so I had to keep them in the loose shale center strip. Clinkers of various sizes are common on red dog roads, and there must have been one in the right place to catch the front wheels.
With the front wheels bouncing as though the Farmall was trying to imitate John Deere's "Leaping Deer," I didn't have much control.
When the road straightened out along the creek bank, there was only a foot or so of grass between the right hand wheel track and the place where the bank sloped off to a narrow bench above the water. By that time I had the tractor aimed right, but the right rear wheel was over the edge of the bank and the little front wheels were bouncing on the grass strip.
Now we come to washout no. 2, this time from the right-hand wheel track through the grass strip to the creek channel. The washout was exactly made to fit the front wheels and they found it. I had put frame weights (slabs of cast iron maybe 150 pounds each, bolted to each side) on the front end, so the front was heavy for a small tractor. The impact with the washout snapped the steering post just above the front wheels and the front end came down on the tires hard enough to mash the oil pan against the rods and stall the idling engine and leave the print of the tire treads on the oil pan.
This impact also generated one more bounce. I'm afraid to make an estimate of speed, but we traveled another 40 feet before the front end came down. It plowed into the gravel streambed and threw me out past the steering wheel to the left. The left rear wheel must have gone over me as the tractor flipped on its back and slid backwards several more feet. I could go on about the salvage, the repair (parts cost almost as much as the tractor), and putting up with a bad shoulder for nearly 60 years, but the excitement is over and I'm still alive. PTL!!!
Love that rusty iron,
Oliver B. Cleaver
In a follow-up note, Mr. Cleaver gave me permission to publish the letter and added, "My hope is that, in addition to (my story's) entertainment value, it will also have some educational influence.
"When you are young and strong and confident of your judgment and skill in handling your equipment, it is real easy to persuade yourself that you can't lose.
"If my guardian angel hadn't been working overtime, I wouldn't be here to tell about it. Too many farmers are killed or crippled because they took a chance and something happened that they didn't count on. Let's keep it safe!"
Although Oliver Cleaver passed away on Jan. 19, 2001, his nephew, Charles Cleaver, sent me two photos of the F-12 taken many years ago. Charlie says the F-12 is still on the farm, although it's in very poor condition.
As you're playing with your rusty iron, remember Mr. Cleaver's admonition and "Let's keep it safe!"
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org