Tractor Salvage Surprise

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This McCormick-Deering 10-20 crawler was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s and is unique because the steering clutches were on raised pedestals (sometimes called camel humps), making it possible to stand while driving.
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Then ten-year-old Tyler Ballard was part of the retrieval crew that brought the McCormick-Deering crawler home on a tilt-bed machinery trailer pulled by a World War II 1942 Dodge WC 1/2-ton truck.
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Rectangular tin cans such as this were commonly used for many years to hold automotive liquids. The can housing the unwanted tractor accessory was twice the size of this 1-gallon can.

Individuals interested in old tractors know that old iron can be found almost anywhere. In fact, old tractors sometimes turn up even in areas where farming doesn’t appear to have been an economic enterprise. Stumbling on to a tractor treasure is always exciting. What happens then varies so much that even the best imagination could not possibly predict what to expect. The good news is that the events are invariably interesting. The bad news is that sometimes the events are unpleasant at the time. Those experiences make great stories to be shared later with fellow tractor enthusiasts.

Salvaging a crawler

The tractor in question was an early 1930s McCormick-Deering crawler. Since tracklayers (as they are called in our part of the country) were the motive force for farming during my formative years, I was happy to find an old one. Any tracked vehicle has a lot of visual appeal, especially when it is moving. Movement is a problem, however, when it is not capable of it under its own power. Saving a long dormant crawler, even if you have something capable of hauling it, is a daunting task.

The old McCormick-Deering had no identifying number on it so I didn’t know what model it was. It was small enough that I was sure my tilt-bed machinery trailer could handle its weight. As is often the case, a lot of old farm stuff and general junk had been piled on the crawler over the years, and now all of that needed to be moved. After the larger items had been off-loaded, my sons and I carefully examined the tractor and determined that the engine was free. Outfitted with the “bring it back to life” items we routinely pack on tractor salvage expeditions (see Clell’s list, page 35), we decided to try to start the engine.

Lubrication and fuel were the only considerations at the time, and coolant would be needed only if the engine ran. The oil was checked and appeared to be basically full. Non-detergent oil used in really old engines does not hold contaminants in suspension over a long period of time. Thus one finds beautifully clear oil on a dipstick since the contaminants long ago settled to the bottom of the oil pan. We really didn’t expect to get the engine running, so the pan full of basically clean oil was good enough. The cylinders were lubricated with a squirt oilcan and the magneto was cleaned. The pipe to the air cleaner was removed so a little gasoline could be poured down to prime the updraft carburetor.

Happily, with a small amount of cranking the engine sputtered to life. With that good omen, we put gasoline in the fuel tank and determined that it was actually getting to the carburetor. Further cranking caused the ancient old engine to actually run – not perfectly – but run, nonetheless. When water was poured into the radiator it leaked some, but all signs indicated that it might be possible to walk the crawler up on to the trailer.

Sent to the great beyond

The big question now was: Would it move? The inertia of tracked vehicles is great, and sitting for many long years meant that it had settled down into the ground. Would the clutch work? Would the marginally running engine have enough power to climb out of the indentation it was sitting in? If so, would it have enough power to climb up on the tilt bed trailer?           

I got up onto the tractor and sat on the bare seat springs. About the only junk item still laying in the compartment that hadn’t been thrown out earlier was a rectangular metal two-gallon anti-freeze can lying on its side. I couldn’t see that one end had been cut out of it and as I reached down to grab it an animal leaped out to attack me. As I jerked my hand back in shock, the animal scurried back into the can where it was hiding.

Whoa! Everything came to a screeching halt. I retreated from the tractor. By tapping on the can with a stick, we determined that it held a pack rat (scientific name: Neotoma cinera, also known as a wood rat or trade rat) almost as large as a cat. I especially dislike close confrontations with such rats because of a childhood experience. When I was about 6 years old, my two older brothers told me to grab the tail of a pack rat that was running up the side of an old building we were exploring. Not knowing any better, I did it. The rat flipped around and bit me. I was left in a state of shock, still holding the rat’s tail that had pulled off when he ran away.

The tractor was running but the rat controlled the operator’s compartment. Fortunately, the wife of the farmer who owned the place was home. She gladly loaned us a .22 caliber rifle to deal with the rat. With great care we tipped the large tin can up so the open end was face down on the tractor’s platform and put a big rock on top to hold it there. Then we perforated the can several times with .22 slugs and sent the rat to the great beyond. The unexpected and unwanted McCormick-Deering tractor accessory ceased to exist.

The clutch worked, the tractor moved and without further trouble it clambered up on the trailer for a ride home. It was part of our lives for several years before we passed it on to another tractor enthusiast. Over the years, the pack rat episode always comes to mind whenever we think about the old McCormick-Deering crawler. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 MST or by e-mail at

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