Between the Bookends: ‘This Old Tractor’

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"This Old Tractor"

Sometimes, a machine will come to mean more to a person than the function it was built to perform. This Old Tractor: A Treasury of Vintage Tractors and Family Farm Memories, edited by Michael Dregni, is a collection of stories, photographs and art illustrating that point. In a foreword by Roger Welsch of CBS Sunday Morning, Welsch calls the reminiscences “love stories.”

The stories relate more than love, though. They tell of a changing way of life.

The book opens with “Farewell Horses,” describing the transition made when a fanner traded in his team of horses for a tractor. In “Tractors,” Ben Logan recalls what life was like for a 9-year-old boy in the 1920s, and the day he fell in love with tractors.

In “A Part of the Family,” Patricia Penton Leimbach offers a woman’s perspective in “Subterfuge.” She tells how a wife can “smell a new tractor coming two or three years ahead,” and the games played when the husband attempts to convince his wife that he needs a new tractor. Other stories in the chapter relate how the tractor quickly becomes a trusted part of the family.

“Threshing Days” tells of a time past and how, through preservation and restoration of steam tractors, the past is kept alive. Sara De Luca, in “The Last Threshing,” writes of another transition brought by advancements in tractor technology. Threshing was a social time, when neighbor helped neighbor. That era ended with the advent of the combine, which allowed a farmer to harvest and thresh the crop at the same time, without need of outside help.

“Homage to the Mechanical Mule” offers stories about tractor makes and models that have stood the test of time. In “8N-Joyment,” Gerard W. Rinaldi describes the communion between him and his first tractor restoration project, a Ford 8N. In his case, handling all the parts of the tractor, taking it apart and putting it back together again, created a sense of unity between man and machine.

The focus in “A Living History” is on the way that tractor collectors and restorers keep the past alive, but sometimes have difficulty in the present. Roger Welsch offers 10 rules in “Roger’s Rules for Collecting Old Iron and Living With Your Wife,” a humorous acknowledgement that collecting tractors can be an addictive hobby that can disrupt married life. His “rules” offer ways to keep everyone happy.

Excerpts from the early 1900s are used throughout the book, offering a view of what people of an earlier time thought of the new-fangled contraptions. Most looked forward to the arrival of the new technology, and saw it as a way to move ahead and be better farmers. But, in a story first published in Successful Farming in 1918, J. Edward Tufft relates his reluctance to sell his old horse, “Old Mag,” even though she is well past her prime.

Advertisements from the same era give another glimpse into the history of the farm and tractor. A 1919 investigation by The Farmer discovered, for instance, what modern-day salesmen already know: In order to persuade a man to buy your wares, you must first convince his wife. “A Woman’s Influence in Tractor Buying” points out that although the man may be willing to buy, his wife’s reservations about the tractor’s dangers must be overcome first.

Photographs throughout the book offer a look into the shared “lives” of farmer and tractor. Restored tractors are featured, some accompanied by vintage photos of the same make and model when new. Photographs by Ralph W. Sanders show not only the beauty of the surrounding landscape, but also the elegance of a fully restored tractor. Many of the book’s photographs were contributed by the Minnesota Historical Society Collection, and show the visual history of the tractor. Other shots of farmsteads and rusting tractors “put out to pasture” complete the story. Artwork by two classic painters of rural scenes – Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood – is also featured.

This Old Tractor pays homage to the machine itself, and to the changes tractors wrought on the family farm. Restorers and collectors are shown not to be grown boys playing with really big toys, but historians preserving a way of life. An easy and enjoyable read, with powerful photography, the book is a collection of a personal history shared by many. FC

This Old Tractor: A Treasury of Vintage Tractors and Family Farm Memories, Voyageur Press, 1998; ISBN: 0-89658-368-6; 160 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

Kendra A. Hopkins is assistant editor for Capper’s Magazine.

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