The Depression and Dust Bowl lasted for years, from 1932 to at least 1939. The farmers of the Midwest who survived did so by living off the land with daily limited resources.
Making a box of .22-caliber shells last all year to shoot prairie chickens for the dinner table, or bartering excess crops for coal to heat the home in the winter, were common tales of that period. Your team of horses might grade the county road, or working the pink quartzite mines around Sioux Falls in the offseason might bring extra income to families in northwest Iowa in those times.
In 1936, the crops looked good until a late August hailstorm. Grandpa harvested one narrow box of oats and three loads of ear corn that year. 1937 looked to be a good year, until that cool September morning when it was discovered that an equine sleeping sickness had spread through the area. Our farm was not spared: the Percheron team died and the quarter-cross Haflinger was down and would never get its wind back.
The 2-year-old gelding cross with the bent tail and wind puffs never did contract the sickness. Harvesting with that gelding later proved to be quite a test. Once a day he’d bolt from the ear corn, hitting the bangboard on the wagon box. Without the team to disc the ends, it was an all-fall process.
“I think you should reconsider …”
Some may think that the tractor revolution was boldly embraced as a modern farming tool, but in our area, it was the untimely and tragic death of the horses that drove change. My grandfather, Otto Griesse, had success with John Deere horse machinery and he had a relationship with the local John Deere dealer, so his first stop when looking for a tractor was at McBride Implement in Rock Rapids, Iowa.
After several weeks, he decided on a new John Deere B General Purpose on steel, but wanted his dad, my great-grandfather Henry, to offer his advice on this major purchase. Great-Grandfather Henry walked around the tractor with great interest.
As he lingered in the shop, two mechanics started a tractor on steel and moved it across the cement floor. Chop, chop went the lug wheels, consuming a lot of power from the engine, adding to the moment. Then the mechanics walked over to a rubber-tired tractor and almost effortlessly pushed it to its place. The demonstration was not wasted on Henry and Otto. “You have new cement floors on your farm,” Henry said. “I think you should reconsider the rubber tires over the steel lugs, as they are the coming thing.” Otto thought for a moment and then went in and ordered the new John Deere B (which sold for $962, roughly $17,152 today) with a hand-lift cultivator and rubber tires.
Tires will kill the toads
On April 8, 1938, my father, Alvin, came home from school just in time to see the delivery of the new John Deere B. As the family walked around the tractor, Uncle Louie stopped by in his old Dodge car. He walked around the tractor a couple of times and then proceeded to scold my grandpa. “Otto, you are going to go broke and lose this farm,” he said, “and no one will want it. Those big tires are going to kill all the toads that are necessary for good soil. Steel-lug wheels allow the toads to hop through and be saved to catch the bugs.”
Grandpa didn’t sleep for several nights, thinking he had made a bad choice. As time proved out, tires were the coming thing and two years later he saw Uncle Louie cut off the steel wheels on his Model A and have rubber tire rims welded on.
Our family’s John Deere B is the center of our collection and farm heritage, just as important as the family still owning our Centennial Farm west of Rock Rapids, Iowa. Our grandchildren are the sixth generation to drive the John Deere B.
The tractor has the original Firestone rear tires with minimal checking, as it has only been left outside four nights in its nearly 82-year lifetime. It even has the washable steel-mesh oil filter that came with the tractor and original PTO cover intact. With regular service, the only repair the tractor has seen is replacement of a head gasket. To date, the tractor has never required the addition of oil between oil changes. Compared to the high maintenance horses this tractor replaced, I think this was the best deal, besides buying the family farm, that Grandpa Otto ever made. FC
Gary Griesse is a collector/restorer of tractors and farm machinery he grew up using in the 1960s. He and his wife are active members of the Siouxland Two Cylinder Club and Granite Threshermen’s Assn., Granite, Iowa. Contact him at P.O. Box 212, Harrisburg, SD 57032; email: email@example.com.