Phyllis Stephens was only a child when she first operated her father’s John Deere tractor. Her father, Cameron St. John, used the 1939 unstyled Model BO as the sole tractor on the family’s apple orchard in upstate New York for nearly 20 years.
Phyllis was too short to reach the pedals, so her father operated the clutch and engaged the throttle as he walked beside the machine. Phyllis fondly recalls how she slowly navigated the tractor through the apple trees, while hired hands placed bushel baskets brimming with fresh fruit aboard the trailer behind.
Remarkably, Phyllis still owns the tractor her father purchased new for $935 from a John Deere dealer in Whitney Point, N.Y., just two months before she was born. Judging by its spit-polished appearance, she cares for the farm machine as much as her father once did. ‘My dad just loved this tractor,’ Phyllis says, choking back tears.
Phyllis shared those memories and showed the tractor last April at the Power From the Past Association’s annual show held in Tucson, Ariz. She and her husband, Wayne, are both avid old-iron collectors and charter members of the club since it was founded in 1988. Although they collect many kinds of vintage farm equipment, Phyllis says nothing could ever replace Dad’s John Deere.
Yet, the story of her father’s tractor almost ended unhappily. Phyllis and Wayne moved to Tucson in 1967 from their dairy farm near Scranton, Pa. When the family decided that Cameron needed to live closer to relatives because of his failing health, he moved to Tucson as well, but not before he auctioned nearly everything he owned – except the Model BO.
On auction day, Phyllis recalls, no one bid more than $250 for the tractor. Since Cameron dearly loved the tractor, he removed it from the auction to keep the orchard tractor in the family. ‘He pulled it out of the auction,’ Phyllis says. ‘And thank goodness he did.’
Actually, that was the second time her father tried to sell the tractor. His first attempt happened in the 1950s, Phyllis says, but no one would pay the $500 asking price. ‘I guess it was meant to stay in the family,’ Phyllis jokes.
In fact, that’s exactly what Cameron wanted. After he died, his children discovered a note scrawled on the back of an envelope stashed away in Cameron’s few remaining possessions: ‘When I’m done with this tractor, give it to Phyllis,’ was all the note read.
The tractor is in good condition, considering it’s never been completely restored, but it’s definitely taken a few knocks through decades of dedicated service. Those familiar with orchard tractors immediately notice that the sheet metal – meant to protect fruit trees from whirling mechanical parts – is missing entirely. ‘It was knocked off,’ Phyllis explains, a common casualty in orchard tractors. The only evidence that the tractor was an orchard model besides the BO decal is the sleek, curved design of the gas and radiator covers.
Excluding its orchard-protecting sheet metal, the tractor retains many original components. The tires are the same set Phyllis’s father purchased in 1951, and only the second set ever mounted on the tractor, Phyllis says. It also uses the original magneto.
The tractor was especially suited for orchard work because it was geared lower than other models to allow slow travel through the trees, she adds. It’s merely a Model B with some modifications such as protective sheet metal and lower gear ratio, which are signified by the ‘O’ designation after the ‘B.’
Like many farmers, Cameron modified the machine to meet his purposes, Phyllis says. Finding the seat uncomfortable, Cameron replaced it with a McCormick-Deering reaper and binder seat. He also welded an Army surplus ammunition container onto the tractor’s fender to serve as a toolbox.
Cameron took good care of the tractor, even though he religiously used it, Phyllis explains. In fact, one reason for its near-immaculate condition is that he always kept the tractor under cover when not in use, thus weather didn’t wreak havoc on the farm machine.
As part of that good care, Cameron devised a peculiar method for oil changes, which Wayne learned the hard way one day when he offered to replace the oil. ‘You’ll ruin it,’ was all that Cameron said to the offer. Apparently, Wayne says, Cameron only used 10-weight motor oil in the tractor, which was first removed from his farm truck’s engine. Surprisingly, the tractor has only had new oil four times since it was purchased, Wayne adds.
The only major work done to the tractor was a valve job in 1998. Phyllis and Wayne also replaced a water hose and some water pipes, but that’s the extent of the restoration.
Although the old tractor served Cameron for decades, he eventually purchased a Massey-Harris Pony and a Caterpillar D-2 crawler, Phyllis adds. She and Wayne both treasure the John Deere, which shares space in their collection with a restored 1937 Allis-Chalmers Model WC on steel wheels, a 1952 Farmall Super M, a 1947 Ford Model 8N and even a David Bradley Tri-Trak with accompanying cultivators. Vintage washing machines and stationary gasoline engines round out their collection.
While the couple shares love for all their old iron, nothing could ever replace the special connection between Phyllis and the John Deere.
‘It’ll be passed as long as we can in the family,’ Phyllis proudly declares.
The old Deere is far from a mere display piece, and Phyllis eagerly demonstrates that the tractor will likely be around a few more years. With a hand on the flywheel, Phyllis turns it once, twice, and on the third spin the engine pops to life. Donned in her flowered hat, perched upon the tractor she’s ridden since childhood, Phyllis slowly drives away with a smile as she takes her place in the tractor pull to again show off the power of her dad’s John Deere.
The Model BO at a glance
Unveiled in 1936, the John Deere Model BO – or orchard model – was a variant of the Model B with sheet metal covering the rear wheels to protect trees and was produced with some modifications until 1947. The tractor came with individual wheel brakes, an underhood air intake and a four-speed transmission. Models produced after 1938 used a 175-cubic-inch engine that produced 17.5 hp on the belt pulley and 13.8 on the drawbar. The tractor weighed about 3,375 pounds.
‘I guess it was meant to stay in the family,’ Phyllis jokes, In fact, that’s exactly what Cameron wanted. After he died, his children discovered a note scrawled on the back o f an envelope stashed away in Cameron’s few remaining belongings: ‘When I’m done with this tractor, give it to Phyllis,’ was all the note read.
– To learn more about Phyllis and Wayne Stevens’ John Deere Model BO tractor or their other farm collectibles, write to them at 10110 N. Bluebonnet, No. 2, Tucson, AZ 85742.