When Mike Black’s cherished Farmall H was caught in a barn fire four years ago, the damage was extensive.
“It was burned to a crisp,” Mike says. “It was fried.”
Still, because of a fire’s inexplicable appetite, restoration seemed possible.
“It was a funny fire,” he says. “It didn’t blow the fuel tanks, it didn’t melt the radiator hose or radiator; and the engine still had coolant in it. If it had burnt the radiators, I would have written it off.”
It all sounds very logical, very rational. But one suspects that the damage could have been much worse before Mike would have turned his back on the Farmall H.
Mike’s grandfather bought the Farmall H new in the spring of 1945.
“It was back in the war years, when you had to get on a list to get a new tractor,” Mike says. “He got a plow, disc, cultivator and the tractor for $1,425. We still have his ledger book with an entry for the ‘tractor outfit’. It was the first Farmall H delivered to Barker Implement in Hamilton County with electric start and lights. He was so proud of that tractor. It never sat out, and it never missed a day of work.”
Not yet out of his teens, Mike bought the H at his grandfather’s estate sale. He overhauled the engine and gave it a paint job.
“We took it to tractor pulls for several years, and it won at several of them,” he says. “It was an exceptional H … we used it every day here on the farm, and we always took real good care of it. I never let it set out, either.”
Mike was driving a bus route for the local school system when he heard over the radio that his barn was on fire.
“Bus 40, your barn’s on fire.”
“Kids,” he said, “I need to go home.”
He was about 14 miles from home. As he came over a hill about 10 miles from his place, he saw a column of black smoke.
“Well, that’s the tires on the tractors,” he said to himself.
Mike’s wife and daughter, Jackie and Kellie, had already returned home. A neighbor boy, Corey Bryant, was there, too. He rescued one sow and her litter, and he tried to rescue the H. But the heat from the fire was too intense: When his jacket caught fire, he had to abandon the tractor.
Mike arrived in time to get the feed grinder (“We had to grind feed the next day,”) and the 4620 Deere out of an attached shed. Volunteers pulled out a few pieces of equipment, but the barn, the H, a Farmall 806, 90 head of hogs, and 300-400 bales of straw were lost in the blaze.
News coverage of the fire made it onto the wire service. The response, Mike says, was overwhelming.
“We received cards and money and most important, prayers,” he says. Days later, Jackie learned that her mother was critically ill. Throughout, support from friends and strangers buoyed the family.
“We still have a shoebox full of cards that we will never get rid of,” he says. “Several came from farm families who knew firsthand our anguish at losing our livestock and equipment.”
Dealing with a fire is like being hit by a knock-out punch. First it breaks your heart; then the clean-up demands back-breaking labor. Mike didn’t have time to do much with the tractors immediately, but what he did was critical to restoration efforts.
“We got the H to a neighbor’s shed, and got the 806 up on blocks and covered it up,” he says. “The real key thing was that we didn’t let either tractor set out. Then I gave my boys, Craig and Doug, a case of WD 40 and had them spray every bolt … we just soaked both of those tractors with penetrating oil.
“We also took diesel fuel and motor oil and mixed them together, and dumped that down the exhaust,” he says. “We literally filled the engine with diesel and motor oil. I just didn’t know when we’d be able to get back to them. When we did, we only had to twist off two bolts on the 806, and that’s all.”
Restoring a tractor that’s been burned presents its own challenges, Mike says.
“It was not like starting with something runable,” he says. “It was like getting something out of a fence row after about 40 years.”
The most immediate challenge was removal of smoke and soot.
“It was a long process to clean them up,” Mike says. “They were burnt and sooted so bad. We tried cleaning the tractor up: it just got frustrating … you’d have to walk away for a while. We just couldn’t figure how to get the black sooty stuff off.”
Finally, on the spur of the moment, he drove more than three hours to buy a stripping product he’d seen at a show.
“We sprayed it on the tractor, and it brought back all the smells from the fire,” Mike recalls. “But it took off all the burnt paint and soot, and there was the cast iron.”
Getting parts also took time, and a lot of miles.
“We finally got all the parts for the H this year,” Mike says. “I’ve been real particular; I wanted it as nice as it was originally. The H had had all the original gauges, and they all worked. And the sheet metal was like it came out of the factory.
“You know, that H had never sat out. The hardest thing was finding sheet metal as good a quality as the original. I found an NOS grille in the box; that was the only way we could get sheet metal to match. We found the fuel tank the same way. The old tank didn’t blow in the fire, but it was warped and had to be replaced.”
This winter, on Feb. 8, Mike started the H for the first time since the fire.
“Doug, my youngest son, had never run the tractor,” he says. “We finally got the gas tank on it, didn’t even put the seat on it, and the darned thing started right up … it never missed a lick. We drove it for two or three hours.
“It was so neat that Sunday when we stood outside in the barn lot and heard it run,” he recalls. “It was a sound that we almost never thought we’d hear again. Most everybody said they wouldn’t have messed with restoring it.”
Despite the comprehensive restoration, Mike has no plans to resume daily use of the H.
“I feel like it’s done its turn,” he says. “But all the time we’ve taken restoring it … it really tears at me, because I enjoyed using that tractor every day. We hauled manure with it every day for 18 years, ground feed with it … it was kind of neat, using it. We could hook it to the grinder, grind six to eight tons of feed with it.
“But when we paint it, we’ll kind of put it out to pasture. Maybe we’ll move the car out of the garage and put the tractor in,” he says with a laugh. “We may grind feed with it, and we’ll parade it, take it to county fairs and tractor shows.”
The 806 – the first big tractor Mike bought on his own – was back in business first, at least mechanically.
“We had the 806 running in August that year,” Mike says. “We had gone to Everett Brothers Salvage to get parts, just to get it running. My oldest son, Craig, was the one who wanted to get it running that day in August. I came out of the house, and he was putting tires on it. We were both burned out on doing buildings, and wanted to work on that tractor. We used it in the fall to grind feed and move hogs.”
“We blame the 806 for burning the H so badly: We had just fueled it. The fire burnt the rubber fuel line, and that spilled 50 gallons of diesel fuel. We tore into it about 18 months ago, but it’s a harder restoration. It’s bigger, and has more nooks and crannies. But we’ll probably use it when it’s restored. I can’t afford to have them all sitting around!”
The challenge throughout, Mike says, has been retaining his focus.
“When you try to restore something that’s been through a fire, you’ve got to have a picture in your mind of what it used to look like,” he says, “and what you want it to look like when it’s done.” FC
For more information: Mike Black, 14122 Marilyn Road, Noblesville, IN 46060; (317) 773-6882.