This story starts with a young boy called Nelson Haerr who grew up on a 10-acre farm in rural Illinois. Nelson’s father was a doctor but he’d come from a large farm in Missouri so the land was always going to be in his blood.
Practicing medicine was a world away from farming, but Nelson’s father didn’t want to be too far from agriculture because farming meant a lot to him. So the family kept animals and livestock on their 10 acres, plus they kept horses on livery and they made their own hay.
Nelson remembers the tractor his dad bought new in order to run the operation: a Ford 8N with about 11 different implements. As a child, your dad’s tractor is an awe-inspiring machine, but by the time adolescence arrives most kids have other things to think about. Then, at about age 30, it seems we suddenly become just a bit nostalgic about our childhoods, the past and the machines our dads once drove.
When Nelson left rural Illinois, he went to New York City where he worked in bars and became a firefighter. It was a world away from the country life, but he never forgot his roots. As a firefighter in New York you certainly see some sights, from the bright lights to the grim underbelly of the vast city, but nothing was to prepare Nelson for what happened in 2001. Nelson was one of many firefighters who saw firsthand the horrors of the 9/11 tragedy when two towers at the World Trade Center were destroyed in an act of terrorism, killing almost 3,000 people (including 343 firefighters). Nelson’s squad was on its way to the scene when the second tower fell, and the scene he met on arrival was one of unbelievable horror. “It was like arriving on the set of a bad disaster movie, almost unreal,” he recalls.
We all know that firefighters are trained to deal with death and destruction, but no amount of experience can prepare a person for the magnitude of a disaster like 9/11. Every surviving New York firefighter will have known of others who weren’t so lucky. One can easily imagine that the sleepy little Conwy Valley must seem like a gentle breath of fresh air after those monumental experiences.
Whilst living in New York Nelson met his future wife, Mary. Mary is Welsh-born and -bred but was working temporarily in New York when she met the dashing Yank. Nelson and Mary were married in the U.S., but they decided to settle in Mary’s homeland of North Wales. Looking around for somewhere to live, they spotted a hotel for sale in Mary’s hometown of Llanrwst, and it seemed that this hotel might offer the perfect package of home and income in one. They bought the Meadowsweet Hotel and they’ve been there ever since. They’ve built themselves a busy home and work life, running a successful restaurant and a 10-bedroom hotel, and become very much a part of this little community.
When the chance came to buy a plot of land across from the hotel the couple jumped at it, as it would be the perfect opportunity for Mary and the children to indulge in their favourite pastime of horse riding. It was a dream come true, and before long Nelson was able to pursue a dream of his own: buying his very own tractor.
The only tractor Nelson had really had much to do with was his dad’s old Ford 8N, so naturally that was the tractor he really wanted. However, Ford 8Ns aren’t as common here in the U.K. as they are in the U.S., and consequently are rather more costly to buy than some of their British counterparts. Nelson didn’t want to buy something that had to be treated like a fragile antique, because he wanted to use the tractor to maintain the land, not simply take it to shows.
The other requirement was that it had to be fairly similar to the Ford 8N, because nostalgia, tempered with a little bit of practicality, was what it was all about. In the U.K. if you want an easily available tractor that’s fairly similar to the 8N there’s only one name that jumps out at you: Ferguson. “I went to shows and I looked at various tractors, and I decided that I wanted something that was as simple as could be,” Nelson says. “I was used to the 8N and the Fergie was the nearest affordable alternative.”
So there it was, Nelson had a make in mind. It wasn’t long before he found a Ferguson for sale locally and he drove it back to the hotel. “I loved that drive home,” he says with a laugh, recalling the elation of finally driving his very own tractor for the first time. A great feeling that is too; I remember it well.
The first I knew of all this was when one afternoon I was crossing the main road in Llanrwst when Nelson chugged by on his new grey Fergie in a shirt and tie, cutting a look refreshingly at odds with all the characterless modern cars that fill today’s towns. He didn’t see me wave, but I was smiling broadly, as I knew then that he’d actually done it, he’d gone and bought a tractor. “Brilliant!” I thought.
Buying that land over the road was just the excuse Nelson needed to get back to his rural roots. It’s only when we get to a certain age that we truly appreciate the childhood that we once had, and like most people who have grown up around agriculture, Nelson had a certain sentimentality for the simple pleasures of tending land with a little old tractor. It’s straightforward, honest work. At the end of the day there’s usually a real sense of having achieved something, and people who work indoors often miss out on that feeling. When you’re running a busy hotel, you need a little “me time,” and there’s no doubt that a lot of people find tinkering with old tractors is a relaxing pastime and an excellent antidote to the demands of modern life.
Whilst the tractor has proved great fun for jaunts around the town and for towing the children around snowy fields on a sledge during the winter, Nelson really wanted to use it for the purpose it was intended, so he’s bought himself a couple of implements. Firstly a Ferguson transport box (essential for trips to the hardware store!) and then a Ferguson spike-tooth harrow. The harrow is particularly useful on the fields the horses graze, as it will remove mossy tufts and spread the dung around so that it breaks down more effectively.
The spikes can be adjusted up and down so that they will either lie flat or point straight down and really cut into the soil. Nelson adjusts the severity of the spikes’ action according to the ground conditions. Using the spikes on grassland in damp weather makes a real mess of the field, but using them half up usually works well when it comes to spreading the “little piles” that the horses leave behind. Horses tend to have a habit of going to the toilet in the corners of the fields, and if left untended these areas become thick with sour grass.
A conventional drag-along chain harrow can’t be backed into the corners, but this hydraulic mounted harrow is just right for the job. In fact it’s all quite familiar to Nelson as he recalls that his father had something very similar for the old Ford 8N. He wishes that he had a few of his father’s implements over here in Wales, but all the same he’s glad they are still in the family, for his uncle now has them on his farm in Missouri.
“The farming methods were quite different back in Illinois,” Nelson recalls. “For instance I never saw anyone using a roller there; the ground is just too hard and dry. And mud, well you don’t really see much mud over there — it’s either cold and dry, or hot and dry, but rarely wet for long.”
A life without mud sounds glorious — but Nelson doesn’t seem to miss the sun and the wide open skies too much. He’s found himself a new hobby in the form of old iron here in the Conwy Valley and seems mighty content with his lot. He won’t be the first or the last man to use his family’s obsession with horses as an excuse to buy a tractor, and why not? We all need a bit of downtime, don’t we? FC
• The TE20 was introduced in 1946 in England following development of the Ferguson Hydraulic System by a decade. Ferguson, however, had been involved in high-end engineering for three decades, and had built and flown his own plane by the age of 24.
• The TEF diesel model (which is what Nelson owns) was produced between 1951 and 1956.
• About 500,000 grey Fergies were made between 1946 and 1956. They were so popular that Henry Ford nicknamed them “the grey menace”!
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about Ferguson tractors and implements in Ferguson Implements: Creating an Entire Package.
To learn more about Harry Ferguson, his life and his lasting impact on tractor development, go to Harry Ferguson: A History.