Farm Collector

In Cotton Center, What’s Old is New Again

Tractor restoration operates like a well-oiled machine at the
Cotton Center (Texas) FFA chapter. The award-winning program
features an annual restoration project, and has a six-year waiting
list of customers. “We’re just finishing a Ford 8N,” says Chapter
Advisor David Howell, a 30-year veteran educator. “A guy left money
in his will for that tractor to be restored.”

The program began six years ago when a local family donated a
vintage tractor and funding for every aspect of its restoration.
The chapter sold the completed project and used the proceeds to
fund a project the next year. After that, the chapter began
accepting commissions from people who had tractors needing
restoration, with the tractor owner funding all restoration

The award-winning 1939 John Deere Model H, for instance, belongs
to a Flomont, Texas, man who wanted the tractor dressed up for
parades. The tractor hadn’t been moved for perhaps 15 years, hadn’t
been started for 20. “It was completely rusted,” says team member
Cody Heath. Following the owner’s instructions, the students
restored the tractor to its original state, down to and including
copper lines and John Deere gauges.

The students agreed on a division of labor. While the boys
worked on mechanics, the girls focused on body work. “We sanded and
primed,” says team member Jessica Caswell, “and there were a
of dents.”

Literally every part of the tractor needed attention. “The
engine was rusted through,” recalls Cody Heath. “We bored out the
cylinders, restored them to original, restored the pistons and
connecting rods; did the head and valves, and we basically rebuilt
the block. Everything is original except the parts we had to
replace. The main case had a crack in it, so we had to order a new
one. And one of the teeth in the bull gear was broken off. It would
have been easier to buy a new one, but we decided to rebuild

“You need to understand,” says David, “that there was not one
part of that tractor that wasn’t broken down to its smallest
component and then rebuilt or replaced.”

Given that the team faced competition deadlines, the project
required more than a few Saturday work sessions. “The biggest
challenge,” Cody notes, “was developing patience. When a lot of
people think about restoring a car or a truck or a tractor, they’ll
spend several years on it. It took us eight months.”

No one involved begrudges the time investment. In fact, when
they talk about the project, the ups and downs, the tone is
decidedly nostalgic.

“There were so many rewards,” says Jessica. “We got to go so
many places, learn so many things. In addition to just learning
about the tractor and all, we went on trips and had so many ‘real
world’ experiences.” When the group displayed the tractor at a show
in Houston, they were engulfed by visitors who shared memories. “It
made the tractors come alive for us,” she says. “It wasn’t about
the restoration anymore, or about going to competition: It was
hearing these people talk, seeing their faces light up when they
told their stories.”

The chapter advisor is equally smitten. “One of the greatest
things was that we got to visit with the people who actually farmed
with tractors like these,” David says. “We probably learned more
history from this experience than from anything else we’ve done. We
met so many people, learned where they were coming from, and how we
got to the point of enjoying all the things we have today.”

With so many young people fluent in digital technology, it
almost defies understanding that they might also be captivated by a
65-year-old, 2-cylinder tractor. As it turns out, though, the ties
that bind are sometimes crafted of cast iron.

“We’re restoring a tractor for my granddad,” says Jennifer
Heath. “And now that’s something that he and I have in common.”

  • Published on Jul 1, 2005
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