I was only 11 when I first drove a John Deere tractor. It was the summer of 1956. We were in a hay field on our farm, picking up bales with a wooden slide. The tractor pulling the slide was a 1936 John Deere A that belonged to our neighbor immediately to the south. I was thrilled to help the local farmers who were heaping the slide full of square bales.
It had been decided that I would be better suited for operating the tractor than wrestling with the dense alfalfa bales. What’s difficult for me to understand, even today, is that everyone in the field knew I was a novice in the tractor seat. My experience until then had been confined to my family’s Farmall H and a neighbor’s 9N Ford.
It also was no secret that my father disliked John Deere tractors. He preferred the 4-cylinder Farmall engine to the 2-cylinder John Deere. He said the foot clutch and the extra cylinders made for a smoother and less abrupt start, especially when straining under a heavy load.
My personal issue with the John Deere I was about to mount was its volume: This was the machine that would pierce my upstairs bedroom window with loud popping from the exhaust on early mornings during spring planting and fall harvest, when its full torque was devoted to pulling various tillage tools. The harder a John Deere pulls, the more it can “bark.” This often interrupted my effort to sleep in, since this particular neighbor was known to be an early bird in the field.
But Albert, the neighbor who owned the John Deere A, was a close friend of my family and our neighbors. He was a widower in his late 60s and seemed eager to welcome drop-in guests, even at mealtime. My parents often discovered that, yet again, I had wandered to Albert’s and shared supper with him. Although to an 11-year-old boy he seemed like an old man, he still proved to be agile and strong.
Releasing the clutch – with an assist from Albert
I still wonder today if my father had reservations when I climbed aboard the “Johnny Popper” to pull the hay slide.
I don’t remember if rain was in the forecast, but often it was when haying was underway. Regardless, the farmers wanted to finish the job, so I quickly mounted the tractor platform and engaged the hand clutch by pushing the lever forward with my right hand. Bales aren’t spaced evenly on a field, so there is always a moment when the driver will need to pause to allow the pickup crew to catch up. Several voices yelled in unison, “stop!” I grabbed the clutch and pulled and pulled, but the tractor continued to churn ahead. The clutch wouldn’t release.
In what seemed like no time, Albert leaped on the tractor hitch, leaned forward with an outstretched arm and yanked the lever. The tractor lurched to a halt. Despite that, I was allowed to keep driving.
Next up: Loading the haymow
When all the bales had been gathered, we chugged to Albert’s farm to deposit his share of the bales in his barn. I was still in the driver’s seat but this time a rope was attached to the front of the John Deere to power a pulley system to carry bales into the top of the barn (or the haymow).
A hayfork would clamp down on a bundle of bales, perhaps eight at once, and I would get the signal to begin my relatively short journey to drive the tractor in reverse. That would engage the pulleys and send the bales up and into the barn. The rope then carried the suspended bales across the mow to where they could be dropped in place. At that precise moment, I was to stop quickly and then return to my starting point to await the next load.
By this time, I guess I was feeling flush with confidence in my ability to pilot the tractor. I drove backward at a steady, slow idle. I thought this was even easier than driving in the field! The clutch seemed to be quite cooperative. The unloading of the hayrack proceeded smoothly.
Coming to a screeching stop
Then came the last load. I began backing up. But when the routine shout and wave came and I pulled on the clutch, the tractor kept moving. The clutch was stuck. Suddenly there arose a chorus of farmer voices yelling, “stop! Stop! Stop!”
I pulled on the clutch lever with all my strength. Finally, the tractor stopped – because the engine died. Unfortunately, it wasn’t because of my valiant effort with the clutch lever. The tractor had pulled the bale carrier off the track to the opposite end of the barn. It stopped when it banged against the wall and killed the engine.
As one of the farmers ran toward me on the tractor, I remember sliding off the seat and scurrying over to see what damage had been caused by that final pull on the rope. The end of the barn suffered a slight bulge near the peak of the roof.
The final outcome of this day on the farm wasn’t as tragic as I feared. The barn didn’t sustain serious structural damage, probably thanks to the craftsmanship of those who built it many years before. Albert wasn’t angry. If anything, he was relieved that nobody was injured. My father felt I had made my best effort to stop, so I suffered no consequences from him.
Albert also divulged that he had recently taken his tractor to the local repair shop for a tune-up. The clutch had been tightened. Apparently, the tightening had been overdone – at least compared to the strength of an 11-year-old boy on that fateful day.
The Model A continued to serve as Albert’s sidekick in the field and barnyard. Meanwhile, I enjoyed more years at home driving tractors, albeit Farmall red.
A few years after this initiation on a John Deere, and only mere months after my father had died, Albert stopped by to bid my mother and I farewell. He was retiring and was on his way to a new home in the city. He truly had been a friend and mentor.
Years later, when I owned my own tractors and farm implements as an adult, my collection included two 1936 John Deere tractors, an A and a B. I raised a family on an acreage on the opposite side of Iowa from my boyhood home. I tinkered, repaired and came to appreciate the quality built into those machines.
And yes, I was able to operate and disengage the clutch. FC
Lloyd Munson gratefully acknowledges the assistance of his son, Kyle Munson, in reviewing this article. Email Lloyd Munson at Lloyd.firstname.lastname@example.org.