A former Indiana farm boy fondly recalls old tractors from his childhood, including a Ferguson TE-20 and Allis-Chalmers WD-40.
As a young boy, I grew up in a rural area north of Indianapolis on a small acreage between two farms, one slightly under 100 acres and the other slightly over 200 acres. This was the era of World War II and austerity.
Our small acreage provided enough produce, hay, fruits and berries to consume and sell, but not enough to afford a tractor. Two of my friends lived on farms that used Belgian draft horses for power. But my interest as a boy was in mechanical devices of all kinds.
My first acquaintance with a real tractor was our neighbor’s 1947 Ferguson TE-20. These neighbors had raised a field of hay and had it baled. Local boys were hired to bring in the bales and store them in the barn before the next rain. All the boys were older than me, but when the wagon was loaded, they asked me to drive the load back to the barnyard so that they could lie down on top of the wagon for a rest.
I noticed that the loaded wagon and tractor picked up alarming speed while going down the first steep grade. I was scared and stomped on the brakes, but my foot hit only one pedal, locking up one wheel. The boys yelled, “Both pedals!” just in time to avoid a crash. I learned quickly about the two-pedal system on tractors and their use.
Having narrowly avoided disaster on the Ferguson, I was hired by another neighbor to help in his apple orchard. My job was to drive his new 1948 Ford 8N tractor, pulling a wagon upon which he loaded crates of apples. I was to drive slowly and carefully, so as not to bruise the apples.
When the apples were in, he asked me to help pull out some of the old apple trees that had died, so that new ones could be planted. He wrapped log chains around the trunk, and I pulled slowly forward in first gear in hopes of pulling the trees out by their roots. We were not successful. The 8N kicked and bucked and spun its wheels, but the trees stayed in the ground. My boyhood estimation of the 8N’s power faltered, and my neighbor seemed a bit upset with his new tractor.
The next day I heard a putt-putt-putt in the neighbor’s apple orchard, so I went over to look. The farmer from two farms over had come to help on the tree-pulling project with his 1941 John Deere Model G tractor, a tall row-crop with narrow front wheels. It was tall and unbalanced-looking and had only two cylinders. How could it accomplish anything? I was sure that this tractor could never surpass the new 8N.
Hitching up to the first tree, the farmer pulled the chain tight. Putt-putt-putt … then the load slowed to a putt-pause-putt … then there was no sound for an instant and I was sure that the engine had died. Then, suddenly, bang-putt-putt-putt, and the tree was free! No bucking, kicking or spinning, just the powerful pull of two large cylinders and 5,800 pounds of tractor, instead of four small cylinders and 2,400 pounds of Ford. That was a vivid lesson in mechanical advantage.
At about that same time, in the late 1940s, we visited my mother’s cousins who each farmed a large acreage in Mattoon, Illinois. They both farmed 600-acre farms during World War II and had become very successful as a result. Those were big farms in their day. I wanted to see the tractors that had allowed them to farm so much ground successfully. Their pride and joy were two highly modified IH Farmall Model Ms with Ford flathead V-8 engines, dual rear tires and heavy weights on front and rear.
The cousins’ farms adjoined each other so that they could team up on fieldwork. The day I saw their tractors was a plowing day. Their teenage sons had Farmall Ms rigged with 5-bottom plows. By following each other, they plowed a 10-bottom swath with every pass. I didn’t know about the rest of the world (no Google in those days), but I knew that a need was coming for larger tractors in the Midwest. My mother’s cousins’ innovations allowed them to get in and do fieldwork quickly, taking maximum advantage of soil conditions and the weather. And as a boy, I wondered what could possibly sound better than two flathead V-8s with open exhausts running together in the field?
As I grew up, farms in Indiana grew larger, and tractors were produced in larger models with powerful diesel engines and wide front wheels. Somehow, these were not very interesting to me. They were two-wheel drive, so they could only be used in dry fields that were fairly flat. I knew the advantage of four-wheel drive tractors, including their use in other countries.
My job in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s involved working closely with Cummins Engine Co., manufacturing prototypes for their research and development departments. I learned the extreme care with which their long-lived engines were designed and built. And then, one weekend in 1978, the owner of a huge farm of river-bottom land near me bought a Versatile 875 with a Cummins NT-855 (280 hp) four-wheel drive tractor. He was pulling a subsoiler in his field nearest to me, and I knew the Cummins sound instantly.
The amazing thing is that the old Versatile 875 is still running and has been used every season for 36 years. I talked to the man who drives it, and he said it was noisy, drafty and had some shifting problems, but was a real workhorse. He said the Cummins NT-855, with more than 10,000 hours on it, had never been rebuilt; just well maintained. I attend the Indiana State Fair most years and always check out the agricultural equipment displays. The new tractors are very plush, but I wonder how they will run in 36 years.
Years ago, a blacksmith friend in southern Indiana was plowing in the spring and got his Allis-Chalmers WD-40 stuck in the wet clay at the far end of the field. He lived in a remote area with a 1-mile dirt road as his driveway.
One Saturday soon after, he hosted a meeting of area blacksmith friends to watch blacksmithing demonstrations in his forge shop. He had a vast collection of all kinds of antique machinery. During the meeting he mentioned his problem with the WD-40. These blacksmiths, older fellows of wide experience, suggested that he pull the WD-40 out of the mud with the 1926 Rumely OilPull Model L 15-25 they saw sitting behind the barn. He said that he had just acquired it at a farm auction and that no one thought it would run, which was why he had bought it so cheap. All the old blacksmiths said, “We’ll get her to run.” The meeting was adjourned and the men went to work.
While someone went to town for 10 gallons of fresh kerosene, the magneto system was sorted out and fuel lines were blown out. After many pulls on the flywheel, they decided to remove the plugs and use a small amount of starting fluid. The very next pull did the trick, and we all watched as the old Rumely 15-25 pulled out the WD-40. FC
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