Monday, December 06, 2010

A Tractor Story

Ready for a lighted parade in Mt. Pleasant, MI.  December 2010  The tractor is a model 1962 Allis-Chalmers D-19
The story of a tractor, or any long enduring thing, is the story of people.
I want to tell the story of the tractor that now sits in my garage, and as I do,  I am reminded of many people in my life that have helped to make it rich and beautiful.

This story begins long before I was born.  It begins with my ancestors who were close to the land.  My grandparents were all born into families that made their living from farming endeavors.  In their lives they witnessed the great switch from horses to horsepower.  My dad told me recently that my Great-Grandpa Leininger was one of the last farmers in the Fayette, Ohio area to to sell his horses and move to all petrol power.
In the area I grew up there were a host of tractor brands and colors.  Our neighbor, Merlin Fix, farmed with a mixture of Ford's, Farmall's, and Case's.  In Waldron, Michigan there was an International Harvester dealer until IH was bought by Case.  At the border of Michigan and Ohio a dealer sold Oliver's and then White's.  North and east of Morenci, Michigan there was a John Deere dealer.

While my Grandpa Markel had farmed with Allis-Chalmer's (he only confessed this fact after kidding me greatly about our using Allis'), about the only tractor in his barn later in life was a Farmall H.   There was a month one year when he had a John Deere johnny popper.  I think he went to an auction, saw a great deal and brought it home.  Grandma was not amused and the johnny popper didn't stay long.
Grandpa Markel farmed early in life, but like many others his age, he found that factory work was much more stable economically.  I don't know if he ever liked the Beatles, but he could have agreed that money couldn't buy love nor satisfaction.  The factory was work and it provided a good income, but he was generally happiest to be near his ponies and re-engineering some old piece of farm machinery.

My Grandpa Leininger was a farmer.  Today he might be called a professional farmer, that is, he made his entire living from the land.  He milked cows, raised pigs, sold wheat, corn, soybeans, hay and straw.  Following the lead of his dad he used Allis-Chalmers tractors and farm machinery.  After he and my grandmother were married and moved to their own place he bought a brand new WD Allis -Chalmers with a plow and a cultivator for something like $1500.  There were a few other brands of machinery around his place such as New Holland hay tools, but generally my Grandpa Leininger was an Allis man. 
My favorite tractor of his was a Series 1, D-17.  Allis-Chalmers introduced the D-17 in 1957.  It was a great update of the WD-45; new styling, new features and 8 forward gears.  I remember asking to drive it for the first time when I was about 6 or 7.  He said, "not now."  But later, I would.
My Grandpa partnered my dad and my Uncle Curt in farming endeavors.  Between them there was a lot of orange paint around, a couple of D-19's, a couple of D-17's, a couple of 200's, a 7060, some 190 XT's.  All of which I drove and worked with at one time or another.
In 1985 Allis-Chalmers as a farm machinery company came to a close.  Big Allis had money troubles that Norm Swinford, author of a couple of books on the company, traced back to post World War 2 decisions that would undercut the long term health of the company.  Near the end of their run they produced a very fine tractor series - the 8000 series.  It had a huge cab, lots of power and value that endures to this day.
My Grandpa rented a new 8010 in the spring of 1984 when his other big tractors were in the shop.  After that rental he always seemed to have an eye on one.  A calendar that celebrated this 8000 series tractor and the Allis-Chalmers heritage of tractors hung in the basement near his desk until his death in December of 1998.

My dad grew up on Allis-Chalmers tractors, and he has a great knack of knowing how to get them to start in cold weather, something I'm still not good at.  While his dad had an affection for tractors.  My dad's interest leans heavily to the biological side of farming.  He loves to walk the fields in the morning.  In the spring he'd come to the breakfast table with a report of how tall the corn was.  In August, ripening ears of corn would appear on the back door steps.  Another great interest is in the health of the animals on the farm.  It was and is a rare thing for him to have a steer die on the farm.  He's really good and taking a cast off animal and nursing it back to health.
My dad liked tractors when they worked, but save for boyhood memories, of combining or baling with a WD or WD-45, which became significant marks of maturation, the tractor was a secondary object, needful but not alluring.  This cautious stance could also have been born out of being burned with "tractor fever."  That's a term I saw in current John Deere add in The Progressive Farmer.  "Tractor fever," affected a lot of farmers in the 1970's as ag commodity prices were strong, ground prices and rents were trying to catch up and young farmers were optimistic.  Then the recession of the late 1970's set many back on their heels, and it showed many the door out of the industry.  Farming, which had been the fiber of life for generations was in fast order becoming about the numbers. The numbers for additional tractors for my dad didn't add up until my brother and I became teenagers.        
For most of my childhood my dad had two tractors, an Allis-Chalmers D-19 and an AC 200.  One winter Sunday afternoon when I was about 13 he came to my brother and I in a family meeting format.  He wanted to know if we thought we'd be interested in getting into the hay and straw business.  He had come across a Ford baler for sale and thought this might be a great way for us to test the waters of farming.  Brent, my brother, and I did the evening feeding of the cattle, but we had little monetary interest in the operation.
Brent and I were ecstatic.  Yes, we wanted in.   We had no idea the things we'd learn, the people we'd meet, the break downs and frustrations we'd encounter, the absolute fun we'd have.
After that first year of this new enterprise it was clear that we had need of another tractor.  We had made a little money and there was a bank willing to lend us, with our dad's backing, enough cash to buy an AC D-15.  It was and is a great little tractor.  Today it belongs to my brother Brent. He had it restored in the late 1990's and uses it some, mostly for mowing grass.
We found out that the D-15 was a fast tractor, the fastest of the D series, and easy on gas.  It probably wasn't big enough for all that we asked of it, like pulling a 6 row corn planter, or pulling two hay wagons loaded with 400 bales of heavy alfalfa hay, but the little tractor was like the story of the little train that could - "I think I can, I think I can. . . ."
The next couple of years the we rented some hay ground and had close to 300 acres of straw to bale.  Not only did this give Brent and I, our cousins Matt and Joe, and some friends, plenty of summer work, it also kept us out of trouble born out of boredom.  As I reflect upon it, I'm not sure that my dad's original motivation for getting in the hay and straw business can be pinpointed to one principal.  Without a doubt, good work has its many rewards. In two years time the D-15 was paid for. 

In 1988 my first grade teacher, Mrs. Mikula lost her husband to a heart attack.  Mrs. Mikula followed the conventional practice and scheduled a farm auction for January 1 of 1989.  Ed Mikula farmed lots of acres and he liked to do a little trading in steel.  Most of his tractors were big 4 wheel drives; Case's and John Deere's.  Sticking out like a sore thumb at the auction was an AC D-19.  It was small in horsepower compared to the rest of the collection and the wrong color.
My dad told me this fall that he had been to the auction site the day before and looked the tractor over.  He anticipated little interest in it because it didn't fit for most of those who would be at the sale.
On the day of the auction he asked me if I would like to go to the auction.  Of course I wanted to go.  A farm auction was enjoyable, and like my Grandpa Leininger I had an affection for the machinery of farming.  I had no idea that I was about to buy another tractor.
When the auctioneer came to the AC D-19 they tried to start it, it was cold and they didn't have the magic touch.  It didn't start.  Then they informed the crowd that the clutch was out of it.  They started the bidding with two strikes.  I remember my jaw dropping as the bidding started, it started somewhere around $1000.  I looked at my dad and said, hey, think I ought to bid on this?  He gave me the green light.  It climbed, slowly an at $1700 it stalled ended.  I was the winning bidder.  Now a new adventure would begin.  I was 16 years old, I didn't own a car or truck, but I did own 1 and 1/2 tractors. A rather odd experience in 1989.

The first task to be done was to get the tractor home.  My cousin Matt helped me do this on a cold day in January.  He came and drove the truck pulling the tractor as I steered it this beast toward home.  Soon I was able to drive it to my Grandpa Leininger's barn where he and I would change the clutch.  This was something I had never done before.  My Grandpa showed me what we needed to do, what needed to be unbolted, what needed to be blocked so that it wouldn't fall down and then he turned me loose do the bulk of the work.  It was a great learning experience.  That spring we used the tractor on a disk, a planter and before long we were in the hay field with it.
In the fall of 1991 I enrolled in college at Indiana Wesleyan University.  My program of study was ministry and I didn't imagine I would be needing a tractor.  In January of 1992 I traded the tractor to my dad for a car.  For the next few years it became my dad's primary tractor.  Then one fall it had trouble running.  It would start, but wouldn't run.  After a few days of frustration, we pulled it to a spot and parked it.
For the next 15 years or so it didn't move.  Sometime along the way the starter was harvested from it.  A front tire was used on another piece of farm machinery.  The front axle spindle, once blocked up, settled into the ground so that the front right wheel hub had to be lifted from the earth.
Aravis & Owen on the tractor soon after it has had a tune up.

Now married and the father of 4 kids, one thing my dear wife has learned is that I'm afflicted with an affection for farm machinery.  When we lived in Kentucky, Valentines Day was connected with a trip to Louisville for the National Farm Machinery Show.  I frequently ask my kids if they'd like to go to a farm auction.  There are a number of tractor books on my shelves, sharing space with historical biography, great works of literature, and theology.  Having a tractor has been an interest for a long time, even though there's not a clear purpose for someone residing in a parsonage.  The church I pastor is unique among the others I've been at - save for the first one in Indiana.  There are people here who have tractors, who trade in tin, who attend auctions, who are contribute comments to this afflicted affection.

Through a family arrangement I again became the owner of the tractor.  Fifteen years or so of not moving can be harsh on just about any piece of machinery.  The tin exterior of the tractor had faded and rusted greatly.  Green moss had begun to grow on side panels and in cracks and crevices where dirt had never been removed.  The rear fenders had become sun burnt and snow blasted beyond repair.  Yet underneath that ugly skin, there was a sound frame and a big question - could this old tractor run?
Roger, a guy in our church is a pumpkin grower and a celebrator of people.  His barn is a gathering spot for story tellers and old tractors.  I told Roger about the tractor and he kept inquiring, when are we going to bring it north.  He was optimistic that the old tractor would run.  Good optimism for a Case man.
In December of 2009 a group of us went to an auction at Yoder and Frey in Archbold,  Ohio.  We took a trailer to haul anything that may have been purchased at the auction, and a pipe to load this old tractor.
The tractor found its central Michigan greeting in Roger's barn.  There Roger worked to get it running.  Amazingly the engine wasn't seized up.  A host of small mechanical things had to be tinkered with, and probably the most important was cleaning the gas tank.

after working the garden

Is there hope for an old tractor?  Kyrie may think so.
 In the spring we were able to hook the tractor to a disc and work the engine good.  Of great fun was working down our garden with it.  I suppose that's a lot of overkill.
Once the garden was done I took it to a local tractor artist - Pat O'Brien.  Pat generally works on John Deere's and Farmall's, those were and are the primary brands in this swath of the country.  Pat sand blasted the frame, straightened out the side panels, adjusted some more mechanical stuff and then painted it.

I think Anna likes it.  Now I have to teach her how to drive it

Ready for the parade.  A tractor can serve as a parable of the Gospel.

In October we the tractor made her maiden voyage home.  Since that time I've given hay rides, plowed the garden and a field at Roger's, last Saturday, drove it in the Dicken's Christmas Parade in downtown Mt. Pleasant.
The tractor isn't perfect, there are still some oil leaks.  I've been told old tractors all leak.  The rear tires don't match exactly.  There are still things to do, still people to interact with, still more learning to be engaged in.  It will be fun to see how this story continues to unfold and who is enfolded within that story.

The story of a tractor is the story of people 


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