Tractor Rescue: A Really Rough Diamond (3)

Tractor Rescue: A Really Rough Diamond (3)

“A Really Rough Diamond”

(For one dollar and the making of a gift)

'35 JD "A" at Work

’35 JD “A” at Work

Chapter 3

“The Spiel”

 I started with the same explanation that I had given Mrs. Riggins the evening before but this time, in addition to how good the tractor would look all fixed up, I threw in that we would also have another tractor to work around the farm.  I used the example of hauling-in hay (even I understood that this tractor wasn’t big enough for field work).  To my chagrin, Dad related one very pertinent fact; even in top condition, this machine had a top speed of 6 miles per hour.  He explained that it originally had “Skeleton Wheels”, i.e., steel wheels with big bolt-on lugs.  So equipped, he recalled that even 6 mph was “Break Neck” speed on hard ground.  Further, the lack of speed was one of the reasons the tractor had been retired in the first place.

“I just like it”.  I told my father with all the seriousness a ten-going-on-eleven year old could muster as I waited hopefully for his “Yes” vote on the tractor.

“I realize that but why?” said my Father.  “It’s just junk waiting for the scrap-man”. 

I continued to explain that, “I just think it would be neat to see it all fixed-up, like new”.  The discussion went on for several minutes.  The exchange went something along these lines:

Dad: “You can’t get parts; it’s too old”!  Me: “It’s a John Deere, they must have parts”.

Dad: “It will cost way too much”!  Me: “I’ll be able to earn extra money soon by baling hay and de-tasseling corn”.

Dad: “It’s too far gone; it’s probably beyond repair”.  Me: “I’ll do all the work”.

Dad: “You don’t know how to do all the work”!  Me:  “Well, you always tell me to remember that when I have to do something for the first time; “You’ll never learn any younger”!

Dad:  “I’ll be Damned if you don’t always have an answer”!

Now, I want to make it clear that while my Father and I had a relatively good relationship, I had almost gone beyond the pale with that last comment.  I remember he looked at me with an expression that was somewhere between “I’m glad he listens to what I say” and ”Smart-ass Kid”.  Fortunately for me (and the Tractor) his final response was:  “Well, the Tractor belongs to Mrs. Riggins and since you’ve worked it out with her, I guess it’s OK with me”. 

With that last statement, excitement washed over me because for a few moments prior, I was afraid I had blown the deal.  As the two of them continued to discuss it, I could see that he was warming to the idea.  At the same time it was clear that Mrs. Riggins’ interest was somewhere between amusement and benign indifference. 

Dad’s practical side kicked-in again; “It will take a lot of cleaning and scraping before you can paint”.

I assured him I would do it all.

He then told me, “It will need new rings and the Mag will have to be rebuilt”. 

I had no idea exactly what those things were but I pledged to help with every turn of a wrench.

At length, Dad supposed again that it was OK with him but the final say was up to Mrs. Riggins inasmuch as the tractor belonged to her.  With that, she listed a few facts, by way of thinking out loud, to the affect that the tractor hadn’t run for several years, the equipment dealer had thought so little of it that he declined to take it as a trade-in and, finally, it probably didn’t have much value at junk prices, even assuming you didn’t have to pay someone to haul it off.  She then looked at me and with her next breath said, “Give me a dollar”.

I immediately looked at Dad and said, “Can I have a dollar”?

He smiled as he reached in his pocket for the money and handed it to me.

As soon as I gave it to Mrs. Riggins she said something to me that I can recall as clearly as if I heard it yesterday, “For one dollar and the making of a gift, you just bought a tractor” and she sealed the deal by shaking my hand. 



Later that morning, after the chores were finished, Dad and I took the truck (’54 International) down the hill through the east barn to inspect the object of all our recent conversations.  Looking back, I believe this is point at which Dad started viewing the tractor as a relic to be conserved and never again looked upon it as refuse to be discarded. 

The tractor was quite a sight to say the least.  The overall appearance was one of a rusty brown hulk.  There was no visible paint remaining and for a long time during the restoration, neither I nor anyone else knew of any paint at all until a few small sections were “Discovered” under 30+ years accumulation of coagulated grease, oil and dirt.  One rear tire was low; both front tires on the narrow front end were flat and somewhat cracked/rotted.  Although it was dry on that late summer day, over the years of outside storage all four tires/wheels had sunk several inches into the ground and were now encased in soil to various depths.  The remnants of different pieces of equipment were still bolted to onto some of the attaching points (I later learned that most of these pieces were for a two row cultivator that was originally purchased with the tractor but unfortunately, had already gone by way of the junk man).  Rust had eaten its way through the sheet metal hood, just at the front end of the gas tank. 

Two of the most important items to be corrected (at least to my boyhood’s eyes) were the seat and the steering wheel.  The seat was rusted to a point where it was very nearly ready to fall off.  The steering wheel’s hard rubber covering was severely cracked and broken.  For some reason I remember thinking that those items should be replaced first (they weren’t). 

Subsequent inspections (with Dad’ help), reveled a missing radiator guard and curtain, a hole in the radiator core, the engine was stuck and the cylinder head water-jacket was cracked from freezing water.  Dad remembered that the block was the third to be used.  The other two had been overhauled and re-bored to the point they had to be replaced. 

However, I came to understand that the greatest insult to the dignity of this once majestic example of engineering design was the modification of the air intake and exhaust stacks.  Originally, these two prominent structures were approximately two feet tall and even in height.  Thanks to the rather low nature of some barn doors and the desire to keep sparks out of the hay mows, the stacks had been lowered.  Unfortunately, the air stack was not quite straight and about twelve inches tall while a muffler (so called) had been made to a height of 8 or 10 inches.  This redesigned incorporate a mitered 90 degree turn that discharged to the right.  The affect of this was to make the tractor appear short and lopsided.  The modified stacks added to the general condition of disrepair and combined with flat tires; well, it was a thing to be pitied. 


Chapter 4

“Next Stop: A place to work”

It was determined that the “A” would have to be moved to our farm for resurrection.  In preparation for that move, I had to ready the area in the “Tool Shed” that Dad had designated. 

The Tool Shed was (and still is) constructed of Haydite block purchased from the Spickelmier Block Company, located at 1100 East 52nd Street in Indianapolis.  At the time of the purchase, my sister, Pauline, was Mr. Spickelmier’s secretary.  Haydite block were manufactured at the Indianapolis plant and there were always a number of “Seconds” in the casting process.  All of these seconds were structurally sound but cosmetically, they were less than perfect, i.e., a rough side or a broken corner, that sort of thing.  In any event, for three cents apiece (including delivery) a conservative mid-westerner, such as my Father, could not pass up such a deal.

At about the same time the U.S. Army decided to dismantle a mess-hall at Fort Benjamin Harrison.  This hall had some massive trusses that provided a span of thirty-five feet.  I don’t recall how they were found or from whom they were purchased but they were delivered and stacked beside the block. 

So, owing to the number of “Special Purchase” block, the length of the Fort Ben trusses and the available area east of our chicken house; the Tool Shed became one hundred and two feet long and thirty-five feet wide. 

With the block and trusses in hand, excavation for the foundation began in 1963 (manual excavation; to save money, of course) and over the next three years, my Father and brother (in their spare time) built the new Tool Shed’s foundation and walls.  Ernie Walker (a local carpentry contractor) and is crew, set the trusses and completed the roof.

I do want to make clear that as I grew during that three year period, Dad made sure that I too had ample opportunity to use some of my spare time on the construction process.  However, my role was mostly limited to “Crumbing-Out” the bottom of the trench for the foundation and my relative lack of size, strength and speed added further limitation to that role.  Considering their ongoing responsibilities of running a relatively large (for the time) stock and grain farm as well as their close to complete lack of specialized construction equipment, building the Tool Shed was a massive undertaking for my Father and brother.  I was much older and working as a Construction Project Manager before I fully realize, in retrospect, just how massive it was. 

As any good property operations manager can tell you, as a building gets closer to completion, it becomes more and more difficult to prevent its use as a storage facility; regardless of its intended end function.  The Tool Shed was no exception.  By the spring of 1967, it had been endowed with a mixture of construction materials, construction debris, trash and even a few tools.  This presented a problem for me in that Dad had specified the west end of the building as the most appropriate storage and maintenance area for the “A”.  I must admit, with the large rolling door on the north and a large window in both of the west and south walls, it probably was the best place we had available; the lack of electricity to the building notwithstanding. 

That summer, I sorted, restacked, bagged trash in paper feed sacks (in preparation for burning; this was prior to the plastic trash bags and the curb-side trash service we all take for granted today), found lost tools, removed chunks of concrete/mortar and generally re-organized the first and second bays of the west end.  Now there could be no more excuses when I asked about moving the “A” to our place.  I would renew my press for a solid moving date! 


(To be continued)

Art Massing
Written by Art Massing

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