THE FORDSON AND ME
Written by Hulda Franklyn
Edited by Reg Quist
“I’d like to finish plowing this field before freeze-up. Wonder if you could run this outfit while I’m away?”
I had come to call brother George for dinner. This was his response.
I, with no engineering experience whatever, was, to say the least, taken by surprise. The new Fordson tractor of the 1920’s was my brother George’s pride and joy. George was six years my junior. Sometimes, he did credit me with more knowledge than I actually possessed.
When I looked undecided, he urged, “There’s nothing to it. Keep that front wheel in the furrow and when you come to the end of the ridge, just pull the cord again and your plow goes into the ground, ready to go. Sounded easy enough, so I climbed aboard. All went so well. Nothing to this being an engineer that I could see. At the end of the ridge I pulled the cord and the plow came right out of the ground.
Then, whoosh! Like a frightened jack rabbit Fordson jumped over the rough head-ridge and into the neighbor’s pasture fence. I threw up my hands that held no reins and yelled, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” But my bounding steed continued on its way, taking out the fence as it tore along.
Finally, I came to my engineering senses, pushed in the clutch and looked about. Behind me lay about 30 rods of barbed wire fence. Lucky for me, a post lodged tightly at the front end of my metal steed, had held the wire from coming across the top of the tractor.
But I didn’t give up. With a dogged determination, I found out how to reverse Fordson with plow attached and untangled the barbed wire mess we were in. Then victoriously, I returned to my plowing!
All went well now that I had learned by bitter experience that the throttle was Fordson’s only governor. As I plowed, I wondered, “Was it possible that I might become a real engineer some day? I’d even settle for a third grade.
Perhaps I should explain here that engineers in the Fordson’s early years were a gifted species, like poets or artists. To be known as one, carried status. He was known as “The Engineer”. The thresher steam engineer carried a real mark of distinction. He had to have papers. Then the oil burners and their engineers entered the picture.
An oil burner tractor pulled the separator that threshed the grain in our district for a number of years. I can’t remember if Mr. Johnson, who was responsible for the safe operation of this one-cylinder Rumley, had any papers to show his ability and authority.
But to distinguish him from the mundane, Johnson wore black denim pants and a black denim jacket. These were so soaked in grease, oil and soot that I am sure they could have stood alone. His cap, small mustache, nose and hands also bore this outstanding mark of distinction.
George arrived back at the field about two o’clock. He met me with a happy grin, pleased that I had turned so much sod. But I was afraid that smile would turn into a frown when he was told he had an afternoon’s fencing ahead of him. To my surprise he seemed rather glad of a change of occupation.
“That’s okay. I forgot to tell you that you had to throw up the throttle when you pulled the cord. I’ll fix the fence. You’re doing good.” From that day on till freeze-up, I continued plowing, but he always serviced and started the Fordson for me.
By the early 1930’s, this third-degree engineer was the almost sole operator of the now-aging Fordson. Our beloved machine had developed quite a number of inward ailments that stopped it “dead” while working. So, George and I had to confine our operations to the same field. When trouble with Fordson rose up he had to tie his five-horse team to come over, locate and remedy the trouble.
But soon my first-class engineer, who always worked on a time schedule, began to jokingly hint that my efforts were being more of a hindrance than a help. Naturally, that ruffled my ego.
One day when George’s teasing became quite pointed, I fired at him. “You stay with your outfit and I’ll take care of mine. I’ll even crank Fordson’s tail, so there!”.
“Okay, Okay, but I don’t forget to retard the spark. We don’t want a broken arm.”
The next morning, I equipped myself with all the tools necessary to becoming a first-class engineer, even a worn dime to gauge coil and spark plug openings. From that date on, I refused all help from my brother and I had a sneaking suspicion he was more than glad.
I soon learned that Fordson’s ills were many and varied. The trouble could be in spark plugs, coils, gas line, commutator, wiring and on and on. The Fordson was also equipped with a magneto; “Mag” to first-class engineers, but I still referred to this producer of the electric spark as the magneto.
I can’t remember that I ever did tamper with Fordson’s magneto, for it most likely had one of those dire sounding, “My wife having left my bed and board” notices securely attached to it.
I can’t rightly say that Fordson’s did carry such a notice, but I do remember that our pump engine “Mag” was sealed with red sealing wax which bore this warning: “Anyone removing this seal destroys the validity of warranty and this so and so company will not be held responsible for repair or replacement.”
The readying of the Fordson to do the grinding of feed during the winter months was a family undertaking. Mother supplied red-hot coals and boiling water by the gallon, George was “master engineer” and I ran errands.
First, George harnessed the team and dragged our source of power out of the machine shed and into the barnyard. While I cleaned away the snow under the tractor, George went in for a scoop shovel of red-hot coals. These he distributed evenly under the Fordson’s oil pan. Small sticks were burned on top of the coals, but one had to be careful that flames did not rise up to the gas tank.
Then came the hot water procedure. All water petcocks had been left open the last time the tractor had been used. Quickly, George poured the first kettle of boiling water into the radiator. If all went well the cooled water ran out the open petcock.
If the water froze on the way out, we were in real trouble. Kettle after kettle of hot water was poured through until metal and radiator got warm. Now the cranking business began, after high test gas and sometimes gas mixed with ether had been poured into the starting tank.
Even with all such helps I had seen George crank until his patience was exhausted. George never vented his complete exasperation in words, he’d just start throwing tools in every direction. Then I’d take a quick departure and didn’t venture near until I heard the first feeble “pops”, indicating that the tractor had started.
This mild February day the Fordson had started without too much trouble and the grain stood ready at the grinder. George helped me line up and put on the belt. Then he hitched the team to the rack and headed out for straw, two miles away. As he pulled out, he yelled back, “The radiator may leak a bit. Throw in some snowballs.” And it leaked more than a little bit.
The grinder had a fail capability so with the snowball tending, it kept me on the jump. Just when I thought everything was going fine, there came a terrible howling and screeching, accompanied by smoke and flying sparks. Some foreign object had slipped through the screen and into the burrs. It was all over in seconds, but shortly afterwards I noticed smoke coming from the main bearing – sometimes thrown out of line. I had a hot bearing.
I tried oil but that didn’t help. Next, I made a blanket of soft snow and patted it over the hot metal. That did the trick, but it had to be replaced about as often as I had to throw snowballs into the radiator.
Now I was fairly flying as I tried to keep everything going. Once in a while I’d steal a second to glance east to see if the chief engineer was coming around the bend. And he did come just as I finished the load.
As I write, I wonder what became of our old Fordson. George traded it in after he was married. Walking between the many makes and models of ancient tractors at the Reynold’s Museum, I could not spot a Fordson just like it. I am sure had it been resting there, it might have looked a bit happy to once again see it’s third-class engineer who had tried so hard to keep it going in its declining years.