For the Love of Tractors

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

Many old-timers came of age in the seat of an Allis-Chalmers, a Farmall or even a Poppin' Johhny. Wisconsin folk historian Jerry Apps' first tractor was a homemade contraption sculpted from the remains of old trucks, spare parts and down-home know-how.

Apps was only eight years old at the time and the tractor was the creation of a local welder-blacksmith, Jim Colligan, who fashioned it from an old Model A Ford truck.

"He shortened the truck's frame. In place of regular truck tires, he acquired a pair of huge old tires that the county discarded from one of its snowplows," Apps recalls. "Colligan bolted these tires to the truck wheels and left them flat, to provide more traction for the tractor. With some sheet metal, he fashioned a hood to cover the engine, and he made a seat for the operator to sit on. He covered the whole thing with aluminum paint and drove it out to the farm one summer day in 1942."

In a memoir published in "100 Years of Vintage Farm Tractors," Apps describes how the makeshift tractor had an immediate and positive impact on his father's farm, despite shortcomings like mechanical brakes that took enormous effort to engage and a truck transmission that was only usable in dual low.
"Pa laid down the law early. 'Whoever drives this tractor will never, ever, put it in high gear. You'll kill yourself and probably somebody else.' At the moment, he was talking to himself since he was the only person on the farm who knew how to drive this new invention."

It wasn't long before the youngster would have his chance behind the wheel, however. During the October potato harvest he was gathering freshly dug spuds and loading them into wooden boxes strung out across a 20-acre field when his father told him it was time he learned to drive the tractor.

After some coaching on how to use a clutch, the 8-year-old successfully drove the tractor with a wagon in tow the full length of the field. And after navigating a wide turn he brought the tractor to a gradual stop, shifting into neutral and leaving it idling. For the first time in his life he felt like a man, and it was "a fine feeling."

That wasn't the end of his tractor driving that day, however, as his father asked him to drive back across the field while his brother and father loaded the potato boxes into the wagon.  Soon he mastered the knack of using the clutch and was making smooth stops beside each set of boxes.

But after climbing to the top of a rise and starting down a rather steep grade the tractor began gaining speed and his father yelled "Whoa!" just as he used to yell to his work horses.

"I confidently pushed in the clutch and, rather than stop, the tractor began gaining speed," Apps remembers.

When his father told him to push on the brake he tried with all his might but the tractor, pushed by the heavily loaded wagon, began moving even faster.

"I looked up to see the right front tractor wheel hit the first wooden box dead center. I heard a sickening, splintering sound as the wood broke. I saw potatoes rolling down the hill. 

"Then, before I could recover, I hit the next box, and the next, and the next, and somehow missed the last one on the hillside. At the bottom of the hill, I let out the clutch and killed the engine."

Though he expected a tongue lashing, the boy was not rebuked or punished. His father told him to help clean up the mess and get back behind the wheel. By the end of the season, he was driving the tractor everywhere.

Apps' story is one of 14 tractor tales collected in the "100 Years of Vintage Farm Tractors" anthology, which includes a fictional story of super tractor salesman Alexander Botts and the Earthworm Tractor, a humorous account of acquiring a new tractor from a farm wife's point of view, and an eulogy on the agonies and ecstasies of tractor seats.

Even Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bob Feller contributes an essay on his early memories of the Cat Twenty he drove on his family's farm in Iowa.

Not everyone shares, or understands, the passions of tractor enthusiasts, and that may be due to how they were raised, or where. "I know there are people who love their cars," explains tractor writer Roger Welsch. "But I sure haven't ever felt the kind of affection for an automobile that I feel for tractors, nor have I ever met an owner who feels about a work-a-day car the way many of us feel about a thoroughly utilitarian tractor... I don't like my cars very much. But I love my tractors."

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