Yesterday’s Tractors

June 9, 2008

June is the month of the tractor in Upper Canada. Wherever I look from our perch on Young’s Hill I see the machines methodically changing the colours of the landscape as their owners prepare for another season.

To mechanically-inclined individuals who have not grown up with them, tractors are platypi: strange creatures, interesting, but so unusual that they are hard to relate to.

My friend Tony hates my 1947 Massey Harris 30. He seems to expect it to run like his BMW. Though he handles ten tons of Sea Ray with its six hundred horsepower with ease, Tony had never driven off a hard road surface until I eventually made him take a tour around the farm in my dad’s Jeep.

Tony’s anxiety about the Massey stems partly from the angry growls the starter makes occasionally. The first time it happened he jumped back as if it had bitten him. He never forgave the machine. Perhaps sensing this unease, the Massey does its best to break down as soon as he comes onto the property.

My pal Tom, on the other hand, adores the 1960 Massey Ferguson 35. He regards it as a big step up from his hydraulic lawn tractor in Pennsylvania, and gets as much seat-time running the bush hog as his schedule allows. A wannabe tractor owner, he loves the ride, the sound, the power of the beast. In summer I get a lot of raspberries picked while watching Tom mow around endless rows of walnut seedlings.

I share his fondness for the 35. Other tractors I had looked at were too big. They intimidated me with their size because I had never been around the bigger ones before. The 35 was just right, though.

It replaced a 1951 Ferguson TEA 20 which my dad had bought late in life. I hated that tractor because it terrified me. Running a bush hog with it was such an adrenaline-pumping experience that I couldn’t wait to be rid of the thing. First gear is an indecently fast pace, and in order to keep enough power to run a mower through long grass, I had to rev it pretty high. Galloping over rough ground led to unpleasant surprises every time I discovered where Dad had removed a boulder from the pasture. In long grass I once hit a stump with a front wheel. The sprained wrist took me out of the first month of bass fishing and I never forgave the tractor.

No one had told me that a rotary mower becomes an immense fly wheel connected directly to the driving wheels on a Fergie. I learned that myself the day I fetched up on top of a boulder in the horse pasture. It took an eight-ton hydraulic jack to lift the tractor back off the rock, and I decided then and there that this thing was too dangerous to use for anything except pleasant tours down country lanes with a trailer on back.

As I learned about tractors what amazed me was how much everyone else in the community knew about them. Two of my students had delivered the 35 from Almonte on a float. They gave me an amusing rundown on the strengths and foibles of this very common model. Rob Foster told me that “Some of those old 35’s leak so much they practically change their own oil, but this one’s pretty clean and it starts well, so it should be fine.” Over the phone my teen-aged neighbour Joseph Gordon easily talked me through the installation of a manifold one Friday evening.

Then I discovered the ultimate taboo for the owner of a tractor: I ran out of diesel, on the coldest day of the year, in the driving lane of the road going up Young’s Hill. There I was, snowblower down, engine rapidly cooling, dead on the hill.

I hurried to Portland for more fuel, poured it in, and then discovered why you don’t let these things run out. It wouldn’t go. Peter Myers stopped, took one look and said, “What did you do that for? Fixing that’s a terrible job! You have to work the pump on one side, while loosening each injector on the other side until it goes.”

I further confessed to having let the smoke out of the starter just before he arrived. Starters apparently run on smoke, because once I had let it out, this one wouldn’t work any more. Peter drove over the hill to get his tractor for a tow away from the danger zone. As he attached the chain I asked if it would hurt to try chain-starting the tractor. He told me to put it in top gear, high range, and see how it went.

Peter’s gigantic John Deere had no trouble dragging the suddenly-little Massey Ferguson off the hill and in the driveway. I popped the clutch and it started, so I finished the snow removal, then took off the starter and received an expensive lesson in tractor economics at the rebuilder’s.

When the Massey 30 quits, I add gas, but I don’t touch the diesel tractor until I’m sure the tank is at least half full. Lesson learned.

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