A tractor story as old as time
by Troy Bishopp
I saw a Pinterest post recently (which I modified slightly) that says “Old roads, old tractors, old folks and old ways still have a lot to offer in this sped-up world we live in.” Because we need some joy during this Christmas season pandemic, I’ll share a tractor story as old as time.
It’s a pretty simple plot: Boy grows up with tractor, grandfather sells tractor, adult boy finds and buys tractor back, grown boy dreams of restoring tractor, boy realizes his dream, and now “grandfather-boy” completes the tractor’s legacy by sharing it with his children and grandchildren.
The story begins 80 years ago, when a shiny, little bright-red Farmall “A” came off the assembly line in Illinois and ended up in the “Pleasant Valley” of Sangerfield, NY, on my grandfather Jimmy and Miss Pauline Steele’s farm. The purchase price of this new addition: just north of $600.
The versatile tractor worked in combination with their horses, mowing hay, running the ensilage cutter, pulling the thresher, hauling firewood, plowing snow and doing whatever was required on a small grass-based dairy farm. Little Red had its own stall in the barn where it got exceptional care and was an integral part of my mom, Sandy’s, farming experience. To the tractor’s credit, it helped create meaningful learning experiences and good memories for the grandsons.
When my grandparents sold their farm to a young couple and moved to Waterville, NY, the tractor came with them. The now legendary tractor became a leaf mover, wood hauler and parade-goer, until one mysterious day when it disappeared and was replaced by a new Cub Cadet lawn mower. I was devastated.
As I remember, it was the only disagreement I ever had with my grandfather; however, the die was cast and Red moved to another family. I told the new owners that when they decided to sell it to call me first! Over the next 20-odd years, I would catch glimpses of the weathered tractor hauling wood or, to my dismay, parked outside in the weather.
When my grandfather laid down upon green pastures in 2002, I vowed to bring his spirit back through Little Red and bring it home where the “A” belonged – with family. Through some miracle or blessing, my parents took a back way home from their Sunday breakfast and saw the tractor by the road, for sale. Upon learning the news, I was shocked and saddened the seller hadn’t called me. My dad asked me if I wanted to buy it. “Heck yes!” How much? “Price is no object,” I said. Lucky for me, the seller didn’t know how badly I wanted my grandpa’s piece of iron. The sale was quick at $1,500 – the same price my grandfather sold it for 20 years earlier.
Sunshine graced us for the monumental journey to our family farm the next Saturday. As we pulled alongside old Red, I noticed the familiar dent near the hand crank, the hitch set up for a sickle bar mower and Grandpa’s hand-painted letters over the original Farmall emblem. My five-mile journey home was wet with tears as the little engine purred just as I remembered from my childhood. I could only think of one thing: Grandpa Jimmy’s spirit riding along with me.
Over these many years, the little A has been quietly, patiently waiting in our barn for a rebirth. I believe, as much as an old farmer can, that the hearty piece of iron yearned to be back in service with oil warm and contributing to our family farm story in some way. Knowing my mechanical capacity limits, I needed help to get Red back in tip-top shape.
Old tractors are very comfortable in the hands of “older folks.” I am fortunate to be friends with retired farmer, crack-pot mechanic and Renaissance man Ed Palmer, who also had owned a Farmall A back when he started on his own hill farm. I brought the tractor over to his place, for a going over. What transpired was nothing short of a complete transformation in the calloused hands of this gifted gentleman.
With his natural ability and ample knowledge, he fixed the wobbly front axle, changed all the life-blood fluids, tuned up the engine, welded here and there, pounded out dents, and for the finale, painted the whole tractor with its signature red and added new decals so it looked just as it had when it rolled off the assembly line in 1940. It brought tears to an old farmer’s eye. It was indeed a gift from the heavens.
On Thanksgiving morning, the beautiful legacy tractor was loaded for its destination. But first, paying homage to my grandparents, I took Little Red back to its roots via Pleasant Valley Road, where it cultivated generations of memories amongst the farmers, the hills and the valleys of the Nine Mile Swamp. The “A” and I paused by the roadside to say a prayer for the old farmstead and sacred land where the 20 horses shaped a community.
The “A” proudly received my family for pictures and a ceremonial ride by our sixth-generation granddaughters at the farm. They’re a tad too young to realize the historic moment, but in time will have endless opportunities to keep the oil circulating and the wheels turning. For our part, as the “older ones,” it’s important to share the love of the land and family farms so that “New roads, young tractors, young folks and new ways still have a lot to offer in this world we live in.”