Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tractor Stories

What I remember most about Museum Village in Monroe, New York are the early “traction engines” parked side by side in open front storage sheds. There were names, now unfamiliar to most like Russell, Rumely OilPull, and Nichols and Shepherd, emblazoned across their bodies, or that is what I recall some thirty plus years ago. That memory was probably from my first museum visit, or, at least, it is my earliest memory of visiting a museum.

I also remember the disappointment of not being allowed to climb on those metal mammoths as we all wished to on that autumn day in 1971 when my Park Avenue Elementary School class went on a field trip. The museum had fastened livestock wire fencing across the front of the shed as a deterrent against kids prone to climbing like ourselves. These machines must have been even more impressive when they were new in the late 19th century and early 20th, but my guess now is that these museum pieces never saw much action in the surrounding dairy country I grew up in Warwick and its environs.

These tractors were likely collected from places where crop production was on a far greater scale than the relatively small dairies of Orange County. The shear weight of these monsters would have insured that any local farmers would have spent a lot of time knee deep in mud trying to get them unstuck from the small divisions of stone walled pastures and fields that characterized local farms in these tractors’ heyday. These babies were meant to travel in long, level, and unimpeded swaths of farmland or to work with the use of a belt to thresh and grind far greater multiples of what any local farmer required for his dairy herd of thirty or forty at the most. The largest farms around like the commercial Borden’s establishment that used to stand in all its grandiosity off the road to Goshen, and since razed to the ground, wouldn’t have used such equipment either, for with the huge number of cows to milk there were always laborers available for field work on their hundreds of rolling and rocky acres using horse or oxen and plow.

The rocks and hills characteristic of that Borden farm and much of the Warwick Valley would have been dangerous terrain for these rigid power houses, and even the modern tractors of later eras were known to turn over at the urgings of rock, tree root, or mud. I recall the story that my own grandfather’s farm on Rt.94 was the scene of just such a tragic death when one of his narrow stance Farmalls flipped completely over crushing the inexperienced teen who had taken it out without permission and tried to do donuts in a field in the 1950s. After the First World War, it was the smaller gas powered tractors of makers like Samson, International Harvester, Ford, Case, and John Deere, to name a few, that were among the popular choices for those who could afford to mechanize for the needs of their relatively small dairies in comparison with the great crop farms of the West that required combines and the like.

Many small farms in the Warwick, NY area stuck to seemingly more reliable draft horses and oxen for pulling their machinery and doing the field work that needed to be done right up to the Second World War. The cost of tractors was likely a factor. My own maternal grandfather, Paul Miller, who first started his own farm business with the help of his father-in-law Phillip Kiel in Little York, made use of work horses in his first year of solo farming in 1936-7. The agreement was that he could make use of Phillip Kiel’s farm to get on his feet building a herd of milking livestock before he set out on his own. After a year he rented the Lawrence farm (Sanford Farm) in Warwick, and he remained there until he bought Fair Meade Farm on Rt.94 in 1947 just a stones throw from the farm his father, Peter Miller, rented and raised his thirteen children on including Paul himself, the oldest. As far as I can tell he was using draft horses right up until 1940 when tractors started inhabiting the photographs that document his early dairy operation.

The transition to tractors occurred soon in his farming career, and there was an early preference for machines produced by International Harvesters. A narrow stance Model H lasted for many years on the farm, and that could have been bought as early as 1939. There was also a Farmall C, and that was only produced from 1948-1951. The best of the lot was the Farmall Super M which was likely purchased in the early 50s, and that saw lots of wear as a circa 1963 photo evidences. It is likely that the C and Super M were bought new somewhere in that time frame. I can recall going to the International Harvester dealership in Edenville as a child in tow with the adults. What I recall most about those visits was wandering to the back of the building to get a look at the old hook and ladder fire truck that was parked in the field behind surrounded by tall grass.

By the end of his short life of fifty one years, my grandfather had purchased some state-of-the-art John Deere tractors. Most notable of these was a narrow stance 4010 Diesel that was touted as one of a “New Generation of Power.” Power it had with its 80 horsepower four cylinder; it could pull a five bottom plow with little effort. This model featured innovations like a synchro transmission that allowed you to shift without clutching while doing field work, and for the first time you could maintain a momentum while plowing, disking, and other tasks that would otherwise be interrupted with the reduced RPMs resulting from clutching and shifting. When you think about the relatively short time frame of a little more than two decades of farming Paul Miller had made a momentous leap from doing field work with horses to such a tractor. I believe that my grandfather was quite proud of owning such a machine as is evidenced by the photo documentation of it shortly before his death in 1964, and rightly so; it was a beauty.

A love for tractors was passed on to me, and no doubt my cousin Paul too, although it is a safe bet that I will never own anything bigger that a riding lawnmower or a rototiller. I think much of this love is a result of my time growing up on the family farm, or the fact that my grandmother bought identical Ertl John Deere pedal tractors for both my cousin and I when we were still toddlers placing them in our play pens long before we knew what to do with them. My son shares this love of tractors, with trains a close runner up. This was in no way encouraged, but I have to admit that I enjoy his toy tractors as much as he does and don’t pass on any opportunity to buy yet another one. When he was beginning to acquire language and share it with my wife and I we were struck by his unsolicited responses to the tractors and heavy equipment that we passed in the car on our travels. We did buy him some books about tractors, but it was he that gravitated towards them often ignoring all else.

One of my son’s early favorites was a comprehensive history of tractors that I picked up at a sale for dollars. It is essentially a research book with stats for an adult, but it has some great photo-documentation of tractors in it. This was obviously the book's appeal to him. It was bigger than him then, but a routine developed before sleep each night when he would sit up in bed and turn the pages of this enormous hardcover proclaiming a “trac-tor” on each and every page while nodding his head and seeking my affirmation.

The toys I remember the most from my childhood were the miniature tractors and implements my cousin and I ( we were months apart in age) got at the John Deere dealership Gor-Duns in Goshen when it was necessary for the adults to buy parts for the larger versions. My cousin still reminds me that although we shared toys it was me who inevitably broke his first and then broke my own. The Ertl toys had a greater resistance to my destructiveness, and they seemed to fare better than the plastic toys. The tradition of owning Ertl toys is preserved to this day in my family because of a nearby John Deere dealership in Ellsworth, ME. We frequently buy the virtually unaltered metal toy tractors and attachments for my son. He has far more toys in general than I ever remember having.

My own tractors never survived the farm; they mysteriously disappeared shortly before we moved from the farm into the Village of Warwick. It was likely that the adults made them disappear to ease our “cold turkey” move from the farm that I had always known as my home and my cousins who had always been with me every waking hour. Life would be very different in a rented apartment above a house on Forester Avenue in the village, but I would eventually stake a territory out for myself in the still numerous wooded areas around Memorial Park, Park Lane, and along the Waywayanda Creek.

At the Blue Hill Fair (ME) two years ago (the place where the fictional pig Wilbur wins a blue ribbon in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web), my wife and I picked up an almost identical pedal tractor to the one I once had as a child. The difference was that this was an Allis Chalmers in color and in choice of decals. It would undoubtedly serve just as well as my John Deere did for rough boy play. The John Deere model offered at the fair seemed cheaper in construction than the cast metal of the Allis Chalmers with its narrow stance steel and rubber wheels exactly like my own from over 40 years ago. Gabe, at four and a half years, has only just reached the pedals. He still strains to get it to go anywhere on our gravel driveway, but he has found every imaginable combination of accessorizing the tractor by means of a piece of clothesline or shoestring. I have seen a tricycle, plastic cart, eight foot two by fours and the like trailing behind that flashy orange tractor as he walks and pushes when he can’t pedal .

During our routine Sunday drives as a child, I would scan the countryside for old tractors and cars alike parked behind barns and overgrown with weeds in fields. One of the earliest tractor dinosaurs in situ I remember seeing was in Bellvale at the Benedict Farm. As many of you who grew up during the time frame of the 60s and 70s in the Warwick area might remember, the Benedict Farm was literally polluted with wrecked cars and machinery from all eras. Pasture and hayfields alike were lousy with decrepit autos that had doors and hoods left ajar and trucks in various degrees of disassembly, damage, and decay. My cousin and I once tagged along with my uncle Bob on a visit to the Benedict dairy on that rare Saturday when we were together , for he had also moved away from the farm by this point to as far away as Greenwood Lake. I can still picture us sitting in the back of the pickup on the way there fighting the summer breezes with our arms and hands down Kings Highway and then onto Iron Forge Road.

I have seen pictures of the Benedict farm house and outbuildings from the 19th century since that early experience. It had been a showplace rivaling all others in the area under the ownership of earlier Benedicts. I recall that it was Italianate in style, a villa of sorts a gem among the monotonous white clapboard farmhouses that dotted the valley. It had the characteristic stucco plastered over wood on its exterior, but much of that had been shed by this later chapter in its history. Efferd Benedict, then its owner, seemed of a more relaxed persuasion than his ancestors, for I recall not only the disrepair of the house and outbuildings, the dozens of decrepit vehicles, and the debris scattered about with no regard for appearances, but his choice of some old and battered rocking chairs right in the middle of the cow barn, between the rows of stanchions, where he sat rocking and presiding over his domain.

While the adults talked it up on that particular visit, my cousin Paul and I beat a path through the eye high grass behind the barn to explore the countless wrecks . I took notice of the rusty Fordson that day once we had worked our way from the back barnyard to the front where there were well worn paths with deep tractor tire ruts. This must have been sometime around 1973 or 1974, so the use of that Fordson on that or any farm had been for a longtime a distant memory. The tractor set in plain view surrounded by burdock and the like. It was steel-wheeled and rubber less, which made it stand out at this point in time. That was how it came in the 1920s; there were rubber-less tractors being produced into the late 30s. The Fordson had been of relatively low cost to farmers seeking mechanized horsepower. For $750 a shiny new version could be had in 1918, and by 1922 Ford’s “price cutting policy” brought the price down to $395. The condition of this Fordson evidenced that someone had gotten their money’s worth many times over.

There were still residuals of this 18 horsepower, four cylinder’s original gray paint, but, clearly, this thing hadn’t coughed up smoke in a long time. The three speeds once made possible by the gearbox had long since seized. One of the desirable design features of this model was the way the engine housing, transmission, and differential were all joined firmly together eliminating the need for a separate frame. It protected the innards of this little engine that could from fouling with dirt from the field. That tractor remained there for many years, and I would always admire it in passing wishing that one day I could buy it and resurrect it. This was undoubtedly an idea born of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang too many times. It disappeared eventually with Efferd Benedict and the farm itself. All those cars and machinery were no doubt hauled away for scrap after his passing.

I have occasionally seen a Fordson since then; some of them were still serving farmers in places like Finland and Russia as recently as the end of the twentieth century. I remember seeing one on a fifteen hour bus trip from Vasa, Finland to what was then Leningrad in 1984. Apparently, they were first exported in great numbers to places like this, for, unlike the United States, there were few competitors to satisfy the need for agricultural mechanization. Fordson was increasingly replaced by more powerful models and affordable choices here in the US, so the company attracted distributors like Armand Hammer who sought out foreign markets for the trusty little tractor. The newly formed Soviet Union was highly receptive to the Fordson seeing it as key to an anticipated future agricultural prowess.

Recently, I had another chance to examine one of these little work horses at Henry Wiswell’s farm in Orrington, Maine. Henry Wiswell took my son Gabe and I on a tour of his family farm showing us some of the equipment acquired and kept by the eight generations of Wiswells that have lived on the farm since 1789; the Wiswells moved to Orrington in 1772 from Massachusetts. Most amazing was the Model B John Deere with narrow stance front wheels that Henry’s father had bought new in 1945 for 800 dollars. It still runs, but “it needs a coat of paint,” which “it will get this Spring,” according to Mr. Wiswell. Although this wasn’t the first tractor owned by the Wiswells, it was one of the first, and the fact that many such possessions have remained in the hands of their original owners in Maine sometimes puts me in awe.

There is a sculptor by the name of Peter Berrit that lives and works out on Deer Isle, ME. His metal and wood sculptures are always fantastical in nature embodying the story and myth of his vivid imagination. Dragons, knights, and the anthropomorphized are realized in literally larger- than- life multimedia creations. He welds and fastens many found objects from the local garbage heap where one can often find a smorgasbord of bits and pieces of 19th and early 20th century material culture in abundance.

Berrit has remarked that it is specifically Maine that is responsible for much of his ability to craft the things that he does, for the abundance of barns and outbuildings necessitated by long and snowy winters as well as less access to cheap replacements for the manufactured goods from a time when planned obsolescence wasn’t a consideration in design, allowed for things to last longer and remain on the Maine homestead even after such things had long passed from fashion elsewhere. There simply wasn’t commercial garbage removal on the scale of other places, and people didn’t throw things out. Now we see these things showing up at the local dump, and here Peter Berrit finds his raw materials. What I get, and I expect many others do too, is not only the experience of art but a exercise in deconstructing the part from the whole, and this offers us a lesson in rural American material culture. Like those bits and pieces found by Berrit for his art, the numerous rusted ancient tractors and accoutrements all over Maine serve my son and I as the stuff of dreams about what was and what could be again.


  1. Robert, I am Terry Yungman's cousin & have just now begun reading your blog message re history of your time ime in Warwick, the tractors, also of interest to me, etc.
    I among others do appreciate your keen historical recount of the old days - to give you some perspective, I graduated from WVCHS in 1959.
    Perhaps we will correspond as time goes on & maybe one day get to meet with you. Geo. T. Yungman, George Y.the VI (address me as Tom)
    I commend your great work & interest in the Warwick/Pine Island area.
    Tom Yungman

  2. Does anyone know where to get a copy of Faith of Our Fathers, by Susan M. Yungman?

  3. Hi,
    I was reading your posting concerning the Schmick's of Pine Island. My grandfather was John (Johannes) and my grandmother was Catherine (Catherina).They went from Yagodnaya Polyana for Hamburg Germany. They left Germany on the SS Bulgaria with their four sons Alexander,Phillip, John, and Peter. Also traveling on the same ship was his brother Conrad his wife Maria (Mary) children Heinrich, Martin, Maria, their mother Maria, brothers Peter, Heinrich and sister Anna. On the Ellis Island web site their name is spelled SCHNICK. The written manifest from Hamburg looks like Schnick, but if you look closely it is Schmick.

    They are buried in Little Brooklyn Cemetary. John died 1943, Catherine died 1956. Conrad died 1938 and Mary died 1945.

    In 2002 my sister and I visited St. Paul's now Pine Island Bible Church, St. Peter's and the cemetery. I was not able to locate the farm my mother was raised on. I am surprised it is still in operation.

    A lot information I found was on the Later Day of Saints web site. I went into the library and picked the films I wanted to view. Also Faith of Our Fathers by Susan M. Yungman is also on file. I was able to make a copy of it.

    I would like to hear from you and maybe exchange some information.

  4. Was anyone able to find a copy of Faith of Our Fathers, by Susan M. Yungman