A Lifetime of Farm Machinery

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Submitted Article
A Lifetime of Farm Machinery
An Autobiography
by Joe Michaels

I am a mechanical engineer by profession, specializing in powerplant work. I worked as a machinist and engine erector, with time spent overseas. I have always had a love for machinery, and an appreciation for farming and farm machinery. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Not a place one would associate with farms or farm machinery. I credit my parents for instilling a lot of good values, a respect for learning, a knowledge of various skills and a little knowledge of farming in me, amongst other things. My mother was raised for part of her childhood, on a farm in New York State. Her parents were immigrants who tired hard at farming only to have the Depression finish off that idea. My father was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan of immigrant parents. He spoke Yiddish in the house and learned English in public school. He grew up with a strong sense of values, was a Boy Scout, and grew up scrabbling any way he could. An older sister suggested he attend the Agricultural School at Cornell- a way to get a free college education which had enough diverse subjects to be applicable to a lot of things. My father left home via a train in about 1935 to go to Cornell. He lived in a rooming house, washed dishes and prepared lab specimens to meet his living expenses and came home only when the terms ended. Summers, he was required to work on someone's farm- kind of an internship- to learn farming from an experienced farmer. Being a City kid, my dad was the bottom of the heap. As I found out after he died (from my mother and from his logbooks), the kids from farming families or with more "American" backgrounds got placed with the better farmers. My dad got placed with a 21 year old sharecropper in the Finger Lakes region. My dad's notes describe how he took a train to the nearest station and walked about ten miles then hitched to the guy's farm. His notes describe the conversation he had with the man who gave him the ride- a drought, the prospect of rising prices of hay. His notes also describe the cursing and abuse the farmer he was assigned to gave him on his arrival. My dad was chewed out for taking so long in getting there, and it only got worse. Apparently, this guy got my dad up at something like 4 AM to hitch a team and go to a neighboring farm to get water for the livestock. Then it was unhitch the team and milking- by hand. After breakfast (which his notes detail as well) he had to shovel out the gutters in the barn and hitch the team to a wagon. No manure spreader, so it was out to the pastures to pitchfork manure off a wagon. When there was no immediately pressing work, my dad's notes describe the farmer or his wife sending him out to weed various pastures. Through all this, my dad hung on, not wanting to bust out of Cornell.

The bright spot in the notes comes in the form of working with a neighboring farmer, a man named Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, my dad noted, was so different than the farmer he was assigned to- taking an interest in a young person wanting to learn farming. Mitchell had a tractor and a truck along with some form of hay press. Mitchell taught my dad to drive both the truck and the tractor and trusted my dad to drive the tractor back to the farm he was assigned to to do some work with it. My dad notes going in the ditch once. The drought was evidently quite severe as Mitchell had only one well which produced water for stock on both farms. My dad was taught to start a hit-n-miss engine, noting he had to choke it with two fingers while pulling it over. If the hit-n-miss fialed to start, he had to pump the water into the wagon by hand.

My dad notes that he had no watch (something we take for granted) and only a stump of a pencil. Apparently, Professor King at Cornell wanted an almost hourly log of what the students did and without a watch and some clear means of writing, this was difficult at first. Then, a friend arrived with a wonderful gift (to use my dad's phrase)- a dollar Ingersoll watch, a pen (no ballpoints back then), nibs and ink.

The log goes on, with dad naming the draft horses and describing daily events- often chewings out with coinflicting orders from the farmer or his wife. It is hard to imagine how anyone stood the gaff, but my dad stuck it out. I guess he percieved it as his only chance at an education.

At any rate, my dad did not finish out at Cornell- the depression finished off that idea. He took a job as a plumber's apprentice down in the city and wound up getting injured on a jobsite. World War II broke out and my dad would have been unfit for military service due to the injury. Nevertheless, he went into the combat engineers and was operated on to get him into condition to go to war. He fought in Europe and was wounded twice, winding up on 50% disability. My dad took the only job he could handle at the time, a construction inspector and my mom became a school teacher.

I came along in 1950. From the get go, I could not figure why we had to live in the city. Summers, we would stay on farms and I would love it. My folks would teach me all sorts of things. I took it for granted that everone's dad just knew how to hitch a team and everyone's mom knew how to strip down a cow's udders and milk a cow. One time, a cow was in distress with a calf in ( I suppose) a breached position. The farmer knew my dad had studied at Cornell, so got him out of bed since the vet was some distance away. My dad and mom got me up to see the whole event. I recall my dad taking his shirt off and going at it, working up a sweat and eventually turning the matter over to the vet. I recall the newborn calf with it's knobby knees and the whole wonder of it. That fall, back in Brooklyn at public school, I learned this was not something to tell other kids about.

On one farm we stayed they had a couple of tractors. One was either an 8 or 9N. One day, my dad hitched it to what he called a flat rig- a haywagon without the stake sides. The farmer's hired men loaded on an old Mall 2-man chainsaw, some log chains and a few other tools and piled onto the wagon. I got in my dad's lap and he drove the tractor and wagon down a 2-rut road into some woods. There was a big dead horse chestnut tree that stuck up above the rest of the treeline- you could see it from the farm. I had never been able to walk to that horse chestnut tree, but dad stopped the tractor right near it. He and the other guys got off and got ready to fell locust trees for fence posts. Dad told me to say with the "rig" as he called it. He was afraid I'd be in danger around the falling trees. They went off and I heard the old Mall saw start up.

Not too much longer after that, the sky darkened and the wind began to really blow with the onset of a summer thunderstorm. I knew lightning could strike trees and wanted to go to get my dad. I also knew his word was pretty much law. I was about 5 years old and scared of the prospects of a storm- figuring my dad might not hear it coming and get hurt, but afraid to get over to him because they were felling trees and he had told me to sick with the tractor. The lightning started to flash, so I got under the wagon bed. When I saw the lightning flash through the gaps in the boards of the bed, I figured a tree could smash the wagon. That sent me under the tractor, figuring nothing could smash it, even if I got wet. A few minutes later, my dad and the other guys came over to the wagon, laughing and happy the rain as cooling things down. The other guys loaded onto the wagon and my dad got up on the tractor seat. By now, it was really raining hard with gusts of wind and lightning. I got in my dad's lap and he fired up the tractor. "steer for the barn, Joe" he said. I cuddled into my dad and got my hands on the wheel. Dad let out the clutch and put on the headlights. Dad hollered in my ear, asking if I was scared. I said I wasn't, but he said he was proud of me and it was OK to cry. I knew that the other guys couldn't see me cry, sitting up on the tractor, and I let go. Dad got his arms around me and I kept steering. It seemed like I didn't notice the storm right about then.

I grew up in the city, in an un-typical household. We eventually had a forge and anvil in our basement. My dad never backed away from a situation and usually solved all sorts of things by thinking them through. He also never hesitated to help other people. My dad had a love for draft horses, and later told me he would sooner watch a man plow a field with a good team than go to a ball game. In the fifties in Brooklyn, there were still a few driving horses (light draft) around pulling peddler's wagons and junk wagons. On hot summer days, the peddler with the vegetable wagon would come down our street. The women would gather round to buy vegetables. I recall my grandmother looked out and saw the horse. She told me in Yiddish to give the horse a drink. My mom followed up in English telling me to get a bucket for the horse. I lugged a galvanized pail of water to the horse. The women all jabbered I'd get kicked or bit. The horse put his head down and took a drink. The peddler gave me a carrot or apple for the horse and told me in a mixture of Italian and English that I was a good kid. It became a regular event, my watering the peddler's horse.

Another event comes to mind. About 1958 or so, we had a couple of feet of snow. It jammed up the works and nothing could move. A neighbor called to say he was out of fuel oil. There was a licensed plumber on the block, but my dad was the man who was called. My dad told me to transfer the garbage from the various cans and find the tightest, cleanest garbage can and to get some rope and my sled. He lashed the can to the sled and we parked it outside the basement window. Then, my dad took a little pump he'd bought in a junk store and an old washing machine motor. He was no millwright, so he clinch nailed things onto a board and used a piece of garden hose and some baling wire for a shaft coupling. Dad pumped some of our fuel oil into the garbage can and took some pipe wrenches, pipe dope, the pump and hoses and put them on the sled. We mushed down the street to the neighbor's and fueled him up, Dad showed me how to bleed out an oil burner and get things restarted. The neighbors had heat and all was right with the world. I thought my dad could figure out or fix about anything. A lot of people used to think we were kind of crazy, but it never bothered my dad.

Years passed. I became an engineer and lived in various places around the US, never again in a city. I married and settled down to a job with a power company. We were living in our first house, on 1 1/2 acres. Not enough room for a real tractor, so I got a Gravely. Our daughter was about three when I got the word my dad was dying of cancer. Every night was an ordeal of getting news of his condition via phone calls and the distance made the matter only worse. My dad and mom had relocated to California to be near my sister. Eventually, the inevitable happened and my dad died. I got the call at about 1 AM on a Saturday night. The next morning, I got up in kind of an unreal state of affairs. I looked out and saw a bird feeder that I had hung on a rope appeared to be rocking violently. I let it down and found finch trapped inside the feed bin. The finch looked at me, seemingly unafraid. The finch puffed up its chest, looked me square in the eye and set itself to rights. It showed no signs of leaving, so I spoke to it, saying: "Go on, go on home, it's OK." The finch took off and flew a straight course for the woods. I figured it would be too rattled to fly. Then, it struck me that the finch had a barrel chest like my dad and had a red head shot with some gray as my dad had. I felt a lot better.

I went out to California for the funeral and flew home again. The night before I was to return to work, I sat with my wife and daughter. My wife was getting the daughter ready for bed. I was recollecting things from my dad's life. A thunderstorm came up and I recalled the incident on the tractor. I began to cry. Soon, I was crying more like a coyote howling. My wife told me I was upsetting the child, so I went to another room, telling my wife I would give anything I had right about then for one more ride on an 8 or 9N in my dad's lap.

The next day, I drove about 100 miles to the power line jobsite I was assigned to. Everyone offered their condolences, and I was kind of listless. I got into a company truck to look at some of the work and get some lunch. On an impulse, I swung into a small town. It was kind of an impoverished place with a boarded-up implement shop I had seen before. I had often wondered what was left in that shop. As I drove past it, I noticed a garage door was open. Just then, an older man pulled out on a little gray 8N. He pulled it off onto the shoulder of the road and parked it. He was smoking a pipe. He climbed off the 8N and I parked and got out. As I walked over to him, I could smell the pipe smoke. My dad had smoked a pipe when I was a kid and it brought him back to me. Then, the guy knocked out his pipe against his heel- just as my own dad had done. That did it for me. I lost it right there and started crying. The man, a stranger to me, asked what was wrong and I told him about my dad. I looked at the engine of the 8N and recalled how proud my dad had been when, as a kid, I could name all the visible parts and explain their workings to anyone handy. There was the little fuel sediment bowl- which as a little kid, I'd thought had tea leaves in it (really rust flecks), and the sparkplugs and distributor cap I'd pointed out and named way back then. The engine was even painted the same red color. I told the fellow with the tractor about what his 8N brought back for me. He put a hand on my shoulder and told me to get in the seat and take the tractor for a good ride and hoped I'd feel better. He was a stranger, didn't know me from Adam, but was willing to trust me with his tractor.

I did get up on the seat and started the engine. I put my hands on the wheel and looked at the big acorn nut in the center of the hub. I listened to the sound of the little engine for a good long while. I didn't physically go anywhere, just went back in my mind. It was the last time I ever cried for my dad.

A short while later, our son was born and we named him Martin, for my dad. We moved to our present home in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Moving to some acreage, it was time for a tractor. Since the property is wooded and has steep grades with not much open land, not too big a machine was needed. I found a Yanmar 4 wd diesel tractor for sale at sealed bid auction from the Village of Woodstock. Working overseas, I had learned that Yanmar builds one rugged diesel engine and also builds a lot of the compact tractors for John Deere. The little Yanmar has a combination dozer/snow blade on the front of it, a 3 point hitch, PTO and does everything I need. At first, I rode my son Martin on my lap. I'd snuggle him into my Carhartt coat on colder days and let him steer. Martin is now 12 and has been operating the Yanmar for a good 3 years on his own when the need arises. He is careful and will defer jobs like plowing snow near the edges of banks to me. Seeing him check the tractor over and drive off on it always gives me a twinge. Our daughter, Samantha, has a bit of a disability- Apsberger's syndrome with some motor skill, perception and learning problems as well. She is now 15. She'd see other kids driving go-carts in amusement parks, but could not handle it. On the other hand, she had taught herself to ride a bicycle and mastered a mountain bicycle. At any rate, I figured the little Yanmar was a good thing for Samantha to learn to drive. With the extra low range, the Yanmar just crawls along, so it would be the ideal thing to let her learn on. Unfortunately, she said I made her nervous. I came home from work one day and simply told Martin to go get the Yanmar tractor and teach Samantha to drive it. He put it in low range and put her in the seat. Martin did what we couldn't. In 20 or 30 minutes, he had Samantha driving the Yanmar up and down a quarter mile of road. Then, he did what I had done with him- taught her to engage the clutch on an upgrade. I snuck down and watched him work with her. Samantha was at ease in the seat and finding the gears OK and manuvering where Martin told her. I walked up to the house and got my wife. She couldn't believe what she saw when she walked down the hill- Samantha rode by on the Yanmar and waved at her. Martin and the little Yanmar tractor had done so much for Samantha right about then.

We use the little Yanmar for plowing snow, getting in firewood, occasional bush hogging and running a snow blower. It is a very basic, reliable little machine. I made some wheel spacers out of 2" plate to widen the rear track a bit and added 150 lb wheel weights from a Farmall Cub. I made wheel weight adaptors in my machine shop. I did not want to use calcium. With ag tread tires, the Yanmar does quite well in the woods and pushing snow.

I like to get out on winter mornings before dawn to plow snow. Then, I sometimes turn out the headlamps and look at the animal tracks in the snow by moon and starlight, while getting kind of mesmerized by the roll of snow breaking out of the plow moldboard. One winter morning at about 4:30 AM, I recall seeing a fox run in front of the tractor. He turned and began to pace the tractor for perhaps 50 yards before shearing off into the woods. That only happened once, but it was memorable. Deer are a more regular encounter. Friends have more traditional tractors like a Farmall H, Oliver 88, Ferguson TO-30. Since I have a machine shop along with blacksmithing and welding equipment, I make an occasional part or do some repairs. There are plenty of tools and equipment around my home and shop which belonged to my dad. I keep my dad's old Hickory striped overalls on the handrail down into the machine shop. While he never lived to see our home or the son who carries his name, I'd like to think he is here in spirit. Meanwhile, I tell my kids stories of the grandpa they never knew and teach my son to use some of his tools.

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