The Little Tractor That Could
There was a TV show in the late 60’s starring Peter Graves called Mission Impossible and the team was given instructions for top secret and extremely difficult missions on tapes that self-destructed after Mr. Phelps listened to them. If they chose to accept the missions, they were on their own and could expect no help.
Life has been like that for some people. They accepted difficult assignments and responsibilities and found they were on their own and they didn’t realize they had a choice. Such was the life of most Americans in the “good old days”. Today, if you don’t like your job or career choice, or you spouse, just change. The thinking was different once upon a time and the choices in rural America were limited.
Both of my Grandparents were farmers when I can first remember them. My Father’s father ran a farm over on Marshall Mill Rd and later managed a farm in Bibb County until 1951 at the now junction of Knoxville Rd and Eisenhower Parkway (which did not go by there then). It was a big house, barn and a large farm that was owned by Dr. Dixon who was in the drug store business. A lot of houses now take up some of that space.
For young people today, it would be almost impossible to understand how these families and millions like them raised their families and produced goods in an environment that functioned to a great degree without cash. These families worked for months on end with no revenue coming in to speak of. There was no weekly check coming in and most of the income was generated from crops sold in the summer and fall. Credit cards: unheard of.
Those that were lucky enough to have several cows or hogs might sell one along for cash. There were few “cattle farmers” in the area as those specialties developed over time. It was farming and cotton that were the mainstays. My grandfather said that when he was a young man there was nothing but cotton from Knoxville to the Bibb County line where there are mostly trees now. Revenue streams were narrow! And, the boll weevil took care of a lot of that! Some farmers found off season work at saw mills, carpentry jobs and in logging to raise “spending money”.
My father’s father moved from Crawford County to Bibb County to run the big farm for Dr. Dixon and they lived in the big, rambling house on that property. The house and barns were destroyed by a tornado in 1953 that hopped and skipped along and destroyed a lot of property and killed 18 people in Warner Robins. They had gone by then. They had moved to Macon and my grandfather went to work at Robins Air Force Base and never grew more than a garden and some tomatoes after that. He probably never missed the life of a farmer very much.
My mother’s father (and mother) lived at Sandy Point his entire life. His father in law, Berrien Long, owned part of the Long estate handed down from his father, Alford Long and about 90 acres of that land became my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s. Some research has shown that the Long’s owned property to what is now Centerville at one time and, of course, many of them are famous for the pottery they made that is bought and sold by collectors today.
My grandfather later purchased the Vining Place. I remember going to that house one time, which is no longer there and has long been gone. (Odd that I should be at the Vinings area in Cobb County, now). That brought him up to about 300 acres. That Vinings property was purchased by Malcolm Pyles, whose family owned the adjoining property, in about 1959. Malcolm had gone into farming the family farm full time when he returned from the Army and farmed there until he died.
Now, that brings me to the Mission Impossible. How in the world did they farm that 300 acres with little outside help using mules and walk behind plows and equipment? There were no tenant farmers on the place. And, frankly, I don’t know how they did it.
My first memories of my grandfather were walking to the field with my grandfather and the mule. He had a gallon jug of water and there were no coolers to be seen. There would have been a big market for Yeti Coolers if anyone had had any money.
The definition of an acre was, in the middle ages, originally the amount of land a man could plow in a day with a yoke of oxen and a walk behind plow. The difference in most situations in later years was whether they had large teams of horses to pull larger sets of plows and implements and if they were fortunate to be able to afford multiple teams. Of course, there was a time when big plantations used slave labor and it took a lot of labor to run a large operation. Having a number of kids was a way of insuring there was help on the farm in those days, too.
The normal walking speed of a draft horse is said to be about 2.5 miles per hour. It took a farmer about an hour and a half using five horses and a gang plow to plow an acre in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. (According to a Brigham Young University Study) Most family farms did not own five horses and were more likely to have one or two mules. The expression one horse town or one horse farm had particular significance. Today, according to that same study, a large tractor in the 150 horsepower class can plow one acre in five minutes!
If you travel to an Amish Community today, you can see big teams of big Morgan horses plowing and tilling the way it was done many years ago.
But, mainly on the large farms today, its big tractors, combines, satellite GPS control and computers. Fewer farms producing larger results from mega acres. A lot of money invested and risked each year. My grandfather and his father in law would borrow $35 to start the planting season and in some case, leased the mules. Leasing mules kept them from having to feed them in the winter, non-productive months. A mule could be leased, based on documents I have from that period, for $18.00.
When we talk about the long time decline in the number of farms and farm families, we are often saddened by the loss of this foundation of American life for many years. But, it is not as much a result of greedy agriculture conglomerates as the fact that the small farmer cannot produce enough, borrow enough, put in center pivot irrigation systems and endure losses enough to survive in a modern world. I wish there was better news. My grandfather took a job working 3:00 PM until 11:00 PM. at a cotton mill to supplement their cash income.
The first tractors were steam but these were heavy and cumbersome. Ford Motor Company started mass tractor production under the name of Fordson in 1916-17 and made gasoline tractors ( they could actually use fuel oil, as well ) for many years until about 1928 before exiting the business, later to return. But, as with autos, Ford made tractors available in a mass way producing over 550,000 of the Fordsons. Tractors were actually cheaper to maintain than horses. However, Ford discovered that they never made a profit on tractors and that led to their decision to end tractor manufacturing in 1928. They later returned to the business only to sell again in 1991 to Fiatallis and Ford is currently not in the agriculture business. Most American tractor companies have disappeared. John Deere being the most recognized American manufacturer in our area these days and a few IHCase tractors. Ford tractors became New Holland after they sold out to Fiatallis, an Italian company. AGCO sells under a number of different brands with Massey Ferguson probably being the most recognized label. Today you are more likely to see a Kubota or a Mahindra being pulled on a trailer by landscapers and plumbing companies.
I never saw a steam driven tractor except in old films. But they were the first step toward bringing mechanized power to the big farms to pull plows and cultivators and all the other necessary implements and were referred to as traction machines originally. But on my grandfather’s farm, he drove away on a Sunday in about 1947 with someone in a flatbed truck. Late that after afternoon he came back with a yellow International Model A tractor.
Most people would come to use the Red versions built by International Harvester (The name of the company changed a time or two) called Farmall. This yellow tractor was the industrial version and this little tractor with 13 HP at the drawbar would forever change the way this farm and others would produce crops. This tractor was used for at least 25 years and was still in good working order when it was sold. We used it and “made do” with the small tractor by running it all day long. Later, my grandfather would do some joint farming with others to multiply their efforts. I was usually a tractor driver in that mix.
Other tractors started appearing on the scene. John Deere, Moline, Ford, Case, Allis Chalmers, and many others started making their presence known. These machines could have cultivators attached and could pull plows, harrows, and other equipment.
A man named Ferguson would revolutionize the use of farm tractors when he invented the 3-point hitch making it possible to change from one process to another in a matter of a few minutes. Later the rights were acquired, under some cloud of dispute, by Ford. Some say it was a handshake deal. The Ford 9N and the still popular 8N could go from plowing to harrowing and then to planting in a jiffy. The Utility tractor was now a reality. A reconditioned 1947 8N Ford tractor with 23.16 drawbar HP that could plant and cultivate two rows at a time will sell today for several times its original price of about $750. My Grandfather paid $600 for the Model A International which was a one row tractor, meaning it could plant and cultivate one row at a time.
You can still see the Ford 8N doing work on small operations today after almost 70 years! They were the most popular farm tractor of all time and popular for restorers.
We later went to a Ford 3000 Diesel with 47 drawbar horsepower and at one time we used two of them. It could use two 16” moldboard plows and cover about 30 inches per round versus a 6” plow and a mule covering, you guessed it, 6”. It could plant two rows at a time and cultivate two rows. Some tractors today plant up to 48 rows at a time and are computer monitored and self-driving! Times have changed!
I personally owned two tractors: an F-30 Farmall and a Ford 3000. The F-30 was built in about 1931 and had a low horsepower rating of only 25 HP at the drawbar. But if you hooked the F-30 to the Ford 3000 (I don’t really recommend doing this) the F-30 would pull the 3000 backwards. I pulled up tree stumps with it. It would pull a 5 plow moldboard gang plow where the 3000 had a problem in my soil pulling more than two. The F-30 started with a hand crank, and as one of my former neighbors could attest, would knock you out cold if it kicked back!
Mission Impossible! No, it was possible because they somehow did the impossible. They did it with hard work, day light to dark, six days a week. When they used mules they worked long hard hours. When the tractors came, they still worked long hard hours but they got more work done. They worked six days a week and you would not find my grandfathers working anywhere on Sunday. They were warming a church pew, somewhere. The mules and the tractors got a day off!