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By Vern Zielke

The need for tractors originated when humans first began to till the soil. When early man scratched in the dirt to prepare the soil to receive the seed, he pulled a stick or so me kind of sharp object. For thousands of years animals were used to make this important task more efficient. Oxen, water buffalo, mules, and horses were domesticated to till the earth's soil so that mankind could plant crops.

It was not until the turn of the century that serious consideration was given to motorized traction. My forebears had been farming with animals for hundreds of years. My father and mother started farming in Meade County with horses and mules. I, however, was born too late to learn how to drive a team of horses with a plough or some other implement in tow.

My father bought his first tractor in the1920's. Actually, tractors had been around for some time but he had not owned one before this. This tractor was a 15-30 McCormick Deering International. It was not the largest model they made nor was it the smallest. Most farmers in Meade County who had the International tractor found the 22-36 to be more adaptable to the type of farming which was in vogue there at that time. The 15-30, which my father had, was one size smaller.

Farming in Western Kansas in the 1920's and 1930's did not require a large outlay in farm equipment. If you had a tractor, a one-way plough, and a seed drill, you could put in a crop. When the tractor replaced horse- power, possibilities unlimited existed for the aspiring farmer. It is no wonder that even today we use the term "horsepower" to rate the performance capacity of engines.

During the 30's and 40's when I when growing up, there was not a large variety of tractors in our community. While there were a few Case tractors and maybe a Minneapolis-Moline or two, most of them were McCormick Deering International or John Deer. There were significant differences between these two. While both were powerful and useful, they looked different, were operated differently, and they certainly sounded different. Most of the John Deers in use were the D model, which compared in size and pulling power to the 22-36 International. The International was a reddish color and the John Deer was a bright green. The sound of the International's four cylinder engine could be described as a gentle roar, while the two cylinder John Deer made sort of a rhythmic poping sound when it ran. The were nick-named "Johnny-pops." The International was started with a hand crank which protruded from the front, just under the radiator, while the John Deer had to be started by spinning the big fly wheel which was mounted on its left side.

Some of the more prosperous farmers, who had many acres to farm, experimented with their 22-36 tractors, looking for ways to make them more efficient. They invented a devise which allowed them to hook two tractors together, thus doubling the pulling power of an already powerful tractor. Someone also invented a self-guide, which extended out in front of the tractor. A small wheel was mounted on this extension and it closely followed the furrow, making it possible for the operator to enjoy the ride, not needing to steer except to turn the corners. 

The 15-30 International was not a mechanical monster, but to a small boy it seemed so at first. The early tractors did not have rubber tires. They came equipped with lugs, which were sharp, triangular iron grips, attached to the rear wheels. This provided almost unlimited traction in the field. Tractors with lugs were prohibited from driving on paved roads but this was never a problem for us as we did not live or farm near a hard surfaced roadway.

The gasoline engine was very noisy. It had to be started with a crank, and if everything was in order it was quite easy to start. Often, however, the operator had to turn the crank many times before the engine could be persuaded to come to life. It was back breaking work and also dangerous and also contributed to extended vocabulary development on the part of the operator. Many an arm was fractured when the engine backfired and the crank suddenly whipped around in a counter-clock wise spin.

The tractor had an iron seat, very much like the ones used on horse-drawn farm implements. It never occurred to anyone to try to make these early tractors comfortable or safe. The operator was perched over the drawbar, with an iron steering wheel in front of him. The 15-30 had a clutch petal and a steel lever to shift the gears. It had a low gear, which was used for the heaviest pulling, and a second gear, which was used for most fieldwork. The third gear was used mostly for travel on the road or light work. There was also, of course, a reverse gear, so that the iron horse could be backed up and hitched to whatever implement was to be used.

There were many reasons why this tractor would prove to be a challenge for a small boy to operate. To turn the engine over with the crank required the strength and stamina of a grown man. The clutch pedal was too far away from the seat, and a boy's short leg would just barely reach it, and if he could reach it, he would not have the strength to push it all the way forward. The gearshift lever was also to far away for him to manipulate. If he should manage to get all of the above done, he would be faced with the difficult task of steering the beast with a steering mechanism that had not been designed for small arms to maneuver. In short, the 15-30 was not small boy friendly.

But there was a way around this. After all, when a boy is eight years old he wants to become a tractor driver and many a father is anxious to initiate his growing son into the fraternity. I would often ride with my father on the tractor. There was ample room for a boy to stand beside the seat or sit on the fender, just above the big wheel with the iron lugs. Sometimes he would let me sit in the seat and steer the tractor and after a while I was able to wrestle with the steering apparatus and persuade the tractor to turn the corners. Since we worked all of our ground with the one-way plough, we always drove in the same direction and the corners were all to the left.

When I was able to keep the right front wheel in the furrough and successfully turn the corners, my father would sometimes jump off and let me go round after round by myself. When it was time to stop, he would climb aboard while the machine was under way, and take over driving duties.

As time went on, I mastered all of the controls and even was able to crank the engine. During the early 40's, as drought and depression receded, farmers began to see a bit of a profit as wheat prices rose. Soon a major improvement became available for tractors all over western Kansas. Steel wheels were being replaced with rubber tires, and this is what we did with our 15-30. Soon tractors all over the county were running more smoothly. Such was progress.

But rubber tires were not the only advancement being sought by these Kansas farmers. They had just suffered through a devastating drought, much of their soil had moved south with the infamous dust bowl winds, and they were ready to recoup their losses. As the rain came and wheat yields improved, many were looking for more land to farm, and for newer, more efficient equipment.

My father was also thinking of replacing the old 15-30. The second big war had just begun, and while there was a tractor dealer in every small town, new tractors were in short supply. He went to Branans in Meade and signed up for a new W-6 International. Many farmers had signed up and everyone had to wait their turn. I couldn't wait to get the new tractor, but as the months passed I almost gave up hope. One day the call came. But it was a mixed message. They were getting a new Farmall M, and the farmer who had signed for it had decided not to take it. Since we were next on the list, they offered it to us.

So it was that we traded in the old 15-30 for a brilliant, red Farmall M. The Farmall had been designed for row crop work with the two front wheels set close together on the front axle. When pulling a heavy load, such as a 12-foot oneway plough, it became very difficult to turn the corners, because the front wheels did not provide enough resistance to counter the forward drive of the large back wheels. Thus individual brakes were provided so that one of the back wheels could be stopped while the other continued to drive, and this made it easier to negotiate the corners. This also put a lot of ware on the left brake drum and it became a routine task to change the worn drum at regular intervals.

The Farmall, however, was a wonderful tractor for use in front of the wheat drill and the combine. When cutting wheat you could make the turns so sharp that the combine would back up just enough to make a square corner, thus not leaving any standing wheat which would need to be cut later. It became a matter of pride for the tractor operator to keep the corners clean.

It was also a great road machine. When traveling between fields in road gear it could run twenty miles per hour, which incidentally, was too fast for any implement you might be trailing. It was also quite light in the front, so that, when pulling heavy loads, the front end had a tendency to raise up, and if the power was not cut quickly, it could come over on its top, with the operator pinned beneath it.

This then, was the extent of my experience with tractors during my boyhood. It was only later, when I worked for other farmers as a college student or during my early days as a teacher that I had the opportunity to operate larger, more powerful tractors. I will always cherish the memory of the old 15-30 and the new M. They were not the biggest and the best, but they were reliable companions on many a long day under the Kansas sun. The sound of their engines is music to my ears even today.


(copyright Vern Zielke)

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