Volume III, No. 4, Summer 1976




TRACTORS ARE MY HOBBY

A VISIT WITH GENE CHAMBERS

Drawings and edited by Jim Conner, Photography by Mike Doolin


I want you to see that picture there. That's where I want to start. You ever see a tractor like that one in that picture? That's where I started right there. Only thing was that's not the first tractor I had like it. I had two of them. That's the second, but there wasn't any difference in the two Fordsons. The first was a 1916 model--this was 1927.

I well remember when that was taken. My sister come down to the field there and took that picture. The old tractor was almost wore out then, wasn't pulling worth a dime, and I was so disgusted I could a-blowed it in two if I'd had something to have done it with--that very day that picture was taken. The last few years I used the thing it wasn't much of a tractor. It was wore out too bad. But I drove her whenever she'd do her stuff and I thought that was the finest tractor I ever drove in my life.

I started service work on them things when I was ten. Them things was my hobby. It would make me mad when they would call for dinner. I'd be in a field driving one. I wanted to drive and they'd holler dinnertime. I'd get so aggravated sometimes I wouldn't go for awhile. I was just that anxious to drive. At nights--there wasn't no lights--I'd tie an old kerosene lamp on the front of the radiator and stay till they'd come to get me a lot of times.

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Gene Chambers on a 1927 model Fordson Tractor. Photo taken in 1935.

I was eight years old when Dad brought out our first tractor on this place. That was in 1920 and it was the first tractor that ever entered this neighborhood. By the time I was ten I was a-driving it all over the country working it and by the time I was fifteen I was everwhere servicing them suckers. I've not seen the inside of one of them things for thirty-five years, but I still think I could take one apart and overhaul it just like I did then. I don't think I forgot a thing.

It's just one horse. That's all it is. No power take-off shaft or nothing. Right under the wheel was the throttle. You run that with your hand. There wasn't no governor on them. You just set there and if it needed a little more, you'd pull down a little further and pushed her up to shut her off. And lord, I've fed them things! I thought that a pretty job setting up there working that lever once in awhile.

Now that model run on kerosene. Those old lads now back in that day and time were cheaper to operate. I think we give six and eight cents a gallon for kerosene. And gasoline was about fifteen, sixteen cents a gallon back then, and it wouldn't burn any more gallons of kerosene than it would gas and it just cost you that much less. You started them on gasoline and warmed them up a little bit and then switched them over to kerosene and take on off. Kerosene sold for about half what gasoline did was the main idea, but it just wasn't possible to start it on kerosene. You just as well talk to a stump as try to crank it on kerosene. It wouldn't do it. Kerosene wouldn't explode until it got warm. It wouldn't vaporize into a gas form.

These gas tanks were in two sections, one for gas and one for kerosene.

This tractor had two tanks. It had a little auxiliary tank built in the back--one with a cap for gas and one in the middle for kerosene. This little gas tank held just a gallon or so built down inside of it, and down below it had a two way faucet. Turn it one way for gas to drain down in the carburetor and flip it back the other way to the big tank to let the kerosene come in there.

Turn the faucet one way for gas and turn it the other way for kerosene, and it run down from here to the carburetor.

But you had to crank on the gas and you had to let her get warmed up in this heating manifold. The manifold was built so that the kerosene made a long trip through it to heat that fuel up so that it would ignite. It just kept the kerosene in there till it got hot. The gas and kerosene both went through the same thing in that particular model.

I well remember it had a big flat plate on the side of the manifold big as my hand. It was held on there by four screws. I call the way the manifold looked a molasses trough. They made it that way so that the fuel would start cooking up at one end and cook a little while and go down there a while, and by the time it got down to the end it was hot enough. That's the way that lad was made. Carbon would form in there after awhile and stop them troughs up and then you had to take that plate off and gouge that carbon out of there. I've done that about ten thousand times in my life.

The manifold looked like a molasses trough

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Deisel or kerosene either one will make more carbon than gasoline because gasoline will come nearest to making a 100 per cent burn than they will. Carbon and stuff like that is just unburnt fuel. These lads sure had a bad habit of stopping up in that heating manifold. They'd get to when you'd pull that throttle out, that lad would just set there and just barely move and wouldn't do nothing. Then you'd have to clean them out.

But as big as that motor was, it should have had much more power than it had. It had a four inch bore and a five inch stroke. Well, a lot of these motors today ain't got any more than that. But its compression ration and the ignition system it had and the timing system it had, it just didn't develop the power that they do now-a-days.

This radiator held ten gallon of water, and boiled from sun up till sun down.

cooling system. The radiator held ten gallons of water and boiled from daylight to dark when you was plowing. I carried a bucket right on that radiator. The radiator would boil down and I'd put a bucket of water in it every two hours. Today the tractors I've got hold ten quarts of water. They may clog up with dirt or dust, but they just won't boil. So you see the change which has kept them from boiling is this cooling system, not the amount of water. The only way the water could move in those old models was just through nature. Hot water has the nature and tendency to rise and cold water goes the other way. So it had a top hose come out off this cylinder head. That pushed the hot water up in the top of the radiator and it fell down into the radiator where it was cooled by the fan. Then the cold water went back through the motor block. That was the only circulation it had. It had to get hot before it would even try to circulate. Heat's what done it. Tractors today have got a water pump that starts that water a-rolling just the minute that you crank the motor. Everthing anymore has a water pump. That tractor was built before a water pump was ever thought of.

These Fordsons had a two inch flat belt on them for a fanbelt and the bottom pulley was just a smooth face pulley. Since there wasn't anything to hold it on, it was easy to slip that flat belt 'cause all they had was that tension on them--not like a later V belt that wedges in a pulley. When it starts to pulling itself, it goes to wedging a little tighter. It pulls from the sides and these old ones pull from the bottom--just the bottom flat side of them.

That one had a four blade fan in it, but they didn't have as much speed on that fan as they do now-a-days and didn't cause as much air. They just didn't have much of a cooling system on them.

Water circulation in radiator.

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Now this motor here all it had in there for a cylinder liner was just the block, and when that block wore out, the only way you could repair it, you had to re-bore them. They'd bore that hole in that block a little bigger to straighten it up and dress it up and then put a bigger piston in there. Now-a-days the cylinder has a liner in there. You just pull that liner out of there and throw it down and put another one in there and a new piston in and you're right back to standard piston again. That's why we get better service now than we did out of those. When those old ones once wore out, there wasn't one feller out of fifty that would re-bore one. You just as well talk to them about pulling a tree as to tell them you want to have a motor re-bored.

Now the old clutch, when it got hot, it'd release pretty good in the summer time, but if you had to drive it out of the shed in the spring of the year, you just had to get on that old lever and ride her in there--jerk it in there. I'd just shut the throttle down as low as I could get it to idle and just grab that lever and give it a jerk into low gear. It'd take off just as soon as you jobbed her into low gear. I'd just set there with my foot on the clutch and head her up hill where I could give it a load and just hold that clutch down--pull the throttle upon and just let her go until she took a notion she couldn't pull it. She'd release itself that way.

It had a foot clutch, but it was a right hand clutch instead of left. You peddled with your right foot. It didn't have any brake peddle on it.

It had a foot clutch, but it was a right hand clutch instead of left.

This had an oil disc clutch in it with about sixteen or seventeen discs--a whole ring of them clutch plates, what they call male and female plates. There'd be one of one kind and one of the other. Each one had notches on them. One notch fit on bolts and that held the fly wheel on to the crank shaft, and the other plate had the notches on the outside that fit in the notch on the clutch housing. When you separated them plates, that released your clutch and when you squeezed them together, she took off.

And she was a honey to shift. When it was cold them plates just would not turn loose and stop that transmission. You'd just have to jerk it in gear when it was cold. And the other side of that story, you just couldn't hardly wear that clutch out, running in oil like that. Modern clutches are dry and will operate much better and release better than this one did.

This old tractor had a fixed spark. You had to move a lever to change the advancement of that spark. Now-a-days the spark is automatic. As the motor varies the speed, it changes that itself--it feeds the spark like it feeds the gas. The spark is as essential as the gas. But these old ones, they just didn't do her. They had a little ole lever back here on the dash. You pushed her down and retired the spark and then cranked her out in front. Then you raised that lever back up where it'd run pretty good and take off. Everything was just as crude as could be and nothing automatic. No battery, no starter, no generator, no nothing on them.

That Fordson had a fixed spark and a hand throttle. And she was a honey to shift.

Everthing in this motor run in oil, fly wheel and all. It held two gallon of oil. They don't do that no more. Everthing in there from the front end of that motor clear back was in oil. And that was another drawback to the power on this tractor. That big ole fly wheel was running all the time and that just was a load to pull that wheel through that oil. It had all them magnets on that fly wheel and set just right close to a big field coil clear around there. That made the fire of the ignition which come out on the left hand side. We had a pole screwed in there on this field coil--brought the fire out over there. And them magnets was double set just as thick as they could be built all the way around the fly wheel. They was a-paddling in that fly wheel all the time. They had a little oil line at the top of that fly wheel and the fly wheel throwed oil in this line and it drained right back down at the front end in a bunch of troughs. It rolled it down them troughs and picked up the oil and slung it up to the pistons and the main bearings. That's the way to lubricate it. A complete splash oil system was all they had. So you lost Several horsepower right there in that fly wheel pulling it in oil.

They was constructed with the final drive in the back end. The differential in them was just like a tap on a bolt. In other words, it was threads. It would run one way and that had to be driven by the motor. When you went to turn those back wheels, it would run backwards and just simply wouldn't hardly turn. That's why it was so hard to drag. It was only a firebox in there and it just melted that transmission out of there just about as fast as you could put them in it.

Now-a-days tractors all have ring gears and pinions which is just two cogs running agin one another. There's very little friction to a straight cog. But this old worm drive is just like threads on a bolt. It just kept twisting that worm--in other words, running that nut right down in the bolt all the time--just friction and nothing else. While riding it, I burnt the calf of my legs when I was leaning over agin the side of that transmission till there'd be long blisters. It'd get that hot way down here in this case and that transmission.

The transmission was full of ball-bearings--they was very crude constructed. And it would just jar them bearings till they separated and come apart, and then the ball would go a-riding and grabbing on it and just bust that bearing all to pieces. And there you'd set. You'd just drop that transmission out of gear. My pickup wouldn't carry all the bearings I've put in them lads in my time.

Same way was with the front wheels. They had tempkin bearings. They was the same bearings we use today, but they was steel and they wouldn't stay in there 'cause it was to rough a-riding for them. Now-a-days you might hear of a tractor losing a front wheel bearing once in a lifetime and you might never hear of it at all. If it is properly greased, it would last as long as the tractor. But them wouldn't do it. If it lasted two years you was lucky as you could be.

Every spring I had to go around--the country was full of them--that I wore myself out at putting bearings in them lads. Every year gears and bearings always out. If they'd been transferred to rubber wheels like they have now-a-days ninety per cent of that trouble would have been eliminated. They just shook them to pieces.

There just wasn't any brake on them. The only thing to stop them was that worm drive differential. It would just stop the tractor when you throwed it out of gear.

These old tractors wouldn't go very fast. They plowed in second gear. About three mile an hour was top speed for plowing. In high gear they'd run about twenty mile an hour, but you couldn't do nothing in that gear. You couldn't hardly stand it on that steel wheel. It wouldn't pull anything on it. Three speed transmissions was all they had--that's another change that's been brought on down the line--three forward gears, one reverse. As time rolled on they stepped them up to four forward and now they've got them as high as twelve gears. To me I think that is a bunch of nonsense 'cause you don't need that many gears. But they've got them.

The wheels on the front were iron and they would just cut the ground up.

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This here old baby had an awful fast high gear. It would run twenty to twenty-five mile an hour. But there wasn't a place in the state of Missouri you could use it only right out in a soft field. You couldn't pull nothing with it. On them kind of steel wheels you couldn't get out on the road and use high at all--jar you to pieces. Just out of the question. I don't know why they put it in there so fast, but they did.

And the low gear was still worse than second. It was down there about two mile an hour, I imagine. It was too slow for anything to work in it, but I've pulled in it lots of times when I'd get in a rough place.

The wheels were steel and the back wheels had twelve inch lugs four inches deep. It was just like riding a bucking bronc all the time. Oh, in a soft field it wasn't so bad, but in plowing when you'd jump off the end of the furrow, it was just like hitting a stump. There wasn't no give to it. And those lugs would tear up the ground awful bad around over the place. That was a wonderful improvement when they got rid of that wheel, but the idea of putting them lugs on there was for extra traction.

You look at them old lugs you'd think there wouldn't be any way in the world to stick that wheel. It just looks like it'd pull anything in the world, but it wouldn't pull fifty per cent of what a rubber tire will pull. That don't sound right but that's the truth.

It was like riding a bucking bronc all the time. (The rod is wired over the lugs to protect floors in the garage.)

When tractors began to come in here with rubber, farmers would buy it on the front wheels 'cause it would steer and ride a little better up there. They thought that was just fine. But they wouldn't have it on the back 'cause there wasn't no traction. That was the idea. I know a number of tractors that come through this country built that way--rubber in front and steel behind so they'd have plenty of traction. They were going right square agin theirselves and didn't know it.

I bought another tractor after I got rid of this one. There wasn't no steel wheel to it--just rubber. Well, I thought I'd be into it for I thought it wouldn't pull my hat off my head with that rubber in lot of places. (Course they won't pull it in mud, nor lugs won't either.) But they'll do just as much in mud as this will. And anywhere else it would skin it all to pieces. You might be plowing sod where there was grass. One wheel runs up on land and on a wet morning rubber might slip more than lugs would for a little while till the grass dried off a little bit--that's all the advantage I can see for lugs.

The seat didn't help the jarring much. Oh, it had a little spring to it, but it took a much heavier man that I was to get much benefit of that 'cause it was a pretty stout spring. I didn't receive much out of that. I'd keep a pad in the seat all the time. But I was young back in that day and time, and I just loved to set in that seat. As long as, I could set up there, I never got tired. I didn't pay any attention to it. I got tired sure, but it didn't bother me like it does now. I'd stay all day and half the night. Now I've got lights on both of my tractors and I could plow any night I wanted to, but I can see where the house is at about two hours before the sun goes down now. I don't need them lights any more.

The spring didn't help the jarring much. It took a much heavier man than I was to get much benefit out of it on the seat.

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This old baby was just for pulling. They did have them so you could put a belt pulley on it. You took a plate off on the side and put her in there. But it wasn't standard equipment. It was extra. You could pull a wood saw and stuff like that and that's about all.

Those tractors lasted...oh, I'd say if you drove one of them ten years you was just as lucky as you could be, and you wouldn't do that without a lot of expense on it a-tearing out this and that and the other.

That lad in the picture had several owners in its time, but I got the best of her. I wore her out. She wasn't worth much but I did get a hundred dollars out of the sucker. I was glad to see it leave 'cause evertime I went to the field, I had to overhaul it pretty near. It was about wore out 'cause it was getting up there. It was built in '27 and that was '47 when I sold it, so you see it was twenty years old.

Back when that tractor was built that was the finest thing in the world.

But still those tractors did a lot of work if you knew how to handle them. They'd come out of some pretty rough places, could pull a pretty big load, if you used your head. You'd get her down there in a low gear and give her just as little a throttle as you could move it with, she'd go out of there. But if you jerked her up there in second gear and pulled that throttle open she'd a been over on top of you in a minute. And it's true today. The very tractors you got today will do the same thing if you don't watch yourself.

I remember the story about those tractors rearing up. When they brought us our first tractor Dad's brother asked the salesman, he said, "Is that story true about them tractors being bad to fall over backwards and kill a man?" "Well," he said, "Yes, they'll rear up and fall over backwards, but," he said, "they're the only tractor on the market that has enough power to raise theirself." course that was wrong. They wasn't loaded with power. But he said, "When Henry Ford built that tractor he expected the brains to be in the driver's head and not the damn seat!" That's the very words he used. I was eight years old when he said that and I never did forget that.

I never did forget about that story when I begin to driving the thing, and I've had them lads in every shape in the world--some of the darnedest places and pulling them with all they'd pull. It's right up there in the head where the brains had to be.

Back then that tractor cost, oh, I'd say six or seven hundred dollars and that one was built in 1927--the second one we had. I really don't know. Something like that--might have been a thousand, but I doubt it very much.

Back when that tractor was built that was the finest thing in the world. That's all they knew. That's all they had. It was fine in its day--nothing to what they've got today. Just that much change in them. You can take a tractor that weighs about as much as that tractor weighed then and bulk wise about the same bulk, that present tractor today is twice as much tractor, horsepower wise as this one was. The difference is in the design of the motor. This old lad here probably had about seventy-five or eighty pounds of compression on each cylinder. You could almost set your fist on top of the pistons and cylinder head.

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Well, today they'd have 160 or maybe 170 pounds on there. And they'd be just enough clearance between the pistons and the cylinder so they wouldn't bump. There's where you get your horsepower at. The tighter you press that fuel in there, the harder she's going to hit that piston. That's the way she gets her power. Now they speed the motor up, shorten the stroke on the crank shaft, step the compression up and wind the motor lots tighter. All that gives it a lot more scat, pickup and get away.

Tractors were slow to come into the Ozarks because farmers thought they'd never be any good in the hills and the farms were all small. They used tractors like horses, just to pull--no power takeoff shaft. There wasn't no such thing as a cultivator for them. Farmers didn't want a big tractor. But today we've got them big as Mr. Anybody's got. Just all you've got to do for a freight train is put them on a track. They've got engines big enough to go right down a railroad track with a train on it. But back in those days and up several years after it, it wasn't a monsterous size tractor they were after. They wanted maneuverability with a smaller tractor.

Now-a-days the trend is every man is trying to get a bigger one than the other feller's got. There's two points that's caused it.

These tractor pulls all over the country is one thing that started it. Every man's trying to get one they can out pull the rest with. Another thing, they've added about four farms into one. Most everbody has--and they've got to have--those bigger capacity tractors to be able to operate their farms.

Now-a-days you just have about three days in spring to plow a hundred acres. If you don't get them plowed in them three days, you don't plow. That sounds funny, but that's the weather that's causing that. We don't have the weather we used to have when I was a boy. I can remember plowing the corn with a team for thirty days at a time and never be knocked out of the field. We plowed all over this country--four head of mules or six or eight head of mules--and plowed and plowed till I couldn't sit down in a chair. You'd be sore riding them cultivators. Might lose one half a day in a month.

Well, now-a-days if you get in a week's time plowing, you're going to be lucky. It'll rain you out so that you don't get in the field. That's another reason the bigger tractors have come in and took it over so they can get those jobs done. And shortage of help, too. You've got to do it all with tractor power.

Now them tractors back then if they plowed four, not over five acres a day you was lucky, 'cause you had to put in so much time cleaning plugs or fixing the coil on it or something would go wrong that would delay you. Also they didn't have a lot of speed. They only pulled two twelve inch plows. It just didn't cover a lot of territory--about one-third of what they'll do now-a-days. What I'm telling here was with tractors with twelve or fifteen horsepower. This old Fordson only had one horse. Now-a-days all these big ones have got 150 to 160 horsepower. See what change has been made?

Back then on the average in this country there were a lot of small fields. But a lot of times most of us would have out, I guess thirty-five or forty acres on an average. Sometimes maybe a little more than that. We used the tractor to break the ground--just a plow and disc was all the equipment with the tractor. We plowed corn with mules.

Back in my childhood days, whatever you owned was in corn every year, just about. That's all we raised, practically. But anymore they've got a different story. Don't anyone raise any corn. It's all hay. That day and time the old-time farmers like my neighbor over here, I've heard him tell his son many a time--he'd have out about twenty-five acres of corn--he'd say to him, "You ain't got out no corn crop. You better go out and plow up another field and put out some more corn."

See what a change has been made?

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Everbody has just practically quit corn. It's got so expensive, but in that day and time that's all they had. That's all they knew about and that's all they fed everthing they had--cattle and hog feed and make sileage out of it. There's lot of hard work to corn anyway you go to try to take care of it. I don't care what you do, if you silo it or pick it or what you do with it, it is real hard work. And that's what got the matter now-a-days. We don't have that work and manpower on the farm anymore and that's why they quit raising corn. And that's why we got to have this modern big tractor to do what we do. We can't do it all. We don't have no manpower.

We used to silo with twenty-five or thirty men. Now three or four does the same job--machinery is what does it. My young neighbor over here is the only one in this neighborhood that silos anymore and I expect he's got thirty thousand dollars in equipment, just for siloing alone.

Last spring he plowed up 150 acres on all his places and put it to corn, and I'll swear he plowed that, by George, before I could hardly get my breakfast eat. Just in a week's time and that sucker was done. Beats anything I ever seen. One day I seen him in that big bottom field. He just took around it. And boy I went up the ridge the second day and he had her upside down, just turned over--the whole works--fifty acres of it.

Now if I had to plow it with this tractor right there in this picture, I'd be thirty days a-plowing it--been lucky to get it plowed in thirty days for I'd had to overhauled it four or five times before I got it done.

Nobody would have that tractor today if it was brand new. Wouldn't be nothing to it and nobody'd be interested in it because it wouldn't do what they wanted it to do compared to tractors now. It wouldn't stand up because it run too hot, didn't have cooling system enough in the radiator and that worm drive in the back end was just complete friction all the time. And it didn't have no power. It was just a-smoking, oil flying everwhere, and it was setting over to the side of the field cleaning spark plugs all the time and getting no place.

But I thought back then that that tractor was just the best job in the world and it was just a natural born hobby for me. It still is.

Appreciation to Brackett Tractor Sales, Lebanon, Missouri for permitting us to photograph their old Fordson.

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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