Old Iron

For the agriculturally inclined, there must be something almost tender and seductive about restoring antique tractors. It has to be better than my own fantasies about my first love. I imagine running into Dawn at our class reunion, taking her home and reigniting the sparkle in her eye. But, if she was a tractor, I could park her in the yard for my buddies to admire.

Where old tractors go to die

There are scores of old tractors in Baldwin County. Some are fencerow machines, left to fade in fields, where they expired. Others are widow-woman tractors, equipment that has outlived emotional ties.

Getting them running takes parts. David Moore runs a tractor boneyard, a place where grown men come to play. Spent carcasses of Farmalls and Allises litter the landscape. The aroma of petroleum products perfumes the breeze. Piles of metal Tinkertoys beckon. They are puzzles to solve — memories to reassemble.

Take the boy out of the country

Ed Peacock saw his first tractor at six years old, when Ed Sr. brought home a new Farmall M. All he remembers is BIG and RED. He wanted to drive it in the worst way. He got his wish and was plowing by nine. His legs just hung down from the seat. To brake or shift at the row’s end, he had to slide off the seat and then step on the pedals.

- Sponsors -

As a teen, he often climbed aboard his tractor at dawn. Mom brought meals and cold water to the fields. “It was a dusty, dirty job that would beat you to death today. But as a teen, you didn’t feel it.”

Graduation sent Peacock off to college and a traveling career. He did not respond to the siren call of farm machinery, until he retired. Today, he owns five tractors, which he uses in parades and to pull hay wagons, loaded with grandkids and their friends.

From the power of a horse to horsepower

In the 1930s, small farmers joked about planting two acres of corn just to feed the mule. In his lifetime, Buddy Street has witnessed the transition from horse power to horsepower.

Street remembers his father’s 1939 Allis-Chalmers, Model B. “Dad literally traded in the family mule on it, believing advertisements that promised the machine was cheaper to operate than the animal.” The elder Street stepped from behind the mule and climbed aboard a bright orange tractor. His new steed did the work of a dozen additional horses.

Buddy Street was driving a tractor by age 8 or 9. While his father spent wartime years at a shipyard job, he and his brother did men’s work — plowing, disking and planting. The Fairhope native has restored almost 30 vintage tractors.

All in the family

Advertised in 1939 as a tractor cheaper to maintain than horses or mules, this spunky little Allis-Chalmers, Model B was the bridge to mechanized agriculture for Baldwin County farmers. Tobin Street says his grandfather traded in the family mule on one of these hand-cranked beauties. In 1919, Allis-Chalmers tractors had a 15 to 30 horsepower rating.Tractors today reach 300 HP.

Two of Street’s sons followed in his tire tracks. Tobin, the oldest, was perched on the seat beside his dad before he started first grade. Two years later, when city kids were mastering bicycles, he was already in full command of an internal combustion engine. At age 11, he worked full days in the fields and by age 12 he was doing the “more responsible work” of cultivating soybeans, a cash crop.

At 39, Tobin has restored an orange Model B, just like the one grandpa bought more than 70 years ago. His contemporary 300 diesel horses can till as much land in 40 minutes as the old Allis-Chalmers could in a 12- to 14-hour day. “It’s what we’ve had to do to feed the country, ” he says.

Recovering family jewels

Ed Lipscomb is an addict. It is almost impossible for him to pass up old iron. He does not go looking for tractors. They just show up, calling his name. People know he is a collector and seek him out.

At 67 years old, Lipscomb speaks fondly of seeing a family tractor resuscitated. His father bought the John Deere, Model B, when Ed and his brother were kids. It had not run since they were young adults. Dad’s old “Poppin’ John” sat in suspended animation for 42 years. His brother restored it. As he turned the hand crank, the little two-cylinder engine coughed, cleared its throat and settled into a signature “pop, pop, pop, pop” cadence.

A subdivision may seem an odd place for a tractor, but Lipscomb keeps a 1943 Farmall in his back yard. His neighbors do not complain, and his grandchildren love it. “It is better than a swing set.” He is even thinking about driving it around front and decorating it for Christmas.

Working by feel

Ten years ago, second-generation farmer Sonny Frego lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa. He can see bright light pouring through a barn door, but shapes do not register on his retina. This winter, he and 47-year-old son Artie are team-restoring a John Deere, Model B, just as they’ve rejuvenated other machines.

Using his sense of touch, the father takes the tractor apart and lays pieces in ordered rows. He guides his son through reassembly from memory, describing how pieces fit together and why. Each man brings unique vision to the task. Teamwork bonds them to the process.

Tractor mystique

An endless struggle with land creates a bond city folks just do not understand. The middle of last century was a dramatic shift for farmers. They stopped stumbling along behind plow animals and accepted a new mastery. Like pilots, they would preflight their machines at dawn — checking the rubber, topping off fluids, greasing the fittings. Tractors gave them wings. No wonder these men work so hard to extend their workmates’ lives. It is all about the relationship.

By Giles Vaden

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!