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Old Iron back to life
Dan Wegmueller

My grandfather used to tell a story about a hired man that worked on the farm during the 1950s. The man was stocky and lean, pure muscle from the hard labor that defined the era.

As the story goes, the hired man could wrap baler twine around his arm, and snap the twine just by flexing his bicep.

Speaking of a bygone era, we recently resurrected a sleeping relic from generations of neglect. For more than four decades, my great-grandfather’s John Deere A tractor has sat in the corner of the machine shed. So much dust covered the tractor, that it was impossible to tell what color it was supposed to be. One day, we decided to pull it out of the shed to see if we could get it running.

My dad had often remarked that the tractor “started hard” and “needed to be pulled” in order for it to start. He remembered it running, but certainly not recently. By all estimates, the John Deere A had not been fired for 40-plus years. Those of you who have wrenched on old iron will appreciate the circumstances we faced:

Sometime in the past, someone had the foresight to drain the fuel from the system. The gas tank was clean and shiny — no rust. A simple inspection of the carburetor revealed that it too was clean and functional — no varnish from stale gas. As we hand-cranked the flywheel, the two cylinders pushed back with notable resistance. After all these years, they still held good compression. Amazingly, the tires held air.

We poured a little gasoline into the tank and turned the flywheel. After a few revolutions, fuel began to sputter out of the cylinder relief valves. The thing about these old tractors, if they have fuel and spark — they will start.

The electrical system on this era of tractor is a prime example of simplistic, yet incredibly functional, engineering. All components are easily accessible, and serviceable, with the most basic of tools and knowledge. A single engine-driven magneto delivers spark to a distributer cap, with two wires feeding a spark plug for each of the two cylinders. Parts are readily available — a quick trip into town brought back new spark plugs, wires, and a cap and rotor.

Possibly the most interesting component of this journey was discovering how completely worn out the original rotor had gotten — down to the width of a bobby pin. With new components installed, checking for spark involved a highly technical process of one of the more hardy members of our crew holding his hand over the distributer as we turned the flywheel. We all heard the snap as he calmly remarked, “Yeah, it’s got spark!” Meaning, the magneto was good.

With hot spark and plenty of fuel reaching the cylinders, the engine should run. As fantastic as it sounds for a hired man to be able to snap baler twine just by flexing his bicep, hand-cranking the A hints to a much more rugged era of farming. After a few spins, the cylinders began to fire. I watched, fascinated at this glimpse into a lost art. Cranking the flywheel backward loosens and primes the system. Turning the flywheel in the direction of rotation catches compression, but a relief valve on each cylinder relieves the pressure and makes it easier to crank by hand. Catching each cylinder rotation at just the right point, gripping the flywheel with both hands, and then using the entire upper body to pull through requires a delicate mechanical touch underscored by brute strength.

We hand-cranked for a while, taking turns until sporadic hits turned into consistent firing, and then finally — a cylinder fired, and then caught, and held. After 40-plus years, the tractor was brought back to life. One of the guys turned to me and said, “You ought to be the first to take it down the driveway.”

What a feeling! This is farming, and not for the faint of heart. There I was, perched atop a cacophony of moving parts — brake drums, flywheel, clutch, with an array of shifting levers. Back in the day, they weren’t just farmers, they were also engineers. And, the sound! The sound of this era of tractor hits you in the chest. Each thump reverberates like cannon-shot. Under its own power for the first time in two generations, the tractor thumped its way down the driveway, a short distance down the road, and then returned. I savored the experience of turning into the farm driveway during that initial run.

All told, we invested the better part of a single afternoon and $90 worth of parts to resurrect the beast. Truly, this machine hints to a much more practical era of our nation’s past. The rugged simplicity of the design meant that farmers could run different grades of fuel through the engine. A small tank would be filled with gasoline for cold starting. Then, once the engine was warm, the operator switched to the main tank, which could be filled with gasoline, kerosine, or distillate (a primitive form of diesel fuel) — depending on availability and economics.

Eventually the tractor will get a thorough cleaning, a fresh coat of paint, and some much-needed body work. Until then, each “defect” tells its own story. My favorite discovery was a bottle opener discovered in the makeshift toolbox.

Although I am a long way from being able to snap baler twine with my bicep, the antique bottle opener suggests that at the end of the day, maybe I do share a common interest with my forefathers.

— Dan Wegmueller is the owner of Wegmueller Farms and his column appears regularly in the Times. His website is