February 2011 Issue
My Ohio: Fergie the Faithful
Much more than a tractor, this machine is an old, reliable friend.
She’s a much-loved member of our family.
At 61, she’s gray and a little loose in the seat, if she’ll pardon my saying so. Her perfume is an intoxicating mix of grease, straw dust, earth, rust and old barns.
She’s slow getting started on these cold February days, but once warmed up, she’s a hard worker and pleasant company on any job.
Her name is Old Fergie and she’s a 1950 Ferguson TO-20 tractor. I inherited her from my grandpa, John Price — along with his taste for scalloped oysters and all things rusty — when he died in 2001.
Old Fergie and I turn the garden, plow snow, mow weeds, load and unload the truck, spread dirt and gravel, haul firewood, dig postholes, pull kids on sleds in winter and give wagon rides in summer.
She was the invention of a brilliant Irishman, Harry Ferguson, whose simple, yet exquisitely engineered tractors and implements changed the face of farming in the mid-20th century. More than half a million “Little Gray Fergies” were sold from 1946 to 1956.
If not as big as farm tractors of today, Fergusons were nimble and steady workhorses. There is something to be said for that. Old Fergie isn’t the star athlete, but rather the utility infielder who can lay down a bunt with the game on the line. She’s the second-grade teacher, the shopkeeper, the letter carrier who quietly does her job well, year-in and year-out. That’s part of why I love Old Fergie and why you see so many of them in farmyards still earning their keep.
In 1958, Sir Edmund Hillary chose a Ferguson for his 1,200-mile trek to the South Pole, where the tractor performed flawlessly in temperatures 42 degrees below zero. It became as much a member of the team as any human adventurer, prompting one observer to wonder if “somewhere under that bonnet there lurks a brain.”
Ohio’s most famous farmer, author Louis Bromfield, put ever-reliable Fergies to work at Malabar Farm, now a state park in Richland County.
Bromfield was something of a sore subject with my grandpa because of the conservationist’s promotion of multiflora rose hedges as “living fences.” That which Bromfield called a rose, by any other name, the rest us of call briars.
Grandpa took immense pleasure in putting the brush hog on Old Fergie, backing into a thick patch of multiflora rose, and serenely puffing a Winston as the mower chopped the thorny, invasive menace to smithereens. He was sure every briar patch on his farm in neighboring Knox County was planted by birds that had lately dined on Mr. Bromfield’s wild rose hips.
Old Fergie has two wide-eyed headlights, round and silvery like the bottoms of big coffee cans, extending from either side of her hood. I realize she’s made of sound, old American steel, not flesh and blood. Still, I swear to you, I sometimes see a twinkle in her eyes.
There’s something intangible about these old tractors. To be so full of vitality and charm, yet so faithful and practical, is amazing to me. In this age of disposability, it is an increasingly rare combination. Old Fergie has spirit — part Irish cleverness, part my grandpa’s tenacity, part her own long, active life.
I think of the crops she raised, the hay she baled, the thousands of hours of chores she has performed in the open air. I imagine the stories she could tell of glorious summer days and close scrapes with trees. She represents a time when a modest man — with some land, hard work and an Old Fergie — could make a good living for his family. Thinking of all that makes me happy and sad at the same time.
As I put her away in the shed and walk to the house for supper, I look back and wonder if under that bonnet, she’s thinking the same thing.
John Gladden is a writer based in Seville. His column collection, How to Elevate a Cow, is available from woosterbook.com.