Growing Up on a John Deere “BO”

December 1995

Some time ago, I was looking through the ledgers my parents kept during their farming years, which lasted until my dad died in 1971. My mom, Alvira, had asked me if I was interested in the records, as she had no use for them any more. I, being one who hates to throw anything away, naturally had to take them home and needless to say, I found them quite interesting. It’s amazing how costs and prices have escalated since then.

Times were tough back in the ’30s and ’40s, especially for a young couple just starting out in farming. I don’t believe the younger generation of today can possibly relate to the hard times of the past that some of us and our parents and grandparents went through.

Looking at the 1938 records, I found an entry relating to the 1938 John Deere “BO” on steel that my dad, Clarence, had told me about years ago. The price of the “BO” was $761.63. An allowance of $80 was given on a Fordson that was the first tractor owned by my father. The Fordson had been purchased the year before for $50. Some other prices noted in the records might interest you. Expenses noted included a pair of shoes for Dad, price $1.98. The electric bill amounted to $1.50 for the month. A hair cut for Dad was 25 cents, a loaf of bread was 10 cents each. Every cent was accounted for with an entry of seven cents for a repair to one of Mom’s shoes. Dad also bought a John Deere two-bottom tractor plow in ’38 for $112.

In the 1940 book were the records of the purchase of a John Deere “BO” on rubber—the first tractor I learned to drive. The tractor was purchased from the local John Deere dealer, Chet McArthur. He and his father, Butch, operated a feed mill and sold John Deere equipment here in the town of Wilson for many years. I recall as a youngster visiting the showroom with Dad and looking at the toy John Deere tractors on the shelf. I believe they sold for about $1.98 at the time, but that was an awful lot of money for a kid. The 1940 “BO” on rubber was bought for a price of $930. An allowance of $630 was given for the trade-in of the “BO” on steel. I noticed that a “note” was given to the dealer with a promise to pay over the summer—no finance company involved. Times sure have changed!

Back in those days, the Deere & Company sponsored an annual promotion, which included a live country music entertainer along with promotional films of the latest in John Deere tractors and equipment. This was usually held at the high school auditorium and provided a free evening of entertainment for the local townspeople. Some of the films we saw back then are most likely the ones currently available on video today.

We still had horses for cultivating but the John Deere “BO” was used for most of the farm work. We operated a truck farm of 60 acres and grew fruits and vegetables, grapes and raised some hogs, cattle, chickens and sold eggs. That type of farm was typical here in western New York state.

Dad bought a new corn binder in 1940 at a cost of $255 and he did a lot of custom work, pulling the binder with the “BO” as he cut corn for some area farmers. He charged $3 per acre for cutting corn and also rented the binder out at a rate of $1.50 per acre. I remember when he quit renting it out because he said “they were wearing it out.” I recall one very wet fall when we were hauling corn shocks out of the fields and the John Deere would not pull the wagon—it was just too wet. Dad brought the team down and we were able to get the load out of the field without unloading it.

My first experience at driving alone came when I was about five or six years old. I had begged Dad to let me drive the tractor and one day we had more vehicles in the field than drivers. Despite my mother’s concern, Dad told me I could drive the tractor to the barn. What a big guy I thought I was. Much has been said about safety and tractors and you cannot be too safety-conscious. I did, however, learn to drive a tractor by riding with my father and I taught my sons the same way. One good thing about the “BO” was the platform to stand on and the full fenders, which provided protection from falling off. Also, with the hand clutch, I didn’t have to be able to reach the pedals.

As I got a little older, I worked ground—disking and preparing the ground for planting. Plowing came later when I was about 12 years old. I recall working ground on warm dark spring nights when the exhaust on the “BO” would glow red. When you have only one tractor, it gets used for all jobs and there were many.

The John Deere was used to pull the grain binder when it was time for cutting wheat and oats. The binder had one of those bundle carriers that caught the bundles as the binder kicked them out. The person riding the binder operated the foot pedal that would trip the carrier and drop the bundles in a bunch for shocking. The binder was originally designed to be pulled by horses and the operator sat on the binder, drove the team and operated the carrier. Anyway, try as I might, I was not strong enough to trip the carrier, so that job went to my sister, Shirley, who was a little older than me.

I used to drive the tractor that pulled wagons of grain from the field to the barn to be threshed. If you had enough help, one guy drove the tractor, two would pitch bundles and one would be on the wagon putting the bundles in place. Threshing was a big event. All the neighbors would lend a hand as the separator went from farm to farm. Sometimes we blew the straw into the mow of the barn and when I wasn’t on the tractor, I was up in the barn trying to move the straw away from the blower stack. Dad would come up and help me out when he would see I was about to get buried. The pleasant smell of threshing is one I always liked and it was neat to see the granary fill up as the men carried those metal tubs full of grain and dumped them into the bins. Mom always worried about whether the meal would be okay and it always was good. She still talks about it now and then.

For many years, the John Deere “BO” pulled the two-bottom plow, disked and dragged fields, pulled wagons full of grain, corn, produce, loads of wood, loads of dirt and whatever. Fuel was relatively cheap—about 12 to 14 cents per gallon. Dad always burned gasoline, saying that the tractor ran much better on gas than on kerosene.

Another annual job was cleaning out the barnyard. You either pitched it by hand or you got somebody to load it. Neighbors again would help out, bringing their tractor and spreader. Pat Lester, who lived a couple of miles away, had a John Deere “B” with one of those loaders that fit on the back. As each spreader came back empty, Pat would load them up. I talked to Pat recently about those days and he recalled having two of that type loader. They sure are scarce now.

We had a huge maple tree next to the house that had to be taken down for fear that the roots would damage the foundation of the house. I had never seen a chain saw before, but two young men came with a big two-man chain saw to cut the tree down. One of the guys climbed as high into the tree as he could and tied a rope. The other end was tied to the “BO” and tension was put on the rope to keep the tree off the house. As the cut was made, the John Deere moved ahead and the tree fell right where they wanted it to fall. I’ve thought since that the little “BO” probably could not have kept the tree off the house had it fallen in the wrong direction.

For a long time, I didn’t know the John Deere had four speeds forward. I only knew of first and second gears. I didn’t know that by moving that lever over you had a third and fourth gear. One day while working ground, I figured it out. That night I headed for the barn going a lot faster and caught the dickens from my dad. He explained that he didn’t want me getting hurt and he purposely didn’t tell me about the faster gears. It makes sense now but it didn’t make sense to me then.

Putting hay in the barn was a real chore years ago. We had a barn with a track and trolley system. If you’re not familiar, the track was hung near the peak and went from outside one end of the barn to the other end of the barn. The trolley would roll on the track and to the trolley was attached a long rope. One end of the rope went to a large fork, while the other end went out the barn and attached to the tractor (or horses) on the opposite end of the barn. The fork would be placed into the hay on the wagon, the tractor would move ahead and pull the fork and hay up to the trolley which would then roll into the barn. Another rope would be pulled and the hay would release from the fork and fall into the mow. One particular summer day, Mom was on the tractor and Dad and an uncle were on the other end putting the fork into the hay. The signal was yelled to go, the tractor went and so did the hay (wagon and all). The fork had been accidentally put into the wagon rack. Mom, driving the tractor, was on the opposite end of the barn and could not see the wagon. After a number of “whoas” and “hold its” and a few other words that we probably shouldn’t mention here, Mom stopped, backed up and the wagon was let back down with little damage. I think Mom was happy when I became old enough to run the tractor for those jobs. Kind of like “towing,” if you know what I mean.

My folks heated with wood and coal back then and during the late ’40s, coal ran about $17 per ton, so we used wood a lot of the time to save money. I remember many winter days heading for the woods with my Dad on the “BO,” pulling a trailer to get wood. We had a two-man crosscut saw and I think I was more of a hindrance than a help. Dad used to say “pull, don’t push” and “don’t ride the saw.” I was probably about eight or 10 years old at the time and I sure was glad when Dad bought a chain saw. It’s funny, too, when you’re a kid and playing out in the cold, how you manage to stay warm but when you’re working, how your fingers get so cold. Anyway, once we got the wood to the barn, we belted up the John Deere to the buzz saw and cut the wood into stove length pieces.

In the late ’40s, I noticed in the records that the electric bill had gone up to about $12 to $14 per month. My folks had bought a refrigerator and a washing machine (wringer model) so more power was being used. Fertilizer was $45 per ton and Dad bought a new one-ton truck for $1,687.23. He was paying Aunt Irene $1 per hour for farm work at the time. Two loads of gravel were bought at $1 per load and a tire and tube for the car was listed at $13.43.

The John Deere “BO” served us well for many years and I don’t recall any particular problems with it. That model was quite popular along the Lake Plains area where a lot of vineyards and orchards exist. There are still a few John Deere “BOs” around today. I have one and each time I start it up, it brings back many memories.

Submitted by,

Dave Schultz

Ransomville, New York