I saw an ad in the London Free Press the first part of February 1957 where a John Deere dealer at Woodstock, Ontario had (among other things) a used “D” tractor for sale. I had been looking for some time for a big old tractor to do the heavy work like plowing, disking, etcetera, but there didn’t seem to be any around that fit my financial situation. I did not particularly care what make it was or whether or not it was equipped with starter, lights or steel wheels as long as it could pull a three furrow plow.
Bright and early the following Saturday, I started out on a journey that would change my life forever. Along the way, I visited every farm machinery dealer that I came across and it was late afternoon on Feb. 7, 1957 that I drove my little ’53 Plymouth into Oliver McMullen’s John Deere dealership at Woodstock. The sun was getting low in the west and it was snowing when Oliver showed me the tractor. Well, she looked pretty rough, to say the least, sitting there in a snow bank with the fenders all banged and patched up with odds and ends of steel plate, the platform was broken and the drawbar was supported by a length of heavy chain. I walked around it once and asked if it would run. Oliver said he thought it would but it had no water in it, so we could not run it very long.
It had been sitting there for a long time, but she started right up with a few pulls on the flywheel. By golly, she ran pretty good compared to what I had expected. I drove it around the small yard once and discovered that the steering was very loose and there was very little green paint left except maybe under 20 years of dirt and grease. However, on the positive side, it had a PTO and was at sometime converted to rubber on factory round spoke wheels and Oliver did say that it was in good shape otherwise. So now came the bad part.
“How much are you asking for it?” I inquired.
“I am asking $375,” he replied, “and it is well worth it.”
“Well, maybe it is,” I said, “but I just don’t have that much money.”
“How much do you have?” he asked.
“I have $250.” That was cash rolled up in a ball in my pocket.
“Well, in that case,” he said, “that is all I need.”
I handed him the $250 and he made me out a bill of sale. I had bought my first John Deere, a 1936 model “D,” serial number 129055. Little did I realize as Oliver and I shook hands to close the deal on that cold winter evening over 35 years ago what a wonderful impact it would have on the rest of my life.
The following Saturday, I borrowed a 1947 Ford stake truck. A friend who was familiar with the operations of the tractor agreed to accompany me on the trip. The trip down to Woodstock and back to pick up the old “D“ was uneventful and we arrived home about 4:00 pm and unloaded it at the neighbor’s loading ramp. He looked it over and inquired as to what we were going to do with it. I could see he didn’t share my enthusiasm and he expressed serious doubts as to my mental health at the time. I asked if there would be a charge for the use of the ramp and he very graciously said no. I suppose he thought I had enough bad luck for one day. I guess he had reason because the old “D“ didn’t look too glamorous with all that bent tin, covered with rust and dirt, but she ran well.
My friend drove the tractor to my place while I returned the borrowed truck. He then left me to wonder what I could try it out on in the hour or so of daylight left. I remembered that a few days before, when cutting firewood in the woods at the back of the farm, one big tree had fallen the wrong way and had lodged halfway up on top of another.
I put some more gas in the tank and started back to the woods. The tree in question was in a swampy part near the middle of a 10 acre wood lot and as I backed the old “D“ up to the tree, the tractor broke through the ice into about a foot of water. I hooked the chain on with no trouble and climbed on the seat, ready for my first pull when suddenly the engine began to cough, miss and die. I knew what was happening. It was running out of gas as no one had switched it to the big tank. That wouldn’t be any problem as I had put gas in the big tank and it had always started before.
It was almost dark and I hurriedly changed tanks and started spinning that big flywheel and choking the carburetor as I saw fit. It wasn’t long before I had gas squirting out both petcocks and had lost track as to which way was on or off! I shut the gas off and drained the carburetor and continued cranking. It got dark but I still didn’t know which way the choke was supposed to be. I was wearing a heavy coat, cap, shirt, sweater and long johns and was standing in water and ice. I worked harder and harder on the flywheel, determined to get it started and drive it out of there if it was the last thing I ever did. I began to wonder if it would be the last thing I ever did, but then I hadn’t heard of a 25-year-old dropping dead from overexertion.
I had shed my coat and shirt and was bare to the waist, dripping with sweat when suddenly she boomed back to life. I put my clothes back on and once again climbed up on the platform, opened the throttle wide, put it in third gear and shoved in the clutch. The chain tightened with a jerk as the old “D“ lunged ahead and the tree came down with a mighty crash. As I backed the “D” into the shed that night, I realized I had learned two things that day: One, never flood a hot engine and two, never forget the on and off of the choke, especially if you are all alone in the middle of a swampy woods in a foot of water on a cold, dark night. I never did.
As years went by, the faithful old “D” was replaced by newer John Deeres, but I never traded it off. It is now restored and looks and runs as good as new. My wife says that next to marrying her, buying that old “D” was the smartest thing I ever did.