All of us can remember riding on the fender watching our dad, grandpa or uncle operate a tractor with ease. By paying close attention to how they operated the tractor, we hoped that we would be recognized and maybe someday we would have the golden opportunity to sit in the driver seat, instead of wearing the paint off of the fender. When that day finally came, when we got the chance to climb into the seat, our dad, grandpa or uncle gave us the “run down” of what we needed to do such as pay attention to what is going on around us and feel what the tractor is telling us while it is working.
This is true when it comes to working on a tractor. The fundamentals must be understood of how the mechanical systems operate and function. The students at Four Rivers Career Center, a technical high school in Washington, Missouri, have class during the day to learn the fundamentals of automotive technology, body repair, welding and many other trades.
Justin Boley guided the immobile “A” onto a trailer as it was being winched and prepared to travel.
On the other hand, it isn’t until Tuesday and Thursday nights when they have the opportunity to “sit in the driver’s seat” and put to use what they have learned in class to restore a 1949 John Deere model “A” during an after school volunteer program called Night Shift. Although Four Rivers Career Center is only for juniors and seniors, Night Shift includes freshman and sophomores as well as juniors and seniors.
Alex Benne and David Ley mount the “A” onto a stand to begin the teardown of the transmission.
This particular model “A” was shipped on February 16, 1949 to Baker City, Oregon and on February 18, 1949, it met its first owner in Oregon. Throughout the years, it has made a long trip traveling across the United States to Troy, Missouri, with no documentation of how its history unfolded. Then in 2017, the John Deere “A” was plucked out of the weeds. When the students first gazed upon the “A,” it showed many days of long, hard work and was still in her original work clothes. In the early years of the tractor’s life, it worked in Oregon and more than likely did tillage on a vegetable or produce farm.
When the “A” rolled into the shop, the first item to complete was a general inspection of the tractor and to find out if life could be breathed into the old “A.” However, life was far from what this tractor presented to the students. The engine was seized, hydraulic oil leaked into the rear end and the starter was inoperative. On the bright side, the radiator held coolant, the spark plugs had spark and the engine oil had minimal water in it, so there was still potential for the old machine to live again.
It is beginning to look like a tractor again as work progresses. Up until this point, each part was painted individually and then installed.
With a little help from a service manual and some elbow grease, the carburetor was cleaned, the engine was freed by soaking the cylinders with diesel fuel and all fluids were changed because the tractor was going to attempt to breathe life again, with or without a starter. The students began trying to pop-start the “A” and with the engine warmed up, after dragging it around in gear, poppin’ Johnny was moving with its own power.
With the tractor running, further investigation of the tractor had to be done. First was to test was the hydraulics; they did not function. Second was the generator, which was inoperative as well. On the other hand, the steering was surprisingly tight but the bushing for the clutch handle needed to be replaced because it moved as far left to right as it did front to back. Upon further investigation, the transmission had a bad fourth gear that chirped and clunked, which led the students to believe that their tractor was used for plowing because fourth gear would have been a typical operating speed for plowing.
After completing the general inspection, a cylinder leak down test and compression test revealed that the engine would need to be overhauled. When the pistons were removed from the block, it was clear that the cylinders were needed to be bored as well. The cylinder head was in rough condition with burnt valves and worn guides. By adding up all the flaws, the students came to the conclusion that a nut and bolt restoration would be necessary for their “A” to be better than new condition.
Students began disassembling the tractor in the Tractor Barn, an old storage room with a large roll-up door that was converted to a shop for tractor restorations. The students began taking measurements and notes to figure out what was worn out and in need of being replaced. The components of the “A” were placed in cabinets and labeled for ease of identification for installation.
From September of 2017 until June of 2018, the students flap wheeled the castings and smoothed them with body filler to create a mirror finish. They overhauled the engine and head in their shop with the guidance of specialists. The team divided the tractor into sections and each student was responsible for repairing their section—whether it would be cosmetic repair, the carburetor or the engine, it was the student’s responsibility to repair it and teach the other students about how and why it functions the way it does. Finally, after nearly 3,000 hours of blood, sweat, and tears, the “A” was show ready.
Finished “A” with students from left: Allen Shepard, Andrew Rohlfing, Chris Nowak, Logan Williams, Alexis Musket, Claire Ehlenbeck, Seth Kampmann, David Ley, Trevor Seals, Sierra Elliott and instructor Dan Brinkman. The maroon shirts symbolize the completion of the Night Shift and are granted to seniors after the restoration is complete.
However, the work was not over yet. An 80 page documented workbook was created to be entered into the Delo Tractor Restoration Competition, a nationwide competition for high school students. The students spent most of their summer perfecting this workbook with detailed descriptions and pictures of the model “A” and long summaries of the restoration procedures.
Once the workbook was finalized, it was submitted to a panel of judges and they reviewed the workbooks from all entrants to determine the top 12 finalists of the nation. All the finalists traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana during National FFA Convention to exhibit their knowledge and story to four judges, all tractor enthusiasts. The judges picked a grand champion who was awarded $10,000, a second place winner granted $5,000 and third place winner who received $3,000.
Night Shift was honored to be selected to compete for the second consecutive year in Indianapolis. The students filled their 20 minute presentation with the safety procedures they followed while restoring their “A,” extremely detailed information of the mechanical functions and designs, and their purpose for restoring the tractor. They did not come in first, but the goal was never to place first. It was only the second year competing in the competition and the students knew they were not going to walk home with gold—life is not that easy.
The history of Night Shift
Night Shift is a volunteer program that was created 11 years ago by Dan Brinkmann, an automotive technology instructor at Four Rivers Career Center. When Dan established Night Shift, his purpose was to create a motivational environment for students who like to get their hands dirty. In the early years, students could bring in their own vehicles, motorcycles or ATVs—basically, anything with an engine. But five years ago, a 1941 Ford was brought to the shop to have some mechanical tune-ups completed and that is when the tractor restorations began. The students couldn’t resist painting the rusted tractor so they began pulling parts off the tractor to spray with new enamel. Within a month, the tractor was looking better than brand new.
Each student has the opportunity to participate in Night Shift, but certain requirements need to be met to qualify—proper safety equipment must be worn as well as shop uniforms, zero late assignments in class, no behavioral issues in or out of school, 95 percent attendance and taking turns cooking each evening. All of Dan’s requirements teach professionalism, good work ethic and responsibility.
Dan uses tractors to attract students to Night Shift because most of his students have an agricultural background. All the students agree that the best parts of restoring a tractor are participating in antique machinery shows and sharing stories and memories that were created by riding on a tractor.
While the students of Night Shift were displaying their tractor, they were frequently asked what the story of their 1949 John Deere “A” was. Nobody knows the full story except the tractor. But if the steering wheel could talk, it wouldn’t talk about the crops it produced in Oregon—it would beam with pride about the young adults that it helped to produce in Washington, Missouri.