Daydreaming ‘Bout those Old Ford Days

Editor’s note: Although this is not about BF Avery tractors, it does give an insight to the author’s background.  Luther Dan Thomas is the author of the book BF Avery – Pioneer Plowmaker.

Trigg County, on the state line in the south west part of the Bluegrass State, is one of small farm counties with tobacco, corn, wheat, and cattle as principal crops. It was a perfect market for small tractors like the Fords of the ’40s and ’50s.  In 1936, my father, Luther Thomas, had opened a Ford automobile agency in a former wagon shop in Cadiz, the county seat. Two years letter, he began to sell tractors as well as automobiles and trucks. When Ford and Ferguson marketed their 9N the following year~ the Luther Thomas Company sold several shiny, new 9Ns, many to first-time tractor owners who traded in their horses or mules to enter the mechanized age. And through WWII, the firm continued to sell many 2Ns.  With the introduction of the 8N and the post war economy, the firm’s tractor business really took off.  Luther Thomas Company had more customers on waiting list than tractors allotted to the dealership. The 8N red belly Ford became very popular to small farmers  whose main cash crop was tobacco. It was affordable yet powerful enough for plowing, cultivating, and other chores.

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The author and his brother George in front of the dealership’s Ford F-3 stake truck used to make tractor deliveries

My father’s Ford place wasn’t the only doing well.  By 1950, there were three other tractor and implement dealerships in Cadiz selling John Deere, International Harvester, and Ferguson.  Just 20 miles away were dealers for Case, Allis Chambers, and others. Within a very few’ years, all of the others in Cadiz would be gone, and only our Ford place would still remain.

Like many of his generation, my father’s hobbies were his business, and farming interests. Al first he , and my mother lived in an apartment above his combination automobile-tractor dealership. He would go back down to the dealership after supper. Perhaps he would get a part for a farmer whose tractor had broken down after hours during planting or harvesting.  With the postwar prosperity, he bought and remodeled the local community gymnasium into his new state-of-the-art garage with a glass showroom. My parents also moved out of the small apartment over the business and bought a house. However, my father would not go far, he bought the house next door lo his new building, just across the street from the former old wagon shop, where he used to assemble implements and warehouse tractors.

I came along in the 2N year of 1946, and my brother, George, in the 8N year of 1949.  Always a very practical man, my dad used the large backyard of our house next door to store used tractors and implements along with the service and delivery vehicles.  It would have been very difficult for those growing up in the Luther Thomas household not to have an interest in tractors.  We lived virtually in the middle of my father’s dealership.  There were tractors next door, across the street, and even in the backyard where we played.

In the early ’50’s after a heated disagreement with a Ford representative over corporate policy about minimum inventory, my dad sold the automobile dealership, rented his remodeled building to the new dealer, and moved his Ford tractor agency back into it’s former home at the old wagon shop.

The “Tractor place,” as we called it, was always an integral part of our daily lives.  Although my dad became involved in several other businesses, farming interests, and other pursuits, the Ford tractor dealership was always his main focus.

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“The Tractor Place” located in old wagon shop

Growing up, my brother and I were constantly surrounded by tractors and farm equipment.  Until we went to school, our backyard playground was among the plows, disks, cultivators, corn pickers, tobacco setters, and other equipment.  As young schoolboys, we’d hang around the dealership after school and, in summers, often did simple tasks around the parts department or shop.  Once we were old enough to look up part numbers, make change, and write parts tickets, we worked in the parts department in the summer and on those busy Saturday mornings when farmers came to town.

In those days, there were no microfiche readers, no computers.  Customers wanting parts would stand in front of a counter and describe the needed part or bring in the worn one.  The parts man would look up the pertinent number in a prats book.  There was big rack of parts books on the counter that he’d flip through, then he’ go back into the dark parts bin area and come out with the new part in hand, write up a ticket and the customer would pay for it or put it on his account to be paid at the end of the month, or when he sold his crop.  Afterward, the parts man would go to his 3″x5″ index card cabinet and note that one of a particular part had been sold so that he could keep up with inventory reordering.

My brother and I were always amazed at the parts man, a genial World War II veteran named Claude with phenomenal recall for the long part numbers.  Often he didn’t even need to consult the parts book.  He’d look at the customer or the part and start mumbling a long part number, then just walk into the bins and come back with the correct part.  Amazing we thought.

Another memorable person at the dealership was the bookkeeper.  This short middle-aged man sat at an old wooden desk, and even while seated there, always wore his grey felt hat with its shorty brim turned up.  He rimless

Author with his brother sitting on a new Golden Jubilee with a glass jar Cyclone air pre-cleaner

Author with his brother sitting on a new Golden Jubilee with a glass jar Cyclone air pre-cleaner

glasses, and an ever-present, but incredibly short, burned-out cigar stub between his lips.  He wrote in a very fine, precise hand with one of the many pencils or pens from the white vinyl pocket protector in his always tie-less, but stiffly starched, white dress shirt.  A childhood friend of my father, he was known to all only by his first initial followed by a period, and of course, his last name: D.Bruce.

D., a lifelong bachelor lived in a single room with his older bachelor brother in an old hotel about 150 yards down the street from the tractor place.  Despite the fact that he spent most of his career around an automobile or tractor dealership, he never owned, nor really ever drove an automobile.  But he did always take great pride in showing his drivers license.

There were two and sometimes three mechanics who worked on the tractors and equipment in the dimly lit shop.  Attached to the shop was the office-parts room.  These mechanics loved to play practical jokes with my brother and I.  One of the, Jasper Thomas, a distant cousin, later left our garage to operate his own repair business.  Upon retirement a few years ago, he became interested in tractor pulls.  He found and restored the third 9N that my dad sold in 1939.  He used it to win pulls all over western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee up until last year (1999).

Jasper tells a most interesting story about my dad’s salesmanship and the 8N Ford.  Although 8N’s always sold well in the county, my dad wanted to show up some of his competitors, and in particular, one of his friends who was partial to Farmalls.  He and the friend made a wager that if one of Luther’s 8N’s could out-plow a much larger Farmall H, the friend would not only buy an 8N at full price but would advocate its supremacy to all of his friends.

My dad sought the assistance of Jasper and his fellow mechanics to fine tune a brand new stock 8N so it could do the job.  Jasper increased the timing, adjusted the valves and did several other things to maximize performance.  “However,” Jasper said “I told ‘Cuzin Luther, that if we run that tractor very long like that, it’ll burn up the motor and you’ll have to overhaul it or replace it.”

My dad responded with “Don’t you worry about that.  I want you to out-plow that Farmall.”  Jasper did as he was told and my dad won the bet.  His friend not only had to buy an 8N himself, but go all over the area extolling its virtues.  My dad couldn’t have bought better advertising anywhere.  It did cost him though, just as Jasper had predicted, the 8N’s engine had to be totally replaced.

I have some memory of the 2N, the one with tall stack air cleaner, and a little more recall about the 8N, but it is the NAA-Golden Jubilee which has always captured my fancy.  There was always a certain mystique about this model with its signature “Wheat” emblem and the hinged toolbox in the left running board.  The highlight of my childhood was to to to the farm and be allowed to drive the Jubilee by myself.

The aspect that I remember most about the later Hundred Series, 600, 700, 800 and 900 was the shifting pattern on the five speed transmissions and its three level gear pattern.  I didn’t understand its significance at the time but well remember my dad’s great pleasure that Ford now produced a tractor with “Live PTO.”  He seemed to obsessed with live PTO.  To him it represented a great deal.  I couldn’t understand what it was all about and why he was so taken with it.  I remember asking him if it made the tractor go faster.  How little I knew.

My more vivid memories are with the later Hundred and One Series.  The 601 – 901’s, with the Ford signature styled sheet metal, and added touch of color; the 601, with it’s bright red-orange hood; and the 801 and 901, with the red grill and red center section on its hood, were very attractive to a young boy.

In 1959, Ford introduced the Select-O-Speed transmission with ten forward and two reverse gears, and no real clutch, only a small “inching” pedal.  Each of the 2300 Ford dealers in the United States were required to purchase a tractor with Select-O-Speed for use as a demonstrator.

These demonstrator tractors were factory painted metallic gold.  I well remember ours: a standard 871.  Initially, the fluid-driven Select-O-Speed captured everyone’s attention, especially those who needed to run some type of PTO-driven equipment at high rpm with a low ground speed.  Soon enough our 871 started to have transmission problems.

The mechanics would attempt to repair it but with little success.  Ford would send in the regional service manager to supervise the repair.  But it would be back in the shop again in a few short weeks.  Finally, my dad ordered it to be sent to our farm.  “We’ll use it to run a silage chopper – I don’t have enough confidence in it to sell it to our customers.”

Our gold tractor continued to experience problems and eventually my dad sold it to a salvage dealer.  It was hard to believe since it was only three or four years old.  I don’t think he ever told his friend, the former Farmall fan about that.

The former gymnasium that was remodeled to serve as a dealership garage and showroom

The former gymnasium that was remodeled to serve as a dealership garage and showroom

A few years afterward, my brother and I both left home.  I went off to college and a career.  George to college, medical school, residency and then into practice, first as an internist and later into emergency medicine.  He’s probably one of the few doctors around who is equally comfortable tuning up a tractor as he is defibrillating someone with a heart attack.

Although my dad died in the mid-1960’s, my family continued to own the dealership with a partner.  In the agricultural depression of the mid 1980’s, we sold our interest because of concerns that this once booming business might have to go into bankruptcy if it continued to experience losses.  The dealership survived another year or so in new ownership, then closed its doors after nearly fifty years of operation.

A few years later, both my brother and I became in collecting antique tractors, renewing our lifelong interest in Fords.  Only then did we realize the full value of the dealership that we’d sold.  There had been many bins of new old stock parts going back to the late ’30s and early ’40s as well as an entire closet of vintage Ford and Dearborn literature.

To look at Ford tractors, we have visited Palmer Fossum, Dwight Emstrom, and attended many of the national Ford shows.  I purchased and restored a wide front-end 951, and am currently restoring a model that has always been the apple of my eye, a 1953 Golden Jubilee.  This one has less than 1,400 hours on it.

A few weeks ago, I learned of a gold 871 that might be available, and I began thinking it’d be neat to fix one up.  I mentioned it to my brother in one of our daily email exchanges.  He responded: “Dad used to say that you were impulsive and exercised poor judgement.  He’d flip in his grave if he thought you’d even consider buying a gold Select-O-Speed considering how little you know about them.”

Now my workday is spent in a high-rise office building in down-town Atlanta, more than 300 miles from my western Kentucky roots.  Yet I often catch  myself daydreaming ’bout hose old days around the tractor place.

Editor’s note:  This article first appeared in the Volume 15, Number 3, Summer 2000 of the 9N-2N-8N-NAA Newsletter, it is reprinted here by the author Luther “Dan” Thomas who is now retired and lives in Marietta, GA.  He is the author of the book “BF Avery – Pioneer Plowmaker” which is available by clicking the link on the front page of our website.

 

 

About Luther "Dan" Thomas

Author of the definitive book “B.F. Avery & Sons, Pioneer Plowmakers of America.” Dan tells the story of the manufacturing empire created by B.F. Avery, its rise, its eminence, and its eventual demise. Dozens of color and black-and-white photos of tractors lovingly restored by Avery tractor enthusiasts. Available from the link in the side bar.