The special bond between man and tractor

As anyone with the most fundamental experience with wood stoves and rural living will know, if you’re just starting to cut your winter’s supply of wood in early to mid-October, you’ve got a big problem.

I imagine that’s just the sort of thing that spelled potential disaster for many a neophyte pioneer family many years ago. Nowadays there are all sorts of options and/or social safety nets for people who’ve foolishly, or for one reason or another, otherwise failed to get their winter fuel supply set aside well ahead of the onset of winter winds. But back in pioneer days, unless the unseasoned pioneer newcomers were fortunate enough to have a few more seasoned newcomers nearby and ready, willing and able to help, the family risked freezing to death.

On that rather grim note and to make a long story short, as I say way too many times, I might as well come clean and confess I’ve barely started to get our 10 cords or so of dry firewood cut for the winter that will soon be upon us up at “the farm.”

Yes, I know, in the best of all possible homesteader worlds I should have had this winter’s wood supply cut more than a year or two ago, ideally seasoned through two summers. So here I am now looking for dead or fallen trees, big enough and accessible in the bush to cut within a few days or weeks before the snow flies. Someone I know well who has a high level of proven psychic ability has said we’re going to have an early winter, and a much harder one than last winter’s record-breaking unusually mild version.

Some people may think that’s nonsensical hocus pocus. But, take it from me, you can bet on it. Otherwise, I will eat my toque.

Adding to the consequences of failing to set aside sufficient time to cut firewood soon enough, was the fact Mr. Massey started to croak a couple of months ago. It happened just about the time I started to console my firewood woes with thoughts of a big, fallen beech tree in a reasonably accessible part of the bush not far from the house.

But I couldn’t get in there without a tractor and trailer to haul the wood out. (It didn’t help matters at all when I rolled my eyes at the suggestion I might bring it out in a wheelbarrow. I should add that anyone who values important relationships with anyone, rolling of the eyes is never a good idea by way of comment).

Some people may recall, by the way, that I have a special relationship with my “Mr. Massey,” a Massey-Harris 22 built in 1946, which makes him just a few years younger than me. Years ago when I was a boy living in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, the King Street West streetcar used to go by the now long-gone Massey-Harris factory with those big, red tractors in the window. They looked wonderful, and I wished I could have one someday. Well, “someday’ took a long time. But then I found Mr. Massey about 10 years ago at a local John Deere dealership.

Despite his age, and with the help of an engine rebuild, he has proved to be a good and faithful working companion for all that time. I worked him pretty hard, probably too hard, I figured, when he started to cough and sputter this past summer; especially when I tried to start him after he’d sat unused for a few days. It gradually got worse, until that day in late August when he just couldn’t pull the 70-year old drag cultivator up a slight incline in the mid-field at the farm.

The old Continental engine was firing on only three, maybe two of its four cylinders. I figured it was a valve-guide problem, or worse, likely costing more to remedy than made sense for me to spend. I even tried to sell him, just in case there was someone out there who might be interested in a full-fledged restoration job. Fortunately, there were no takers.

I feel like apologizing to my old friend for giving up on him in my ignorance of what was truly wrong. In the not-so-distant past I would have called “Dr. White” in Lion’s Head. But he, who knew Massey-Harris tractors like the back of his hand, retired a year ago and moved to another town.

However, with the help of Bernie, a contractor in Lion’s Head who pointed me in the right direction, I found another local “doc” for Mr. Massey. Can I say his name without seeming to be in a conflict of interest? Normally, I’m a real stickler for that sort of thing. But what the heck, suffice it to say if you’ve got a 66-year-old Massey Harris 22 you need to bring back to life, Kevin Walsh up there on the highway near PJ’s, is your man.
The happy outcome of the process of making the connection was another example of the precious role reputation plays in our small town, rural communities.

Within half an hour Mr. Massey was purring like a kitten again. A main ignition wire that should be copper rather than carbon was the problem. You learn something every day. A new set of plugs and my old friend was ready for work again.

And not a moment too soon to get into the bush after that patient, old beech tree and other well-seasoned dead wood I can find.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2012.

“Mr. Massey” readers may be interested in Legacy Quarterly, a magazine devoted to “Preserving the Legacy of the Massey Harris Ferguson Line.”


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