I only fairly recently discovered Massey Harris Ferguson Legacy Quarterly, after its editor, Gary Heffner contacted me about a column I wrote for the Owen Sound Sun Times about my “Mr. Massey.” A local reader of his magazine and my columns had brought it to his attention.
Owen Sound is a small city of 22,000 people on the shores of beautiful Georgian Bay in the small-town, rural area of Grey and Bruce counties in southwestern Ontario. Yes, Canada, the birthplace of Massey-Harris – Ferguson. But then everybody reading Legacy Quarterly more than likely knows that, right?
But apparently not a lot of Canadians know it, from what Gary tells me. A group of retired engineers who helped design the tractors and other farm equipment that made Massey-Harris and Massey-Ferguson the most popular brand of farm machinery in the world still meet annually over dinner up here to socialize and talk shop. But otherwise what Gary said doesn’t surprise me.
I don’t know what it is about Canadians of a certain vintage and stock. We are retiring to a fault. We don’t like to blow our own horns. It seems a little, well, a little too forward. And we won’t want to offend, eh.
You take me for example, I’ve got a lifetime, and even a pre-lifetime connection with the Massey-Harris brand in particular, but I never bothered to go out of my way to find out if you folks down there in the good, old U.S.A. might be interested in that story; not enough to stumble across Legacy Quarterly on my own, at any rate.
I’ve been writing a weekly column for the Owen Sound Sun Times for close to 15 years, ever since I took early retirement from my job at the paper as a staff reporter/writer. I can write on any topic I want. Most of the time it’s pretty serious stuff, like the wisdom of burying nuclear waste deep underground less than a mile from the Ontario shore of Lake Huron, or local, provincial, and federal politics, or neonicotinoid pesticides apparently killing honey bees and other pollinators at an alarming rate. But sometimes I have to give myself and my millions of readers a break and lighten up.
So, I write about “Mr. Massey.”
He’s my 1946 Massey-Harris 22 tractor. He was out there all winter under a foot or two of snow, as usual. I’ll give him back his battery now that it’s finally spring, put some fresh gas in his tank, turn the toggle switch on, press his button, and he’ll probably start up soon enough with some tender-worded coaxing just like he always does. Then I’ll give him an oil change. He always likes that. Don’t ask me how I know. I just know. It’s like that sometimes with man and machine; and I’m sure there are a lot of you out there who know exactly what I mean.
I gave Mr. Massey a fresh coat of Massey-red paint about 20 years ago. But that’s pretty well faded or flaked off now. He’s seen better days, to be sure, and he’s no doubt a prime candidate for a full restoration. But he remains a never-say-die working tractor, even in his dotage. We’re a lot alike, My Mr. Massey and I.
Mr. Massey has become a modest celebrity of sorts in the Owen Sound area. I’ve written a good number of columns featuring him, like the one in which he and I had a conversation about growing old. He tells me not to sweat it – just carry on, Phil, like me, he said. So I did, and I do.
I have in the past year acquired another tractor, a Massey-Ferguson 65 I’ve already taken to calling “Mr. Massey Too.” I finally had to admit I needed that Ferguson three-point hitch.
When I was a boy of 10 and 11 living in the west end of Toronto I used to take the King Street West streetcar downtown. I always sat on the side that would give me the best view both ways of the Massey-Harris factory show-windows and those big, new, shiny-red tractors with the distinctive straw-colored wheel rims. I wanted one. I really, really wanted one. I told myself if the day ever came that I had the chance and the money I would buy one.
And now I’ve got two. Not that I have “the money,” mind you. But sometimes a man’s just gotta do what a man’s gotta do, if you know what I mean.
I’m not sure I knew much back then in the mid-1950s about my family connection with the Massey-Harris factory in Toronto, where it set up shop after the hotly competing Massey and Harris farm equipment manufacturing businesses merged. My maternal great grandfather, Thomas Thompson, and his family had fallen on hard times as a result of a bad investment after the end of the First World War. His father, also named Thomas Thompson, was a carpenter and cabinet maker who prospered in Toronto after emigrating from Scotland in 1868. He built a fine house on Jarvis Street, where many of the city’s newly-rich business class took up residence. Among them, just up the wide and stately street, was the family of Massey-Harris owner Hart Massey, his wife Eliza, their four sons, and a daughter. My 95-year-old mother, who was raised by her grandparents, has told me that as a boy her grandfather and his brother Richard used to chum around with the Massey boys. They often went fishing and swimming together in nearby Lake Ontario.
My great grandfather Thomas had himself been a successful man of business. But out of dire necessity when the family money was lost in a bank collapse he wrote his old friends, asking if they might have a position for him at their King Street, Massey-Harris factory or business office. That would have been about 1920.
Sometime later he received a reply letter with an offer of a job as night watchman. It was not quite what he had hoped for, but he took the job and did it well. He worked in that capacity at the Massey-Harris factory practically until the day he died, at almost 80 years of age, in 1942.
I wish I could say my Massey-Harris 22 is one of those I saw and dreamed of owning some day in the Toronto factory’s show window. But there’s a plate on Mr. Massey that says he was made in Racine, Wisconsin. The Massey-Harris connection to Racine began in 1928 when the expanding Canadian farm equipment company bought J.I. Case Plow Works Company, the makers of Wallis Tractors. So there’s a lot of American tractor heritage in Mr. Massey’s pedigree too.
All things considered, he deserves that long-overdue restoration project I’ve been promising him for a long time.
Have I mentioned Mr. Massey has another distinction? No, I haven’t. I knew that. So, here goes: as far as I know he’s the only Massey-Harris 22 that ever sank in Lion’s Head Harbour and lived to tell the tale.
Lion’s Head is a pretty, little village on the Georgian Bay side of the beautiful Bruce Peninsula. I have a farm a few miles south of it in a rural area called Hope Ness, right beside the Hope Bay Nature Reserve. The Bruce Trail, which follows the Niagara Escarpment all the way from Niagara Falls to Tobermory at the northern tip of the peninsula, emerges from the woods at the end of my driveway.
Anyway, getting back to the Sinking of Mr. Massey, I was using him to back a small outboard motor-boat on a boat-trailer down the boat ramp at the Lion’s Head Harbour when I had trouble getting him out of reverse and back into 1st gear. It was the steeper side of the boat-ramp and I wasn’t used to it because I always used the other side which had a more gradual slop for some reason. I managed to jump off onto the nearby walkway just as Mr. Massey slipped below the waves into about 20-ft of water.
Talk about embarrassing, a crowd soon gathered, and I called up to White’s Garage to get a tow truck. Of course somebody had to dive down and hook up the tow chain. It looked like that somebody would have to be me. I’ve never been a good swimmer, except underwater, for some reason. So I was just about ready to strip down to bare essentials, and take a deep breath, when a cottager who said he was a scuba diver and happened to have his scuba gear at the cottage offered to go and get it, and do the dive.
About 15 minutes later he was as good as his word. He took the chain down and wrapped it around the front axle of Mr. Massey, secured it with the hook, and John White proceeded to pull my old friend, and the boat-trailer with the boat still on it, up the ramp. Mr. Massey looked for all the world like a big, old, forlorn, red dog who had been in the water far too long. He was only a little the worse for wear: somehow his steering wheel had got bent kind of wonky. The Scuba diver got a well-earned round of applause from the crowd of about 200 people lining the main dock, and a hearty handshake, and “thanks a lot,” from me. He wouldn’t take any money.
We towed Mr. Massey up to the garage to dry out for a couple of days. On the good, “Doctor” White’s advice I drained and replaced all his fluids – Mr. Massey’s, not Doc White’s – including water-contaminated gas, engine and gear oil, and coolant. Let me tell you, I was amazed such a little tractor needed 5 gallons of gear oil.
Anyway, to make a long story short, with a fresh tank of gas, clean oil, and all, Mr. Massey started up right away three days after his sinking.
That was 12 or 13 years ago, or thereabouts, I think. Speaking of history, it has become part of the oral, folk tradition of Lion’s Head Harbour, that’s for sure.
I vowed that day that if I ever do a full restoration, there will have to be at least one, non-original decal, labelling Mr. Massey a special “submersible” Model 22 tractor. He’s probably the only one in existence. That should make him quite a topic of conversation at antique tractor shows.
This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the 2016 spring edition of Massey Harris Ferguson Legacy Quarterly