Impressions of Clearbrook

Remember old soldiers’ homes? I don’t — I’m about 50 years too young. The only reason that I even know of their former existence is through an article in a now defunct Civil War history magazine. These dormitories, for lack of a better word, were often adapted from old schools, factories, hospitals, mansions, even an old inn just down the road from my shop at North River Mills.

There was little if any other provision for the care of aging Civil War veterans who, for various reasons, were not ready to re‑enter society in the usual fashion. It must have gotten interesting at times with both opposing sides of the conflict being accommodated under one roof. Sad and difficult times arose when these homes had to close down with a few patients still in residence. The expense couldn’t be justified for so few residents. But I’m getting ahead of myself — boy, am I ever!

My tractor repair business hasn’t been active in the area around Clearbrook, Va. for some time. Things change and my work has become concentrated more in the horse country to the south and east. The occasional caller from that area is usually advised to call my worthy colleague (Good’s Garage and Mobile Repair, Siler, Va.) who, due to his location, is in a better position to serve that area.

I’ve experienced some interesting adventures in that locale. With the continued expansion of the old W.S. Frey quarry (now Camuse), the back roads in and out seemed to change regularly. Some landscape scenes that I photographed years ago would now be 100 feet or more in the air above the quarry floor. Somehow, though, this limestone mine doesn’t have many of the negative qualities that we might see in a coal strip mine or mountain top removal mine.

This quarry has much to do with Winchester’s economic vibrance, is much deeper than a strip mine and expands much more slowly. The blue/gray limestone cliffs that this mining produces are more reminiscent of a western canyon. If, for some reason, the quarry should cease to operate and be abandoned, it would simply turn into a deep, clear, shimmering lake.

I met the Old Hippie (aka my wife, Stephanie) while night swimming at an abandoned quarry. Well, we became aware of each other’s existence anyway — our attire could have made formal introductions awkward. I like rock quarries.

The summer around Clearbrook can be exciting. The terrain is fairly level so one would expect to be able to see the approach of an electrical storm. There’s an old saying that rain follows the plow, that is, that agricultural activity in a normally arid region somehow causes atmospheric changes. The Dust Bowl disproved this theory. Still, one might wonder if, perhaps, lightning follows the lime quarry. Angry round little storms, like spiders walking on lightning bolt legs, seem to suddenly form directly overhead.

One interesting project there was the restoration of an old Oliver manure spreader — new oak floor, green paint, the works. At one point, sparks from my air-powered grinder set the dry leaves on fire in the neighboring oak forest. On the other side of the woods was the quarry’s dynamite storage shed. Oops. I managed to stomp out the flames just as the fire was starting to crackle and accelerate. Never a dull moment at Clearbrook.

I took a call in Clearbrook recently — an older contact that I hadn’t heard from in about 20 years. He didn’t know that I was still in business until we chanced to bump into each other at a farm in Clarke County. I guess that I was feeling nostalgic and was at least a little curious, having heard that the quarry had again expanded.

The roads had indeed changed but I soon found the place: several acres, barns and a large old log farmhouse. I went to work on the 1947 Ford 8N tractor. An old fellow approached and leaned on the fence to watch. Great. Probably a retired and bored father-in-law — next will come the suggestions as to how I should go about the repair.

He remained silent, though. Then another, younger fellow joined him, then another and another. A family reunion perhaps? The fence was soon lined with men dressed very informally and apparently comfortable and relaxed — one was even barefoot. Sensing my curiosity over the matter, my host explained that these men were Veteran’s Administration patients that boarded in one wing of the large farmhouse.

So I had found an “old soldier’s home” — the impression was more that of having stepped on a nest. My tests on the tractor revealed a bad ignition coil and condenser. A quick trip to Winchester Equipment produced a coil and I had the condenser in stock on the truck. After their installation, the tractor still wouldn’t start without being “hot-wired” directly from the battery to the ignition coil, the classic symptom of a bad ignition resistor on Ford N‑series tractors. The other classic symptom is an N‑series on which the locals have “tried everything” to get it running without success. I thus had the foresight to bring a resistor along, the installation of which did the trick.

I was still bewildered by the odd coincidence of the resistor, coil and condenser having all failed at the same time. One of the men then told me that the owner had tried to start the tractor with its six‑volt electrical system by jumping it with 12 volts from his late model pickup truck. It’s funny how owners of machinery never confess such sins as this. Sooner or later, the mechanic invariably finds out anyway. I have a saying which has a limited application here: “Tractors tell me more about their history than their owners do — I just have to decide which is telling the truth.”

These “old soldiers” enjoy working on the tractor and I would be glad to consider coaching them through a total tractor restoration to help them pass the time. After all, it’s always interesting to see what happens next in ol’ Clearbrook, Va.

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