Author’s note: This story, “Countdown to Apple Blossom” originally appeared in Antique Power magazine in July 2009. I thought that since the publication of this paper falls on a date during the Apple Blossom Festival, it would be timely to use it again here.
“Paint covers a multitude of sins.” — Roy Higgins, Belle Meade Garage, Bell Meade, New Jersey, circa 1965.
By the time you receive this magazine, most of us will have already missed the annual Apple Blossom Parade in Winchester, Va.
I say most of us because, as Yogi Berra might observe, the Apple Blossom Parade has become an event that few people attend these days because of the crowds. This will be the third year that one of my tractor repair customers has entered an antique tractor in the parade. Oh, it’s big stuff. The Apple Blossom festival, of which the parade is a part, has received national mention and coverage numerous times throughout its 85 years of existence.
The tractor is red — very red — shiny red. It’s a showpiece with just enough signs of use to make it comfortable to look at without clasping your hands behind your back (this is usually done to indicate that you have no intention of touching a machine on display so the security guards can relax). If a tractor is so over-restored that children can’t climb on it (with all the reasonable precautions, of course), then really, where’s the fun?
By the way, this is a Farmall H, serial Dumber 352337X1F, purchased new in 1951 by Irvin Beavers for the family’s grain and cattle operation near Middleburg, Va. His grandson and current owner, John Beavers, first climbed onto the H in 1955 at age 3. Dudley Beavers, John’s father, had gone to lunch and left the H with the transmission in neutral.
Young John climbed onto the tractor and, imitating the motions he had seen his father go through so many times, started the tractor and immediately started crying (probably similar to his reaction when I handed him the bill after prepping the tractor for the parade). John’s mother Anna rescued the tractor’s terrified little operator.
Having been parceled out to cousins and siblings, the farm is somewhat smaller now — about 300 acres, more or less. The cropland is leased to a gentleman farmer, and the house, barns and other buildings are maintained as a private museum of a northern Virginia farm of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The last stationary threshing was done there in 1972.
In the spring of 2007, I was busy with the usual repair calls and was on deadline for this column, which was at that time running in a local paper and a feature article in “Farm and Ranch Living.”
Mr. Beavers called and informed me that the H was to be in the rapidly upcoming — no, looming — Apple Blossom Parade, pulling a float for Lord Fairfax Community College. The engine had a “little miss and noise” that concerned him, and he asked me to stop by and check it out. Mr. Beavers had hauled the tractor to Norman Sites’ farm near the quiet and rustic little community of Opequon, locally referred to as “Frogeye.” The name Frogeye originated around the 1930s, so the story goes, with a sign at the general store that featured a frog with exaggerated eyes.
The Sites’ place is much closer to the parade route than the Middleburg farm and would serve as our base of operation. Knowing the pleasant surroundings that he referred to, I welcomed the break from the old “hunt and peck” on my typewriter.
Countdown to Apple Blossom: three days.
I had worked on this tractor before. The old H required only routine ignition, carburetor and charging system work. For years, its only duty was to move from one end of the barn to the other to allow other tractors to move in and out.
I saw a photo of the H in John’s office taken around the mid-1980s. The tractor looked pretty tired — with hardly any paint left on it. Since the tractor had been cleaned up and painted so nicely, I assumed that the Beavers family also had the engine overhauled and thus the complaint that I was addressing would surely be minor. Silly me.
After backing the Old Black Truck onto the fragrant green grass and dandelions in front of the barn, I jauntily hopped out and spread wide the sliding barn doors. Fuel — on, ignition switch — contact. The engine fired. I checked the gauges: temperature, cold; amps, charging; oil pressure … oil pressure. Hey, oil pressure. The needle might have moved slightly; I couldn’t tell. The engine made an ominous squeak.
After killing the ignition, I addressed the problem in my most professional manner. I hopped off the tractor and walked around it four or five times, muttering to myself. A check of the oil level found it to be adequate. That would have been too easy anyway.
Another repair call waited, so I had to stop for the day. I thought of advising Mr. Beavers to cancel his plans or pull another tractor from his collection. None of the other tractors were “restored,” though, and might be rejected by the parade commission.
Countdown to Apple Blossom: two days.
The catch pan made a loud clatter in the early morning quiet as it landed on the rough sawn oak floor. I drained the oil, which was surprisingly clean, from the H. No metal chunks or antifreeze. A pensive sigh of relief. Zip-zip-zip went the little butterfly air wrench as the bolts holding the oil pan fell to the floor. The chickens outside scattered in response to the noise, ghostly barn cats sank into the shadows. Multiple thumps with a rubber mallet freed the pan. It apparently hadn’t been disturbed since the Truman administration.
The oil pick-up screen hung on its hinge and dripped mean-looking semi-solid black goo. Inside the pan was a dismal swamp of the stuff — about a half-inch deep.
The pick-up screen on an H is designed to float in the oil, the pick-up tube acting as a hinge. I’m not sure why it isn’t mounted rigidly, like so many others; perhaps it’s to keep the screen suspended in clean oil. The float had developed a hole and the assembly had sunk to the bottom of the pan and was soaking up swamp stuff. The screen had left its fossil record imprinted in the black matter like dinosaur bones in a tar pit.
I sent John Beavers scurrying away on the first of several parts runs and turned my attention to the valve rocker assembly, which was almost seized. The rockers had to be hammered and pried apart and the oil passages drilled out
The column went to the newspaper, though I had to exercise my “late deadline option.” The article for “Farm and Ranch” was another matter, and the distraction caused by the situation with the Apple Blossom H wasn’t helping. Big publishers tend to make grandiose requests within impossible timeframes. They assume that you have nothing more important to do than drop everything and just write them a story. They’re usually right.
Countdown to Apple Blossom: one day.
With the arrival of my pads, I began assembling the tractor. Some other potential parade stoppers were addressed. The distributor received new contact points, condenser, rotor and cap. The spark plug wires were fail-safe copper, so they stayed. The spark plugs were replaced with hotter Champion D-21s.
The carburetor was cleaned and a new float and float valve were installed. The battery, though only a year old, was moved to another tractor in the collection and replaced. The fuel valve was removed from the tank, and it and the sediment bowl were cleaned. The hole from which fuel enters from the tank was drilled out to 1/4-inch and a 1-inch piece of 1/4-inch OD steel brake line was inserted and soldered into place. This prevents any foreign material from collecting in the valve — normally the lowest part of the tank.
The front wheel bearings were checked. The thin, runny, black grease often found on these bearings tends to leak past shrunken gaskets or warped cover plates and can make an unsightly mess. The bearings were packed with a relatively modern high temperature wheel bearing grease. New gaskets were installed with a light film of clear silicone.
With the tractor purring, waxed and buffed to where it almost glowed in the dark, I was then directed to check out the hay wagon, which would serve as the running gear of the parade float. It was an antiquated piece, to put it mildly. The final hours of my involvement with the project were spent packing dry bearings, replacing broken wheel studs and changing a tire whose inner tube was actively seeking sunlight.
Both Beavers and Sites are CPAs, and Beavers is also a professor of accounting and taxation — not exactly occupations that inspire an adrenaline rush. On this eve of the parade, they still hadn’t started constructing the parade float. To construct the float in one night represents quite a challenge. One of Sites’ sons and I speculated that this was their “barbaric yawp.”
Countdown to Apple Blossom: 11 hours, 22 minutes.
Apple Blossom day was spent completing the article for “Farm and Ranch Living,” thus I was unable to attend the parade. I took frequent breaks to compare the parade schedule with the Winchester City map and was able to tell where “my” tractor was.
These breaks involved some deep thought and much blank staring into space.
Could, after 85 years, the parade grind to a halt due to some mistake — some omission on my part? I wondered if this is how a World War II bomber mechanic felt waiting out the mission while “his” plane was taking flack over Bremerhaven.
The following day, we left for an extended trip into Pennsylvania. I still hadn’t heard how the H had done in the parade. I understood that Mr. Beavers would have been too tired to call me the night before, and we left too early in the morning. I would have to endure the suspense until we returned.
We stopped for breakfast in Winchester. In the early morning, caffeine-laced steam of the restaurant, we chanced to run into Norman Sites. Norman reported that the H had performed flawlessly.
Back on the road, Stephanie drove while I felt the profound relief from the tension that had begun with a motionless needle on an oil pressure gauge three days earlier. I dozed off before we had covered a mile. My dreams took me to another time and place where I had never been.
The coast of England, 1944. The afternoon sun behind me, I strain my eyes toward the east and count the approaching B-17s, mere specks in the sky. Looks like everyone made it home.