30 seconds over ‘West-minister

Part of this tractor repair reminded me of the wartime movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” starring Van Johnson and Marlin Brando. In the movie, much time and effort was spent preparing for something that was over in 30 seconds. Hence the title.

The tractor resides at a rented equestrian facility not far from U.S. 50 on Wardensville Grade aka the Tire Fire (or Tarr Farr) road. It’s a David Brown 990, a tractor that is legendary in our area for being rugged, powerful and reliable.

In its day, it was considered to be somewhat difficult to work on, though the necessity for repair was rare. Today, compared to many modern machines, the David Brown’s serviceability could be considered average or even easy.

The David Brown 990 is considered a workhorse tractor by farmers but was thought difficult to work on.

The David Brown 990 is considered a workhorse tractor by farmers but was thought difficult to work on.

The malady that has this British-made powerhouse down for the count involves a power steering control valve or steering motor also referred to as a “hand pump,” which became stuck due to water contamination and being idle for an extended period.

No problem. At the site, I had the unit out in a matter of minutes and took it along for a trip to the shop at North River Mills. There, I soon had the unit unstuck. Because the compartment on the tractor in which the part was mounted was found to be inches deep in oil from the power steering, a new o-ring, backup ring and seal seemed in order.

I tried to “cheat” a little by purchasing the parts at Solenburger Industrial. No dice. As it turns out, the parts are too specialized to be carried there. A trip to Hagerstown was the second option. I chose the 3rd option — bite the $100 bullet and purchase the entire rebuild kit, which includes the seals and rings from a Case/David Brown dealer. The dealer in this “case” (irresistible pun) was Browning Equipment in Purcellville, Va.

Experience had taught me that a special tool was required in order to install these delicate parts without breaking them. At $100 a shot, I wanted to get it right the first time. I had brought the unit along so as to get the parts professionally installed at Brownings. That’s when history reached its foot out to trip me up.

In 1972, Case acquired the assets of David Brown in the north of England and sold these tractors under the Case brand name. This import/export exchange between the USA, Canada and the British isles is nothing new as any owner of a T.O. (tractor overseas) Ferguson is well aware. An earlier example was when a shipment of Friday tractors went down when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1917. Moreover, White, when it realized its mistake after dismantling its newly acquired Oliver Corporation, briefly imported David Brown tractors and sold them as Olivers. The David Brown was a great tractor — but an Oliver? Not quite.

Anyway, Case/David Brown dealers of that period all had the special tool the services of which this job required. Not so fast. In 1984, Case and International Harvester merged making International dealers Case dealers and Case dealers International dealers. In order to happen to have this tool, the dealer had to have been a Case dealer during the David Brown period before the merger. Browning had been an International Harvester dealer and had adopted Case unlike Highview Sales in Highview, W.Va., which was a Case dealer that had adopted International with the merger.

A walk back to Browning’s service department brought only shrugs and apologies from the managers. Highview Sales, the next logical place to go is now in the beer and wine making supply business. The old tractor parts phone number doesn’t seem to work these days.

Wayne, the parts department manager at Browning’s, suggested that I contact a certain David Brown tractor enthusiast in the Highview area. Since Highview Sales changed its shingle, the Highview area has become a rarely visited backwater of my repair route, lessening my chances of running into this fellow. I struck out at Adams Equipment at Fort Ashby as well.

I left Wayne a voice mail inquiry about the possibility of my purchasing this rare and obsolete tool from Case. Wayne always returns my calls unless I’ve asked a really dumb question. This way, he gives me the chance to think it over and redeem myself and thus avoid embarrassment. Wayne didn’t return the call — big surprise. Searching for this tool was beginning to feel about as productive as nailing smoke to a corncrib.

By and by, the time came for our family’s annual visit to the in-law’s place in a gated lakeside community in Oconee County, S.C. It’s a place where Republicans get to go if they’ve been really, really good. They’re both gone now and brother-in-law Larry now lives there to keep an eye on the place and to keep it from falling to ruin.

Another call went out to Wayne at Browning’s — this time regarding Case dealers in that part of the Palmetto State. He returned my call with information about two Case dealers in the area. One was some distance away in Thompson, Ga., the other was Oconee Implement in nearby Westminster, S.C. I noticed that Wayne had pronounced the name of the town as “West-minister” — the indigenous pronunciation. Perhaps born of past marginal literacy and intense Bible-beltism, this pronunciation is now used in a more tongue-in-cheek manner even by the most astute segment of the local population. This little slip clued me into the possibility that Wayne had spoken to the folks at Oconee Implement.

I brought the part along, and with Larry as guide, we headed for Westminster. Oconee Implement is one of those friendly old tractor shops with greasy parts scattered on an old wooden floor. The yellowing pages of decades old parts manuals peek from beneath obsolete parts on rows of tall shelves. The parts counter has been worn smooth by generations of sweaty farmer’s forearms.

I asked the young gentleman behind the counter how long Oconee Implement had been selling Case tractors. “Since 1942,” came the reply. “But I wasn’t here for most of that time,” he quickly added. The David Brown period would definitely have been represented here. I placed the part on the counter and it was immediately recognized — along with the situation that it represented.

We were shown back to the shop and introduced to the mechanic, another Larry, a soft-spoken fellow probably nearing his 70s. Larry asked, “Nine-ninety or twelve-ten?”

“Nine-ninety,” I replied. A short conversation in tractor-ese ensued. My brother-in-law, the other Larry, said that the conversation resembled the chance meeting of two immigrants from the same country who easily switch to the mother tongue.

Larry (the mechanic) knew right where the much celebrated and elusive tool was in his shop and in a matter of seconds the parts were installed — no charge. Nonetheless, I tipped him over the usual token protest.

I had worn a straw hat so that should any of my Antique Power readers be present, they would recognize me from my column photo. As we walked out the door, a fellow drove up in a beat-up Chevrolet pickup with no license plates and a piece of rusty angle iron for a front bumper and, referring to my hat declared, “There’s a feller gettin’ ready to do some farmin’.” If he had known where I was actually going, a community not held in the highest esteem by some of the locals, there’s no telling what he may have produced from behind the seat of the old Chevy.

If I was recognized or if Wayne had set me up, no one was letting on. Anyway, the folks at Oconee Implement were friendly, kind and helpful. Of course, we could expect no less from a town with a name like “West-minister,” S.C.

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