Of grease and sheds

Note: Surprise breakdowns and hay field emergencies have made it necessary for me to go all NPR on you again. Welcome to another “encore presentation.” This story first appeared as a 2-part series in Antique Power magazine in the spring of 2011. I’ve picked up the story somewhere near the middle and re-titled it — so I guess it’s not such a re-run after all. In the story, daughter Leah, manager of Abundant Life Greenhouse at Shanks, summoned me to that facility to repair a hydraulic leak on the Ford tractor. While there, I noticed another problem with the tractor that owed its existence to the human factor.

There was a pin in the loader assembly that had sheered its retaining bolt and was working its way out. This problem is almost always attributed to lack of grease. The pin seizes and tries to rotate with the movement of the loader, shearing off whatever device is used to hold it in place then starts to thread its way out of the loader — when it finally falls out, any of a number of dangerous situations can result. The immediate fix, as with so many technical challenges, is to hit it with a hammer driving the pin back in temporarily. One can, however, save oneself all of these complications as well as a lot of hammering by simply keeping the tractor and loader greased. I thought I had raised her better — she must have gotten it from her mother.

The next hour was spent removing pins from the loader and cleaning grease passages and fittings. Some passages were packed so tightly with crud that drilling was necessary. I delivered the usual need for greasing lecture, which led to the suggestion that they pursue the best-case scenario — the tractor shed.

You don’t see many good, greasy old-time tractor sheds these days. I’m talking about the open fronted wooden pole buildings with oily dirt floors, maybe a rough-sawn oak workbench with an old blacksmith’s vise, a dirty gear oil pump and grease guns hanging on the wall. The purpose of these old weathered wood buildings was to house and maintain the family tractor and nothing else. The tractor used to be treated like a horse.

Sure, lots of folks still house their tractors out of the weather but most of such efforts these days seem incidental, putting the tractor under roof in buildings intended for other purposes. One important consideration in favor of the old time tractor shed is fire safety. If lightning caused one to lose the barn, the tractor wouldn’t be lost. On the other hand, should the tractor catch fire, the barn wouldn’t be lost. Nowdays, I see blazing hot tractors put away in messy barns full of hay. I’ve also seen tractors with 50-year-old wiring harnesses parked in attached garages of suburban homes. People scare me.

I’ve seen attempts at building tractor sheds. Oh, these modern structures of treated lumber and sheet metal do shelter the tractor adequately and their concrete floors support jacks without the help of lumber scraps — but something is missing. I’ve built a small version of what I consider a proper shed. First, the floor is dirt and will always remain so. Well, that was easy. Next, peeled and seasoned locust posts (actually, they sat for so long while I got around to building the shed that the bark fell off) were set in the ground deep enough to be below frost (which happens to be the length of my right arm which I use to dip the dirt out of post holes since I let the post hole digger rust solid).

Next, rough sawn oak 2×6’s were bolted to the posts using the air powered drills and wrenches on the Old Black Truck. Yes, I would rather have used augers and pegs instead of drills and bolts so I guess I cheated. I messed up, too — I learned from a gunsmith to burn the zinc plating off of the modern hardware for the proper effect (in this case, rust) but not before bolting this shed together. The bright exposed hardware shines in contrast to the weathered wood. The sides and roof were built of old barn wood from a building that I was given to remove (circa 1894) and the sideboards of a 1940s farm truck.

Any old rusty hardware that happened to be attached to the boards was left in place wherever possible. The roof was covered with corrugated tin roofing that I also salvaged from a barn. I left it in rust until Stephanie snuck out and painted it. Using these materials, the desired rusticity was instantly achieved without waiting for the wood to weather. My hand crank collection covers one outside wall while an ornamental woodpile (well, I will burn it eventually) covers the other.

If I ever wire the shed, you can bet that it will be with rubber and cloth insulated wire — even if I have to have it custom made at Brillman’s. Currently, the shed houses a modern John Deere and some dry firewood but I’m working on that. When I get this Ford 861 diesel together, I’ll probably have to go back to burning wet wood. An Oliver 550 also seems to be entering the scene. The Oliver runs but is in need of rear tires, which are an odd size and very pricey. I noticed that removing the rear wheel flange adaptor from the Oliver exposes a 2.250 diameter round shaft — this means that 34-inch Farmall C wheels would fit. Wouldn’t that be an odd duck?

Part of the shed is visible in the last issue of Antique Power on page 56. Part of my kerosene lantern collection is also visible. I like to hang several of these in the trees during nighttime outdoor gatherings. There are, of course, grease guns hanging from one wall — though currently, they’re on emergency loan to Leah until Abundant Life Greenhouse gets around to acquiring their own. No matter, I’m totally spoiled by the air-powered grease guns on the Old Black Truck — hopelessly “modern.”

We’ve all heard the old saying, “maintenance doesn’t cost — it pays.” Consider three minutes to grease a tractor or an hour or more at a mechanic’s rate to drill out grease passages and it becomes a no brainer. There’s a new device on the market that is supposed to unclog grease fittings by injecting thin oil with explosive force. If one of the firms that sells this new tool would send me one to try out, I’ll gladly give it my endorsement if it works. However, given the amount of clogged material that I find in machines that aren’t regularly greased, I remain skeptical. In any case, it’s best to just keep the grease gun handy — even if you have to borrow your dad’s.

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