Friday, November 9, 2007

A little private museum.

August 22, 2007 South Dakota (typed 2007-11-09)

This morning we left Kennebec South Dakota. We are running from the smoke that almost caught up with us last night. We are running for the border, ...again.
Straight roads, not much to see, fields growing something for as far as you can see towards the East. Looking towards the West (in the mirrors) the smoke was still following us.

I spotted a little sign for a tractor museum. Beth has had enough of this car stuff but an opportunity was there because Beth needed a restroom. My plan was falling into place.

A plain metal building with a gravel parking lot. We go into the museum 'office' and two 'retirees' are in there. We use the restroom and we were thanking them when the two folks on duty say to Beth and I "Well, you ready?".

Well, darn the luck, I guess we'll have to do the tour. I avoided Beth's eyes, just on the off chance that she had other plans. What I didn't expect was that the man expected me to go with him and the woman expected Beth to go with her.
Still avoiding any eye contact, we went our separate ways.

I think that Beth was being taken to see antique girly kind of stuff while I was being taken to the tractors.
We walked along the parking lot without much chatting and then entered another steel building with open doors on each end, a twelve foot dirt center aisle and about ten or so tractors on each side. These were tractors from the 30's through the 50's, brightly painted and had the original chipped up and worn rubber tires.
These were tractors that were owned by the group of farmers that now hung out at the museum. A couple of the guys had passed on, but their kids left the tractors where they belonged. One little sign I was reading explained what kind of tractor I was looking at and it stated that this tractor was owned by a Cletus Mohnen. My guide asked me what I thought of that name. I said that I liked it, that I had never met a Cletus, and I asked him if he was one, he said that he was the very one mentioned on the sign. I shook his hand and told him that it was great to finally meet a Cletus. I told him that I was a Warren. He said that he had heard of a couple, he even thought that there used to be one in the next town.
Well I have seen a LOT of old tractors and these were in better shape than ANY tractor currently in service in New England. It was a little odd to see tractors that a New Englander would consider to be brand new were obsolete out on the farmland. Some of the tractors were the types I had always seen, but some were large-engined turbocharged beasts that ANY country guy in New England would trade his wife's Volvo station wagon for. Out here, these things are used to train the kids on.

What the REAL treasure here was to hear an old man talking about tilling, cultivating, sharecropping, sod busting, and harvesting. The tractor was just a tool, farming was his love. Back in the day, these guys ran a different kind of farm than the ones today. I was told that there are very few "independent" farms around there anymore, most of them are owned by the large chemical and food conglomerates, but they also produce much more per acre than they would have ever dreamed of. They know the farms that they worked on for their entire life have no place in the modern world, but having a place to hang out together and swap war stories makes life a little better for them. Every once in a while a stranger from the highway stops and they can talk to them for a while.

I had time, as long as Beth was busy, so I asked questions. Some things took a while for us to work out because I don't know the farmer's lingo. I was thinking that cultivating was just another word for rototilling, you know, turning the soil over. There were all kinds of contraptions to help the farmer cultivate and to keep cultivating. It was quite a while before I realized that cultivating is not just turning over the soil, but is the process of destroying weeds in between the crops that are growing. It isn't like the berry bushes or pumpkins that I grow, where they are pretty much on their own until the day I pick 'em, these guys actually work on the crop during the entire growing process. I used to just rototill a patch for Beth in the Spring and then rototill the same patch in the Fall. I never really looked in that area in between those two events. I knew Beth and Derek would be out there poking around, but I never researched any further because gardening never even made any noise or smoke.
I was out here in South Dakota talking to a guy that had more hours in a tractor seat than anyone I had ever met, and we were discussing row patterns and swinging room and seeding techniques. There was a planting gizmo that followed a wire that you had staked out. This wire had little steel balls every few feet to mark off a distance. This planting gizmo would plant corn at each ball as it traveled along, you would move the wire to the next row and do it again. If you set up each row to be the same distance apart as the steel balls then you can grow "checkerboard corn". The corn is the same, but you can run your cultivator in between each row going East-West and then repeat the entire field going North-South. Super-duper cultivation. The modern technique is to plant the corn so close together that there is no room for the weeds to grow, and of course there are some places that just use a lot of poison.

A tractor related question that has always nagged me is why some tractors have a tricycle setup instead of four wheels. My farmer didn't know. He had a lot of both through the years, and my question stumped him. Different tractors for different uses. As we talked about stuff for a couple of hours I suddenly figured out why. He always pointed to certain tractors when he was talking about zig-zagging back and forth across a field. Then he was showing me old Farmall design with cables that would automatically apply the brake to the left or right rear wheel as you turned the steering wheel. When you drive any tractor, you tweak the brakes on the rear wheels independently as you take a corner to allow a much quicker spin around kind of turn. One wheel slows down, you crank the steering wheel, the front end whips around and you release the brake just as you let the wheel straighten out. It's fun to do, and efficient too, but mostly fun. Well the light bulb clicked. The tricycle front end isn't limited to almost turn sideways, it can turn sideways. The big goofy tricycle front end can twirl around in a much tighter spot than those four wheeled things, which is real handy to zig-zag back and forth in some closely planted crops without having to skip every three rows and then go back and try to get them later. The big gigantic super duper tractors all have the four wheel patterns now, but they also use GPS satellite tracking to make sure that they go where they are supposed to go and that they stay on the path.

When my light bulb clicked, and I asked Cletus if that was the reason, he said "Yes, of course that's the reason, I just had never thought about it." He just used the correct tractor for the given job without thinking why.

Another man came out to remind Cletus that he had a doctor's appointment coming up and so he would finish up as my tourguide, so I asked both of them where they learned about farming. Was there a sales rep from the implement companies, or the county extension, or meetings at the Grange? They both said they learned from their daddies.
Oh sure, there were things that they learned from the guy selling the equipment, and from seeing what worked on your neighbor's farm, but the bulk of the learnin was from their daddies. Daddy is a term that southerners (and obviously South Dakota farmers) use as a sign of respect for their fathers, while in New England, the word daddy is rarely heard from males over the age of 21.

There is a huge amount of science, mechanics, botany, meteorology, accounting, business, and luck involved with farming the way these old fellers did it. There wasn't any real schooling, it was hands on. and I don't think that they think it is any big deal because everybody else was in the same boat. No wonder country folk always thought that city folks are just plain stupid. They know an entirely different set of skills, with very little overlap. When they would go to the city, they wouldn't even see anything that needed doing. Nothin to grow. Nothin to cultivate. Nothin to feed. Boring. Let me go home.
These old farts are a treasure. They have already been sent out to pasture, but they get to go down to "the museum" to do their shifts and hopefully there are enough people that need a restroom that they can snag 'em and sow a little of their gold.

Oh yeah, and Beth? She was shown a lot of glassware and girly trinkets and then went to sleep in the van.
Smoke's catchin' up, gotta get movin.

This is Cletus.

Click photo for more.

2007-08-22 SouthDakota


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