Rise of the Machines: Tractors and the End of Rural America

Tractors are neat. Ask a man about his tractor and he'll have a story to tell you, whether he's a lifetime farmer or a guy who just learned to drive one. Using a tractor is the powerful way to get things done on a big scale, and that's a real attraction. Collectors Weekly has an article on tractors, their history, utility, and plenty of pictures, They also talked to Lee Klancher, who just published a coffee table book about International Harvester tractors. He tells about how the humble tractor changed the way we live.

“The part about tractors that’s really interesting to me,” Klancher says, “is the role they played in our society, transforming it from primarily agrarian to urban. In the mid-19th century, most of the U.S. populace was farming. By 1993, the government actually stopped counting farmers as a unique population group. Today, the world we live is incredibly urban, the rural way of life is essentially gone. That’s an enormous shift, and tractors enabled it. Without the tractor, without the mechanization of the farm, a larger percentage of the population would still have to be out there farming. I don’t think the dot-com revolution would have happened without tractors,” he adds. “If you look at the Internet, that’s the product of an industrialized nation.”

He also talks about the evolution of farm tractors, and the people who actually collect tractors, keeping up to 300 of them safe inside for posterity. There's more tractor porn at Collectors Weekly.  

(Image credit: Lee Klancher, Red Tractors: 1958-2013)

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Those experiences would be scary to a kid. I would ride on grandpa's tractor but never drove it. Always had a hard time watching that one scene in the Reese Witherspoon movie "Man in the Moon" when her crush gets ran over by the tractor.
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Okay, I will.

I was about 15 or 16 and just learning how to drive. The tractor was a complex machine. It had a clutch, a throttle, a choke and two separate brakes. I had managed to briefly drive in second gear without killing anyone.

My uncle said that we needed to drive a mile or so down the road to see a neighbor. So I started driving the tractor. He thought that we weren't going fast enough, so he told me to put it into third gear, which I had never done before. I did so. Then he said that we should slip into fourth gear.

The tractor's shift plate had eroded over 50 years, so the number 4 had long since disappeared. I had no idea the tractor even had a fourth gear. "Get into fourth gear," he said. "What?!" This was a crazy idea. "Step on the clutch." I did so. My uncle reached over me and shifted the tractor into fourth gear.

So we were now barreling down a country highway at what I can assume was a hundred miles an hour. At least, that's how it felt.

I had only a vague sense of how the brakes worked. That became critical as we approached an intersection with cars. We survived because the cars were not on collision courses with us and I did know how to slow us down a bit with the throttle.

The other time I suppose I was about 12. My father was driving. I stood behind him on the toolbox mounted on the frame and my brother was straddling the engine. We drove along a ditch. This tractor had a high center of gravity and we were moving at a steep angle. At the time, it seemed quite likely to me that we would roll over and the tractor would land on top of my brother.
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