history: old tractor

Tim Crowe, left, and Joe Mull in Joe’s garage where they restored a 1969 tractor that had sat in a field for many years.

By Jim Buchanan

 

Did you ever own a toy tractor?

Back in the 1960s and ’70s the toy market was flooded with cheap plastic toys of all varieties that had the structural integrity of peanut brittle, so it was not uncommon to unwrap a toy Corvette on Christmas morning and have nothing but a pile of rubble before Christmas breakfast.

That wasn’t the case with toy tractors. For years a number of cast iron companies made toy tractors as a sideline, and some had contracts that paid by the ton instead of the individual piece, so the more metal per toy, the better.

The things were practically indestructible. They almost dared a kid to try to wreck them, and certainly a lot of us tried, but short of a tactical nuke there was hardly a way to put a dent in them. Short of leaving them in the rain to rust, they seemed to be immortal.

Real tractors, not so much. They also rust when exposed to the elements, and have a dizzying array of parts that require tender loving care to continue operating.

Thanks to Janice Wright of Jackson County, we are able today to offer a tale about a local tractor restoration, a tale of a fading skill set and a tale of folks who don’t let age get in the way. All rolled together.

Wright asked the question, “What are octogenarians doing in Jackson County?”

And answered with the following:

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In the case of Joe Mull, 81, it is rehabilitating an antique tractor.

In April of 2021, he bought a 1967 model Oliver tractor from his neighbor, Boyce Deitz. The tractor had been sitting in a field for many years and had experienced the effects of weathering. Nothing worked.

Joe had been a mechanic for NCDOT for many years before his retirement but had never tackled a job such as taking apart a tractor engine. “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” he said. He totally disassembled the engine, carefully placing the dozens of parts around his garage. The process stalled at this point, for several months, as Joe pondered what he had gotten himself into.

His wife, Mary Ruth, began to wonder what they would do with “the hundreds of little pieces” filling the garage. Finally, he and Mary Ruth began an exhaustive search for a parts source and their son Joey found Steiner Tractor Parts in Michigan.

They ordered all the needed parts, and the rebuilding process began.

When Joe would hit a roadblock, he would sit in his rocking chair and “think on it.” After a while he could then proceed with the next step.

Toward the end, he reached a point where he needed help from a master mechanic, Tim Crowe, to finish the job. In December of last year, they successfully cranked the engine. It worked! The 81-year-old brain still understood the workings and structure of an engine, knew what all those little pieces did, what their names were and then knew how to put it all back together. The brain of a skilled mechanic is a wonder of nature! A tip of the hat and respect goes to the people out there who know how to do this kind of thing!

•••

Skilled mechanics are worth their weight in gold, and this county has been blessed with a large number of talented “shade tree” mechanics over the years, often self-taught experts in their trade.

What makes this tractor restoration even more of an achievement is revealed by looking at the history of the Oliver Farm Equipment Company. Its roots go back to 1870, the year the Oliver trademark was adopted, and it revolutionized farming with The Oliver Chilled Plow, which could rapidly bust up even the toughest sod. The Chilled Plow virtually cornered the market, and over the years the company expanded and diversified.

It became, among other things, a successful tractor manufacturer. The Oliver 1650 tractor replaced the Oliver 1600 in 1964, and a 1650 could be purchased new for a bit over $7,000 in 1969.

Its last tractor rolled off the assembly line in 1976.

The company’s lineage is a bit hard to follow as it was involved in a dizzying series of mergers and corporate power plays and one day ceased to exist.

The Oliver still has a lot of fans, and there are places to find old or restored parts, but that’s got to be quite a challenge, making Mull’s achievement more noteworthy.

By the way, no one ever made a toy Oliver 1650.

But Joe Mull doesn’t need one. He’s got the real thing.