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The following is taken from the "LET'S TALK RUSTY IRON" column I write for the Farm and Dairy
During the 1930s, '40s and '50s, each farming community had an individual who acted as blacksmith, mechanic, and troubleshooter for the neighboring farmers. These talented men, who rarely had any formal training, could repair, modify, build or rebuild most any tractor, truck, automobile, or farm machine.
In the area where I grew up, South Beaver Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the man who kept the farmer's worn out equipment running was Al McDonald. Al had been in France during World War I and had taken a strong whiff of mustard gas that left his lungs in pretty bad shape. Even though his health wasn't good, Al managed to support his wife and four daughters by his mechanical skills.
As I remember, Al's first shop was along PA Rt 168 not far from our farm, and was a long narrow building with a dirt floor. He later moved to Court Road and used the lower level of a large bam as his shop. I believe it had a concrete floor, as well as a lot more space.
The area around these shops was always cluttered with old cars, trucks and machinery in various stages of disrepair. I looked forward to going to Al McDonald's with Dad because I could climb into all those vehicles and pretend to drive them. There were usually at least two or three men hanging around the shop and I enjoyed listening to the conversation and the stories they told, which were much more earthy than I was used to hearing at home.
In addition to keeping our cars, tractors and old truck running, Al built us a large wagon using an old International truck chassis, and later, a low two wheeled trailer from old car axles and channel iron.
During the early '40s, tractors were scarce and expensive and Al built a couple of "doodlebug" tractors. I remember one that was built from an early '30s Chevrolet ton and a half truck. The cab was removed (funny how in those days, it wasn't a tractor unless it had no cab), the frame shortened, and a second four speed transmission was added behind the existing one. A large block of cement was chained over the rear axle for weight and, with tire chains on the dual wheels, an adequate light duty tractor was the result. The two four speed transmissions gave seventeen speeds forward (sixteen in various combinations of gears, and the seventeenth a low-low forward speed with both units shifted into reverse). Four reverse speeds were also available.
Another of these fine farm mechanics is Dick Ronald, whose shop along State Route 172 east of East Canton, Ohio, was the scene of much activity from the mid '40s to just a few years ago.
Dick told me that he fixed anything that came in the door, or broke down in the field. In the early years, there wasn't room inside the shop for most farm machines and Dick did a lot of work outside, even in winter. Later a cement block addition was built that allowed all but the largest equipment to be repaired inside.
When the temperature got down to around zero, Dick always knew he was in for it. Farmers would go out to the barn on a zero morning and switch on the silo unloader to get feed for the herd. The silage would be frozen and a chain, or something else would snap. Dick says he climbed many a silo in zero weather, dragging along an acetylene torch to make repairs.
One great story Dick tells is about the time a man brought in a corn binder that had picked up a rock, causing bent parts and broken gears in the knotting mechanism. Dick said, "I knew as much about corn binders as you could stick in your eye." The farmer brought in the instruction manual for the machine and Dick welded gears and straightened parts while referring to the book. When he'd finished, he stuck his shop broom between the binder points and turned the mechanism over with a large wrench. The broom moved stately through the binder, emerging at the other end with "...the prettiest little knot you've ever seen.." tied around the handle. Dick says, "That was probably the proudest I've ever been of a job. I didn't think that binder would ever tie a knot again!"
Another service both these men provided area farmers was plowshare sharpening. Dick says he heated and hammered hundreds of plowshares every year. Al McDonald did the same, but he also had another way of renewing old plowshares. He would cut a piece from an old truck spring, angle the end and weld this over the worn point. I remember my father being very skeptical about whether or not this would work, but I plowed many acres with those welded on points.
Given the shortage of money in the 1930s, and the scarcity of equipment during the 1940s, men such as Al McDonald and Dick Ronald performed a vital role in keeping farmers going.