Rural Missouri - January 2019 - 12

The Romance of
Old Tractors
Red or green,
tractors serve as
emblems of an
honorable life

Jim Peters, an artist from Washington, painted "Grandpa's Pride and Joy" in honor of the old International Farmall M once owned by Elmer Unchtman.
by Emily Olson | info@ruralmissouri.coop

I

n 1978, a man named Elmer Uchtman faced a
typical but bittersweet truth. A farmer all his
life, he was retiring, but his machines were not.
Though his land and that of his family would
continue to be farmed by relatives or renters, his
implements sat idle. So Elmer prepared for the auction of the massive tools that had enabled him to
dedicate his life to the soil.
Elmer owned International Harvester (IH) equipment. Like many farmers who cherish one agricultural brand above others, he showed a loyalty to
IH that bordered on the religious - or at the very
least showed a wry sense of humor. Though his
brother-in-law, Wilbert, farmed nearby with bright
green and yellow implements, Elmer looked down
on "the Green ones" - his words for John Deere.
He refused to call them by name. Instead, Elmer
proudly farmed with only red IH machines. He frequented Henderson's, the IH dealer in his town, for
decades. From his steadfast example, Elmer's children and grandchildren just knew IH was the best,
the toughest and the most reliable.
Elmer had two red tractors. One was a Farmall
350 and another a Farmall M. The M was the
most expensive tractor Elmer ever bought, and it
was also his most dependable. "My workhorse," he
called it, with no irony. More than any other item to
be sold at the auction, the M would be the hardest
for Elmer to relinquish.
When the auctioneer began the sale for the M,
Elmer was dismayed when the bidding began to
stall. He felt that the tractor would be sold at too
low of a price. So he stopped the auctioneer and
climbed up on a farm wagon to address the crowd.
White-haired and bespectacled, Elmer told when
and where he had bought the M and how much
he'd paid for it. He explained its horsepower and
its reliability and what the M had been able to do in
decades of farming. Then, in a nearly unprecedented show of emotion, Elmer's voice broke. He said
he'd stake the M against any other tractor. Then
he got down from the wagon. When the auctioneer
started the sale again, the bids went sky-high.
Elmer was my great-grandfather, my mother's
father's father. Respected and successful in his
community, Elmer likely prompted the bids for the

12

RURAL MISSOURI | JANUARY 2019

M to start high because he was trustworthy. Heavily
involved in the Farm Bureau and many other organizations, including the school board, people knew
that when he said something, it was so. The bids
also went up, I think, for less practical reasons.
It was no secret to most at the auction that Elmer
had experienced his share of hardship. His only son,
my grandfather, had died suddenly at the age of 36
due to appendicitis. So Elmer had served as a father
figure to five fatherless grandchildren. He took my
mother and her siblings to the mill to sell corn and
soybeans, to early morning cattle auctions in St.
Louis, and bowling sessions in their small town.
And he and his dear wife of 50 years, Alma,
attended the rural Lutheran church with their family every Sunday. Death and loss were hard realities,
but Elmer was no whiner. Like so many before him
and since him, farming continued to be not only his
livelihood, but his life. Being a farmer meant living
life matter-of-factly, with an unflinching courage
and humble faith.
Crops abounded and crops failed, children were
born and children died. Harvests began and ended,
seasons came and went and the cyclical patterns
of life with the soil grounded what otherwise might
have seemed an existence susceptible to terrible
and terribly arbitrary events. No matter the blessing, no matter the tragedy, life went on in the fields,
and Elmer lived, too.
Most people think of romance in terms of candlelight dinners, Valentine confessions, sweet moments
under the moon. They would be right, of course.
But romance developed first as a means of storytelling, a form of sharing adventures involving chivalry,
history and legend. Knights in shining armor rode
off to fight fierce dragons and awful villains. Often
they fought for God or for a fair lady (or both). The
best romantic heroes always strove to live for something more powerful than themselves, submitting to
Providence and to miracles alike.
Farmers on tractors might seem a far cry from
armor-clad champions of old. But all farmers to
some degree share purpose with their romantic
forbearers. They set out in faith to toil and strive,
despite great hardship or sacrifice, because the
reward is great. In our materialistic age, we too often
think of reward as having to do only with money.
And certainly farming can bring material riches,

just as knighthood could bring wealth. But all
farmers - and all knights - know there are many,
many other ways to turn a profit in this world that
are much less risky and dangerous to property and
person alike. Yet they continue to submit to great
risks and dangers to attempt miracles - growing
and raising living things in a world which does not
guarantee life.
In an earlier age, Elmer would have mourned
the loss of a trusted horse or horses, either from
age or incapacity or death. In an age of machinery,
though, his trusty ride in the form of the M was
outlasting his stamina. I think at the auction, Elmer
understood, at a very visceral level, that the M signified his worth as a man, that it was valuable not
just for its reliability and strength, but for how it
represented him, Elmer, to be a reliable and strong
man. And it must have been a humbling moment
for Elmer, trying to articulate that worth before a
crowd of his friends and neighbors, in a community
bound by common livelihoods steeped in honor and
fortitude. This worth is not often aired like laundry
for all to see. It is a matter of the heart and soul.
And this is the romanticism of Elmer and his old
tractor, the M. Yes, this is my heroic, misty-eyed
view of my gentle great-grandfather. But I'd venture
a guess that all farmers and those who love them
share the same romantic views, even if they never
talk about them. You can glimpse it, though, as a
man crouches and caresses and runs his fingers
through the soil. And you can see it as he patiently
polishes and admires an old tractor.
Farmers understand tractors are emblems, tangible reminders of their dedication to an honorable,
often desperate, often miraculous livelihood. "He
loved that tractor," my mother has told me. Yes,
he did. And he loved more than that. He loved his
family, his livelihood, his life. And in a strange but
beautiful act of witness, you could see it when you
saw him with his tractor. I, my husband and our
children can see it, too, every time we see a red tractor, or even a green one, plowing in the fields.
Olson is a freelance writer whose articles have
appeared in national periodicals and blogs. Born in
Missouri, she now resides in Casper, Wyoming. This
story was first published published in the Pipestone
County Star.



Rural Missouri - January 2019

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