People

A Tractor Needs A Driver

  • By Leah Hughes
  • Photography by Lissa Gotwals and Bert Vanderveen

When a farmer takes a seat on a tractor, he makes a connection. It’s a strong bond that he will one day pass down.

Al-Clapp,-Siler-City-North-Carolina

It’s hay time in the Piedmont. And a cloud’s coming. In late spring, the humidity starts to creep up as the sun starts to sink down. Every day the forecast includes a chance of thunderstorms. And this afternoon a black cloud hangs behind the rolling foothills of Randolph County and threatens to soak 400 square bales. It gets darker by the minute.

The farmer waited all season to cut this crop of fescue. It’s his best, full of orchard grass and crimson clover. It’ll look good in the barn loft next January when there’s snow on the ground.

But it can’t get wet.

He planned as well as he could. He watched the weatherman give the forecast in the morning and the evening. And he picked the best three days he saw on the five-day outlook. One day to mow it; one day to scatter it; and one day to rake it, bale it, and haul it. He’s two-thirds of the way there, but now he questions his decision.

A farmer can’t question the past. He has to move on.

His tractor is ready. It’s a 1988 Ford 3910 model with royal blue paint underneath the dust. It’s already pulled a hay rake and a square baler through the field this afternoon. The tractor never tires. Now the farmer hooks it to a hay trailer. He built that trailer with his father. It doesn’t look like much — a double axle; a rough, wooden floor; and a couple of rickety standards to stack the hay against. It gets the job done though.

But the farmer needs a driver.

Hauling square bales requires help — someone to drive; someone to stack; and ideally, several to throw on. But today it’s just the farmer and his brother. The farmer doesn’t have any sons, just two young daughters. The oldest is 7. Is that old enough? he wonders. She’s smart. And she listens. And that cloud’s coming.

He puts her in the seat.

“Just steer it between the rows of bales,” he tells her. “And if anything happens, just pull the red button. That’ll cut it off.”

The little girl is scared. The tractor is big and loud with lots of gears and levers and gauges that she doesn’t understand. But she’s proud that her daddy chose her.

The seat of a tractor is a powerful place.

•••

The relationship between a farmer and a tractor is as close as any. Workers in all kinds of trades develop a connection with their tools. A cook has his knife. A carpenter has his hammer.

Before the tractor, the farmer depended on his mules. In 1910, the average American farm had three to four mules or horses. As farms started growing, farmers needed a way to cover more ground more quickly. First they turned to steam tractors, but those engines were big and bulky and difficult to maneuver. The first commercial, gasoline-powered tractors came out around the turn of the century. By 1950, those machines had replaced horses and mules as the power behind American farming.

With those tractors came a flood of new tractor companies that branded their products with signature colors. The Farmall was red. The John Deere, green. The Ford, blue.

Farmers are loyal people. When they get behind a brand, they stick with it. As farmers purchased their first tractors, they branded their farms and their families with the color they chose. Every farmer knew his neighbor’s preference. Sometimes they agreed; sometimes they argued.

In the mid-1900s, tractor dealerships popped up across North Carolina, much like car dealerships today. Most counties had three or four or five. Those dealerships became places to do business. But they also became places to gather and talk about the changes in farming, the status of the crops, and of course the weather.

•••

“Sorry about the wait,” the sign hanging behind the counter reads. “11:30 to 1:30, lunch hours.”

A line of farmers forms at the parts counter inside Clapp Brothers Tractor & Implement in downtown Siler City. Farmers are impatient people. They always have more to do than they can get done. And every minute they wait in this line is one minute’s worth of land they won’t get covered today, with the baler, or the rotary cutter, or the planter — whatever decided to break down this morning.

Joe Langley doesn’t take a long lunch. He can’t.

Most farmers in that line want to see him. Four other people work in the parts department, but they want Langley. Next March will mark Langley’s 50th year standing on this concrete floor behind a metal counter, offering help to farmers in need.

Someone brings in a tire off a tedder rake, a piece of equipment used to scatter hay. Langley doesn’t have a new tire, but he sends him to the tire place across the street.

Someone else needs a float for an 89. Langley’s got it.

“Hey Joe,” another says. “I’ve got a TC40 tractor with two springs under the seat. I need one of ’em.” Langley has that, too.

The farmers talk in a code of letters and numbers and dimensions. And they expect Langley to know what they want. He does, even when they don’t.

“Do you have a radiator cap for a Super A?” one farmer asks Langley.

“Now there’s two,” Langley says. “One on the inside, and one on the outside.” He draws the radiator in the air with his hands to show the difference.

That was an easy one. Langley has two Farmall Super A models of his own. He lives 10 minutes away in Staley, on a farm near the farm where he grew up. Langley believes in sticking with what you know, whether that’s a piece of land or a job or a tractor.

He bought his first tractor in 1970, one of those Super A’s that still sits in his barn. He got this job in 1961. He only worked elsewhere for two years, for the U.S. Army when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. He was thankful to get back to a familiar piece of land and a familiar place to work. After Vietnam, Langley can handle a few disgruntled farmers.

He understands them. His father was a dairy farmer, and Langley raised tobacco for 35 years. When it comes time to harvest, farmers get impatient. They have to work around the weather. When a farmer mows a field of hay, he depends on his equipment. He needs it to run, and run right. So Langley gets him what he needs — blades for the mowing machine, grease fittings for the hay rake, twine for the baler.

Langley is 70 years old and clean-cut. He wears a collared shirt and carries a comb in his breast pocket. He’s efficient at his job. He plugs model numbers into the computer, typing only with his right index finger. He disappears into the back room and emerges in minutes with the right part. Not many things fluster Langley, but those who know him know one thing will.

“Joe, when are you gonna get a green tractor on that farm?” a customer asks with a wink.

“We ain’t never had no green ones,” Langley says. Everyone knows Langleys run red.

Langley’s father purchased his first tractor from this store in 1942 — a brand new Farmall model H. That tractor replaced the horse in the Langley tobacco field.

Joe restored his father’s tractor 12 years ago. Its shiny, red sheet metal is slicker now than when it came from the factory. Langley doesn’t use the H to work anymore. He quit farming tobacco in 2004 when the government offered to buy him out. He tends a small garden, but the H is too big for that task. Langley won’t sell it, though. He learned to drive in that seat.

•••

Al Clapp is in a jam. The farmer who just bragged on the Clapp Brothers dealership last week for repairing his baler is having trouble with it again. He needs somebody to fix it. And another man in Snow Camp wants his rotary cutter delivered. Clapp chooses the baler first. Hay’s got to be baled now, he says. The weeds can be cut tomorrow.

“That’s what you run into,” he says. “Balancing.”

Clapp will deliver the rotary cutter to Snow Camp this afternoon. Then he’ll take a round baler to Erect and haul a tractor to McLeansville. He told his wife to expect him home about 10 tonight.

In this area, when people say Clapp, they think farm equipment. It works the other way, too. Mention farm equipment around here, and somebody will send you to Clapp Brothers. Tractors have anchored the corner of North Second Avenue and East Second Street in downtown Siler City since 1937. Clapp Brothers is one of the oldest farm equipment dealerships in North Carolina. The original building sits across the street, but the business moved over here in 1944. They needed more room.

The first tractors began showing up in the Piedmont in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Many of them were red Farmalls. And many came from Clapp Brothers. Today, the dealership sells red and a few blue. But still no green.

Al Clapp, 51, remembers the first tractor seat he climbed up in, his grandfather’s Farmall model M. It came from this store in 1949. And it still sits in the barn on the Clapp farm just three miles north of here. Al doesn’t farm with the M anymore. He owns several tractors that he no longer works with. He keeps his father’s tractors there in the barn, too. When his dad died in February 2006, the same month Al signed the paperwork to put the dealership in his name and keep the business in the family, several people asked Al what he was going to do with his father’s tractors.

“I think they knew the answer before they asked me,” he says. “They’ll be passed down.”

Just like the Clapp business.

Al’s father, Ed, started working here in the 1950s and assumed ownership in the ’70s. He knew every customer within 60 miles. When a farmer bought a piece of equipment from Ed, he could expect a visit. Ed made personal deliveries and often stuck around to watch the new piece of equipment work. In 1988, he sold a new blue tractor, a Ford 3910 model, to a new father who lived in Randolph County, one county west. Two years later, Ed sold him a square baler and sat on his front porch for a while to watch it churn out a few bales. Farmers are a close group. Ed knew that if he pleased one farmer, that farmer would tell all of his neighbors what good service he received.

But that generation of farmers is aging out.

When Al took over the business, he had customers buy from him just because he’s Ed’s son, just because his last name is Clapp. His father left him a good reputation.

“I’ll probably never be as good as he was, but I’ll be close,” Al says.

Al faces a different type of customer than his father faced. The new generation of farmers might still care about their fathers’ tractors and dream of the day they’ll put their children in the same seat. But when it comes to buying something to work with, they don’t pay as much attention to the family name on the front of the dealership or the commitment to service that that name promises. They don’t even care about the color of the paint. And ever since tractors have been around, farmers have always cared about that.

The brand loyalty that was strong enough to provoke fights between Joe Langley and Ed Clapp’s generation is fading. Farmers no longer purchase red or green or blue. They purchase the tractor with the most horsepower or the planter that covers the most rows. Whatever brand offers the best features to help them maximize their profit, to get the most out of their land, that’s the one the farmers want now. And they travel to get it. They search the Internet. They drive hundreds of miles. Al Clapp isn’t competing with other dealerships in Chatham County. He’s competing with dealerships all over the East Coast.

Tractors have become luxury items, offices on wheels. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have cabs, so farmers don’t get hot. Computers so farmers aren’t disconnected. People once farmed to be close to the land. But how can you feel connected to the land when you’re in a climate-controlled box?

One thing is still the same, though. Every tractor that leaves Clapp Brothers Tractor & Implement in Siler City still has a seat.

•••

Farmers rarely take vacation, especially in the busy summertime, just before the harvest. But every year around the Fourth of July, they gather in Denton for the Southeast Old Threshers’ Reunion, a festival that celebrates farming. Joe Langley comes from Staley. Al Clapp comes from Siler City.

Clapp stands beside the booth for his business with a brand new, blue tractor. It has a plastic hood and an air-conditioned cab. Clapp tries to sell something new. But most farmers come here to celebrate the old.

Brown Loflin and his family run this reunion dedicated to showcasing farming’s past. By appreciating where you’ve been, they believe, you’re more likely to be successful in where you’re headed.

Loflin started the Threshers’ Reunion in 1970 as a way to raise money for the local rescue squad. Back then, the event was called the Fly-In. He and his friend owned a plane, so they purchased this land, built a runway, and offered airplane rides for donations. People lined up to take a ride.

Loflin needed something to entertain people while they waited, so he purchased some old wheat-thrashing equipment and set it up. Wheat thrashings used to be a big deal in the early 1900s. Farmers went from farm to farm to help their neighbors harvest wheat. And the ladies prepared a big meal. When combines started showing up in the Piedmont in the late 1920s and ’30s, wheat thrashings dwindled.

Combines provided a more efficient way to harvest the wheat. The farmer could do it by himself. He didn’t need as many neighbors or children to help. For all the good efficiency brings, it also has its consequences. Wheat thrashings provided a chance for the community to gather. Men laughed while they worked, and women conversed in the kitchen. Thrashing wheat was hard, but it was never lonely.

Loflin thought people might miss that togetherness. And he was right.

The Threshers’ Reunion has grown from one airplane and one thrashing machine to 150 acres’ worth of old equipment and demonstrations. At age 77, Loflin no longer offers airplane rides. He doesn’t need to. The diversion has become the attraction. People line up for train rides on the coal-powered locomotive, plowing demonstrations with an old steam engine, and cotton ginning with a team of horses. They don’t question the past. They celebrate it.

Loflin owns a lot of the equipment, but people bring their own heirlooms to show. Last July, 1,016 antique tractors were on display. And about 15,000 people came through to look and talk.

Every day during the reunion, at 4 in the afternoon, the Parade of Power takes place. Fathers and grandfathers crank their tractors and get in line. They smile as they ride through and wave to the people who admire their work. Only one thing makes them happier.

•••

The proudest moment of a farmer’s life comes when he steps off the tractor and places his son or daughter in his seat. It may come out of celebration at a festival or parade. Or it may come out of necessity in a field full of hay.

Seventeen years ago, my father put me in the seat of his tractor. It was hay time in the Piedmont, a cloud was coming, and he needed a driver. I was only 7, but I was proud that he chose me. I could feel how important that moment was even though I didn’t fully understand why.

When a farmer puts his child in his tractor seat, he can’t make her feel what he feels when he sits up there. But with everything in him, he hopes she will. He knows that one day the future of his farm and the future of his land will depend on her decision. He can’t make her carry on this tradition, but he can’t continue forever. One day he will have to move on.

I realize now the weight of my father’s decision. He wasn’t just teaching me to drive. He was nurturing a connection, between me and him and this piece of land and this way of life. And he started the same way other farmers have for generations: He hoisted me up and put me in his seat.

Clapp Brothers Tractor & Implement
202 North Second Avenue
Siler City, N.C. 27344
(919) 742-3737
clapptractor.com

Denton FarmPark
1072 Cranford Road
Denton, N.C. 27239
(336) 859-2755
farmpark.com
The next Southeast Old Treshers’ Reunion will take place July 2-6, 2013. The next event at the Denton FarmPark is the Country Christmas Train, which takes place in November and December. For dates, times, and ticket prices, call or visit the website.

Leah Hughes is an associate editor at Our State magazine and the daughter of a Randolph County farmer. Her most recent story was “The Carolina Inn” (August 2012).

This entry was posted in Central N.C., Nature & Agriculture, October 2012, Piedmont and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Tractor Needs A Driver

  1. Cathy Judge says:

    Loved the article on tractors. I was fortunate to have lived on the Clapp family farm for a few years and they were the happiest years of my life. Ed and Eleanor Clapp were fine people and friends. To watch Ed climb up on his tractor and get on with his task was a sight to behold. He not only passed the love of the farm down to his son but also to his grandson, Carson. Carson’s first words were uttered in response to Granddaddy’s question, “What’s the best tractor?” Carson’s answer, with a grin on his face, was “IH.” Your article brought back many fond memories and I thank you.

  2. Rick Wells says:

    Enjoyed the story on tractors. What also got my attention was the picture of the 1953-54 John Deere. I have one just like it that was my first tractor. I would like to fix it up a bit and get more info about it. Would like to get information on who owns the pictured tractor or someone that might have information about it. Again, the article really hit home.

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