Volume 22, Number 128, August/September 2019 Characters I Have Known by Ed Janzen
The first character I want to write about is Mr. August Dyck. I was fifteen and fancy free in summer. Mr. August Dyck asked me if I would like to work on his farm during July and August. Of course I would. Since Mr. Dyck was a grain farmer there were no animals to look after. Only tractor and truck work. This suited me just fine.
Ploughing Summer Fallow
The first lesson was to drive the tractor ploughing summer fallow. In those days there was no weed killer which later (and still today) was used to kill weeds. Instead the farmer every three or four years chose to “rest” the field and use that time to cultivate the soil deeply and keep it black. Thus hopefully to get rid of weeds for at least a year or two. I should add I grew up in the so-called Red River valley in Manitoba where the soil is black, black, black, and extremely fertile. There are no stones. But the soil is sticky. After a rain it was smart to stay home since the dirt roads would certainly do you in!
That first summer Mr. Dyck had one tractor, a Massey Harris in red with yellow wheels. I learned to love that tractor. It purred hour after hour without fail steadily pulling any implement you might hook up behind it. It had a starter just like a car and running lights. You had to select a gear right at the outset since you could not shift the transmission on the go. It lacked a gas gauge however so you had to guess when to refuel. Since the manufacturer had already decided what the best running rpm (revolutions per minute) was, all you had to do was move the hand throttle all the way to the stop and leave it there. There was a foot clutch to get started. But after that you could stand up or sit down as you pleased to steer the machine. The seat was still the old fashioned flat steel bowl with holes for ventilation in the shape of your butt. Incidentally these tractor seats are now collectible and will bring at least $50 a piece. Old tractor seats with the name of the tractor embedded in the steel will run even higher. The hitch was a simple draw bar with a sizable hole in it. You backed up the tractor so that the implement coupler in the shape of an inverted “U” would slip over the draw bar hole. Now you’d press down on the tractor brake and lock it into place. If you were skilled enough, the huge pin always brought along for this purpose should slip into the hole of the tractor hitch and the implement coupler. No hydraulic assistance in those days.
So Mr. Dyck asked me to come along to the field which he wanted ploughed for summer fallow. He had already begun. The tractor was hooked up to the plough. He showed me how to start the Massey. There was a key and a foot starter. With a slight gas lever setting the engine roared to life. Not too loud since it ran with a muffler on the exhaust pipe sticking straight up out of the engine. He said he had set the depth of the plough already which for his liking was as deep as possible. Mr. Dyck liked to plough deep and he loved to see the entire field black. Black as night. Since the Massey was a tractor with only modest power, he had to be happy with a three shear plough. The tractor could not have pulled a four shear plough at the depth he wanted except maybe in first gear. But that would be slow, very slow and Mr. Dyck had only a certain amount of patience. Everything is a compromise I learned. A three shear plow would not cut as much soil but you could go faster in second gear. I guess a mathematician could figure out which way the field would get done sooner but we were not mathematicians. The feeling that work was getting done sooner because we were moving faster won the day!
So Mr. Dyck left me to my own devices and drove home. Oh yes. Corners. How do you do corners? I was told you cannot turn right angle corners with the plough shears inserted in the soil. The plough will resist mightily any attempt to turn sharply. Even a turn to the right would not work. The plough would control the tractor to go straight. A turn to the left would be even more impossible. If tried probably something would break on the implement. In ploughing, if you can imagine, the plough has to turn over the soil from left to right. The resistance to this effort puts a strain on the tractor which you have to control. Ploughing will want to turn the tractor to the right. So slight right turns in a long “ess” shape direction will work just fine as long as the right turn is not too sharp but left turns are impossible for this reason.
So how do you do a corner properly with an old style plough? You have to lift the shears out of the ground, make the 360 degree turn and come back into the groove while dropping the shears into the ground again. This Mr. Dyck did himself for me to show how it’s done. He had me stand beside the driver’s seat leaning my back against the fender and holding on. He said emphatically, “Don’t stand on the hitch. If you fall, you would be hurt terribly! The plough would run over you.” (Note this instruction because there will be a reference to this later.)
So how do you lift the shears out of the ground? There is a lever sticking straight up on the plough that is connected to a cog wheel which engages another cog wheel turning with the support wheel. If you click these two cog wheels together the running plough support wheel will lift the shears out of the ground. Later if you pull again on this lever it will disengage and the shears will drop down on their own weight and start ploughing. This will take practice, Mr. Dyck said, but better go slow the first time since there are lot of things to do at the same time. By the way the lever is too far way back to reach while driving so a rope is connected to the top of the lever and hooked to the back of the seat. You need to grab this rope and pull just before making the turn. Don’t fall off the seat while you do this because the tractor will keep on going since you won’t be able to reach the clutch with your foot. When you are done with the field, you come back and do the corners separately ploughing diagonally to the centre.
So my ploughing days started. But every once in a while it was good to check the fuel. This tractor used gasoline. Fuel had to be checked with a clean yard stick inserted into the tank. Already prepared Mr. Dyck had dropped off a big 50 gallon barrel of fuel near to the last ploughed area. These were steel barrels with two openings on the top. One was to release pressure on the fuel if it was a hot day and the other was to pump out fuel. The closer cap was not turnable by hand when screwed in tightly. You needed to use a hammer and pound gently on the six-sided edge until the cap turned. Then you could turn it by hand. Note the cap was an aluminum alloy, not steel that might create a spark when you hammered the edge. Now you inserted a simple hand pump pipe fitted with a crank device attached to a pump. The rubber end of the device was inserted into the tractor gas tank opening and when cranked the pump would transfer gas from the barrel to the tractor. Of course you had to watch so you didn’t overfill the tractor tank. The engine would be off so no spark should cause a fire. If after ploughing the field far away from the gas barrel, you needed to learn how to roll the gas barrel on its side to the tractor. Never did you lift the plow and run over the ploughed field to reach the barrel. That would be uncool.
Mr. Dyck taught me all this in few words. He chose rather to show me how to do things. Not yell at me if I made a mistake. I don’t remember him ever saying much. Obviously he expected me to watch and remember.
Those were really pleasant hours. You learn to appreciate the significance of a machine like a tractor and plough. Whereas only hours were needed to accomplish a 100 acre field it would take months to do it by hand. That benefit of the Industrial Age had to be appreciated. My Dad saw how I fell in love with the performance of a tractor but my mother never did. She complained that Mr. Dyck was working me too hard. Yes, there were sometimes long hours but it was understood that if the job had to be done, it had to be done. Mr. Dyck hated unfinished work. Stay with it until the work is completed. This was his “Mantra” without saying so. I believe this has stayed with me until this day.
Cultivating Summer Fallow
Not long after the ploughing was done and early summer rains began, the summer fallow fields would begin to show weeds. Time to get out the cultivator. The cultivator of those days was a machine with small shears themselves built symmetrically in a V shape attached to a large spring arced arm. The cultivator had as many of these in rows as the tractor could pull when the shears were allowed to burrow in the ground. Again, like the plough, there was a lever to pull with a rope attached to the seat which could lift the shears out of the soil with the assistance of the cog wheel attached to the support wheel. This time we would take a different approach to the job. We would use diagonal directions not circular as we had used with the plough. Where particularly bad spots were growing thistles we would go over that place again and again in repetition. The low spots were the worst. Water from somewhere would bring in weed seeds and the ground would be rich with unwanted greenery. Of course Mr. Dyck would work again and again at improving drainage so rain water should go elsewhere.
Now if the wet spots were growing weeds it was tempting to drive right in and eradicate the plants. But with the cultivator in full trim of course it was hard to pull. In the wet spot the tractor would begin to spin and easily get stuck. Mr. Dyck anticipated that that might happen to me. He said, “If you get stuck, don’t sit there and spin. You’ll never get out. What you do is unhook the cultivator, drive out onto dry ground, attach a long chain and pull the cultivator out by chain all the way to dry ground. Then hook up again and stay away from that wet spot. We’ll get it next time when it’s dry.” Good advice as it turned out. And yes it happened to me once. But only once. I learned my lesson. We cultivated a lot. Mr. Dyck loved black summer fallow.
Now permit me to advance to today’s farming methods. You don’t always see beautiful black fields anymore. Indeed I asked my niece’s husband, “When are you going to plough summer fallow this summer?” He replied that farmers don’t do that anymore. In fact I saw him simply put the cultivator to the harvested fields right after the crop has been taken off. This leaves an ugly stubble partly buried in the soil to be left over winter. He claimed the stubble is good for the ground since it decomposes to furnish roughage for the next growing season! I said it didn’t looked good. It’s not pleasing to the eye.
Mr. John P. Dyck
Before I continue I have to bring in Mr. John P. Dyck, August Dyck’s brother. The community called him J.P. to distinguish him from August. J.P. was older than August by how much I did not know. He was a teacher who taught at the Hutterite colony near the Assiniboine River. He also served as preacher occasionally. These men had a very strong-willed mother but there was no news about a father. In summer teachers had two months free.
One year August asked me to come along to help J.P with weeding sugar beets. What? This was something new to me. We arrived at a small field where J.P. was driving a Fordson tractor outfitted with a small cultivator out back. His daughters were bent over pulling weeds inside the rows of plants that were apparently young sugar beets. The field belonged to a Mr. Harder and J.P. had rented the plot. The Ford got the weeds between the rows but someone had to pull the weeds by hand in the rows. August I could tell was not pleased and for sure not inclined to bend down and pull weeds. We left as soon as possible before the dew descended in the evening. Mr. Dyck was a very competitive man in a quiet way. In the evening he would climb up on the highest point of the combine and look around to see if other farmers’ lights were on and the combines still running. If they were, we would keep on threshing. He wanted to be the last to quit for the night. Of course it was the dew that shut us down because the combine does not do a complete job of threshing if the grain is damp.
Once threshing started you had to find a place to haul the grain to. Mr.Dyck had a few small granaries at the back of his yard. They were neat little houses with no windows and one door facing away from the house. These I had full in no time using Mr. Dyck’s 1953 Chevrolet 2-ton truck. I even crawled up into the attic and by hand scoop-shoveled in grain right to the roof. But as the summer moved into hot August days ideal for threshing we could not keep up. Even J.P. appeared, perhaps sent by his mother. August had him operating the swather pulled by the tractor.
As more grain was harvested a wagon was towed onto the field and left for August to fill directly from the combine. I would use an auger to transfer the grain into the box of the Chev and run a full load to the elevator on the edge of Winnipeg. Using an auger takes strict care because if the spiraling plate catches your pant leg it can break an ankle or cut up your shin bone. The auger is connected to the power-take-off of the truck while the truck stands and idles. It was considered quite an elegant tool in those days.
I loved that truck. It hummed like a car and could really speed. I got my first speeding ticket driving that truck home from the elevator one evening. But that’s another story. I asked Mr. Dyck how fast I should drive. He said: “Just keep up with the combine.” So I did.
One day I’m just back from a trip with a load to the elevator when Mr. Dyck says, “Go see why that swather isn’t moving. J.P. can drive the truck. You swath.” Mr. August Dyck just couldn’t stand seeing the swather not cutting grain. Time was of the essence since the crop had to be moved off the field before the fall rains began.
So I drove over to where the swather was. I wondered how I should approach this problem. I was just a kid compared to Mr. J.P. Would he be angry at me since August his brother had sent me? What should I say? I approached quietly and let him open the conversation.
“Oh Ed. I’m so glad you have come. I don’t know how to keep this thing from plugging up. It just doesn’t run right for me.” He was almost in tears.
I had a look. Everything seemed correct and proper. J.P. had already spent an hour pulling stalks of grain out from every corner of the traveling canvas and it looked ready to go. He just didn’t have the confidence to start it up again. So I did slowly and gently. It worked fine.
“I’m supposed to run the swather,” I said. “Do you mind?”
“Oh no. Definitely not. Please do. It doesn’t like me.”
So off I went. I could see the swathes had been cut crookedly and I set about straightening them out. The grain was very heavy in spots and I imagined J.P. might not have slowed down to compensate. Obviously he was not mechanically inclined. Later Mr. August Dyck complimented me by saying, “I can always tell when you start driving the swather.”
We worked together in this way summer after summer. The Massey Harris was traded for a John Deere Model G the next summer. Then came the John Deere Model R, the first diesel tractor in our community. I consider Mr. August Dyck one of my most important early mentors along with my father and my high school teacher. People loved to gossip about Mr. Dyck’s aloofness and ambition. I agree he was goal oriented. He treated farming as a business. He was not enamored with plants as such. He did not grow flowers or tend a home garden. His family did not have pets such as a dog or cat.
However he looked after his machinery well, generously greasing every nipple attached to a moving part every day after work, changed the oil on engines and stored equipment in orderly fashion over winter. He bought new equipment if possible and worked the fields in the right season. He was never late as far as I knew. Of course he expected me not to be late either. I recall he had a three-bay garage at the end of his driveway at the back of the yard. One bay was for his car, always a brand new model, one bay was for tools and space to work, all very neatly put away, and one bay was for his tractor. Who ever heard of a garage bay for the tractor? The tractor always seemed clean when I picked it up. Did he wash his tractor? I never saw him but it must have been so.
As time went on I went to school, got degrees and took positions in teaching, research and administration. I lost track of the community where I grew up only going back to see my parents’ grave stone but never meeting anyone, let alone Mr. August Dyck. Finally I heard Mr. Dyck died of a farming accident. The story was his son was driving the tractor and he, Mr. August Dyck, was standing on the hitch behind the driver’s seat. He had fallen off the hitch and the implement had run over him!