Chapter One – Grandpa’s Gift
by Brent Mathson
It had sat for nearly thirty years in my dad’s storage shed; unused since his death in 1991. The “it” in this case happened to be an old beat up model B Allis Chalmers tractor that had rolled off the assembly line in 1938. Being of that vintage, the tractor lacked any electrical system other than the magneto that provided the spark to the plugs to make the engine run. The engine put out an unimpressive twenty horse power and for that reason its work on the farm had consisted primarily of pulling hay wagons and powering the elevators. It performed these functions exceedingly well until its services were no longer required when the farming operations came to a halt at my dad’s passing. Overtime, the mice seemed to take a fancy to the forlorn tractor, and their numerous nests amplified the belief that the little Allis would never run again.
In time, as is the case with most storage sheds, this particular shed became overcrowded to the point where it was nearly impossible to maneuver safely inside it. Some things had to go, and the little Allis was at the top of the list. As a plan was being formulated as to the best way to get rid of the tractor, memories of that little Allis putt-putted into my mind and once there, would not leave. Those memories emphasized the fact that this tractor had a history, and based on that history, this tractor wasn’t going anywhere. This tractor had once been one of my Grandpa Lee’s prized possessions, and as such, it held a special place in my heart.
My Grandpa Lee had a great influence on my life, and I think of him often, even today, over forty years since his passing. I wrote about some of my experiences with him in a prior section of my book. He was a mechanic and passed some of his skills on to me, which I am grateful for and am still using to this day. Grandpa loved his grandkids. He loved fixing old cars, and refurbishing firearms and Grandpa loved his garden.
Grandpa Lee lived in a small house on over two acres of land located in the city of Blair, Wisconsin. His huge lot made him one of the largest landowners in the entire city, and he used his land to fulfill his passion for gardening. He grew strawberries, tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, green beans, potatoes, and melons. I can still picture him and my grandmother tending their garden. There was a giant soft maple tree next to that garden with several lawn chairs spaced under its shade. When the sun was too hot to be out in the garden, Grandpa and Grandma would retire to the shade and drink lemonade. As the years passed the garden grew in size and Grandpa bought a walk-behind-cultivator to help keep the weeds in control. During World War I Grandpa had suffered a knee injury which seemed to grow worse with age and eventually tending the garden, even with the aid of his mechanized cultivator, proved to be too taxing on his knee. The logical solution would have been to grow a much smaller garden because he and Grandma couldn’t begin to use all the produce they grew. Most was given away to their friends and neighbors in the city. Now Grandpa couldn’t consider the thought of diminishing his garden, so he went to the next logical solution-he bought a tractor with a plow and a cultivator. He fondly called the tractor his little Allis.
The next year, with the help of his Allis Chalmers B tractor, Grandpa’s garden was even bigger. In my memories, I still see Grandma hoeing her strawberries while Grandpa proudly cultivates the large field of corn with his tractor. The tradition continued for several years until advancing age and health problems proved that even the most favored of traditions will one day come to an end. One day Grandma and Grandpa were too worn out to go into their garden. One day the little Allis Chalmers quit running, and Grandpa Lee, master mechanic that he was, couldn’t muster up the energy to fix it. The little Allis sat under the shade of the maple tree.
I remember sitting under that tree next to the tractor talking with Grandpa one day. I was a sophomore in high school and sixteen years old at the time. Our conversation turned to the tractor, and I asked Grandpa why he didn’t get it running again.
“It’s old and wore out just like me,” He replied. “I don’t have a garden anymore, and the tractor just isn’t worth fixing.”
I could see his sad face, and I knew how much he had loved that tractor. It made me sad to sit there and realize that my grandpa was getting old and that he was no longer able to do some of the things that he loved to do. I loved my grandpa and wanted to raise his spirits. “I could fix it for you,” I offered hesitantly, realizing that with my limited mechanical skills such an offer was ridiculous. His answer surprised me.
“You get your dad to help you tow that tractor to your home and it’s yours. If you get it running, fine. If you don’t, maybe you’ll at least learn something about tractors.”
And that’s how I became the proud owner of a 1938 Allis Chalmers model B. Why my dad drove the three miles to town on his Ford Jubilee and helped me tow the Allis back to the farm is a question I have never found the answer for, but I’m thankful that he did. My first experience at attempting to restore a supposed piece of junk probably inspired my eventual passion for restoring old vehicles, and the skills that I acquired in pursuing that passion have served me well thus far in my life. Despite being responsible for planting the seed of mechanical knowledge, that first major repair experience wasn’t all that successful.
Grandpa had told me that everything on the tractor had been working fine until the engine quit, and he couldn’t get it to run again. This provided me some hope because I had learned the basic operation of the gasoline engine from a course I had taken at my high school. I knew absolutely nothing about brakes and transmissions so the fact that they had been working properly when the engine stopped running meant that I could disregard them for the moment. The engine would be my primary focus in bringing the little Allis back to life. I figured that I should get a good look at the engine’s working parts, so I drained the oil and dropped the oil pan. There were no broken parts lying in the pan so that was definitely a good sign. The bottom ends of the connecting rods were very accessible, so I removed the caps and shims recalling a very important lesson that Grandpa had taught me.
As a young boy I had looked forward to visits with Grandpa when the two of us would sit on his couch, and he would tell me of his life experiences. He was a World War I vet and when he recounted his war experiences it made me sad because Grandpa had truly suffered during the war and carried wounds that would trouble him his entire life. I liked to hear his stories about his job as a maintenance man at the dairy plant because he was a master mechanic, and I liked to learn how to fix things. He explained that his job required him to work on complicated machines that he had no plans for. He had to take them apart to find the problem, then fix the problem, and finally put everything back together so it worked. Grandpa had stressed the fact, so emphatically that it was firmly imprinted in my brain, that when you take something apart, you lay all the parts out in the proper order so that you would know how they went back together.
This was the lesson I remembered as the rod caps were removed. Each cap was numbered and laid out on a board with its corresponding bearing and shims in the position that they would be reinstalled. As I removed each assembly, I examined the bearing surface. Bearings one, three, and four looked fine and they felt fine. I hadn’t yet discovered plastigauge to check clearances, so my visual inspection would have to do. Bearing number two troubled me. Its surface was scratched and irregularly worn. The second journal on the crankshaft had similar wear marks. Lying on my back, staring into the innards of the engine, I knew that there was no way that I could take out that crankshaft and properly repair it, so I did the best I could do. I got some emery cloth and went to work polishing the bearing and the journal until they appeared acceptable and felt smooth to the touch. Satisfied that I had done all that I could do with my limited experience, I put everything back together, and I thankfully didn’t have any extra parts.
Feeling a little uneasy about my attempted repair of the engine’s internals, I moved on to the parts that I was more familiar with. Spark plugs were a snap. I just screwed them out, cleaned the tips, and set the gaps. Before screwing them back in, I wanted to be sure that they were sparking, so one at a time, I hooked them up to the magneto and cranked the engine with the hand crank. With each spark, the smile on my face got a little bigger. I reinstalled the plugs and cranked the engine once more. It didn’t start, but I had compression, and I had spark. If I could get fuel to the engine, maybe, just maybe, it might start.
The carburetor didn’t look much more complicated than the lawn mower carburetors I had worked on in my small engines class, so I took it off, disassembled it, and laid out the parts just the way that Grandpa had taught me to. I cleaned everything with some gas and then blew out the passageways with an old tire pump that I found in the shed. It went back together just as easily as it had come apart. I blew out the gas line and then bolted the carburetor back to the manifold.
The sediment bowl looked like it was filled with crud, so I drained the gas tank and then removed the sediment bowl assembly. It was pretty simple compared to the carburetor, and I had it cleaned and reinstalled in less than an hour. I was about to pour some fresh gas into the tank when I spotted my dad driving his Jubilee in from the field. I poured a gallon of gas into the tank and decided to wait for him before I tried to start the tractor. When he was beside me by the Allis, I explained everything that I had done and then grabbed the crank. Before I could give it a tug, Dad raised his arm to stop me and then walked to the other side of the tractor and pulled the dipstick. A sickening feeling came over me when he held up the dipstick. I had been so involved in getting the parts cleaned and put together that I had forgot to put in the oil.
“Won’t go far without oil,” Dad simply stated and then went to the shed and returned with four quarts of oil. I was too embarrassed to say anything, so I silently watched him pour the oil into the engine. “Sometimes we get so busy with the complicated things that we forget the simple things,” he said and then smiled at me. I was still too embarrassed to answer, so I grabbed the crank and gave it a pull. I pulled on it for several minutes with no results, so Dad flipped the choke closed and opened the throttle a bit. When he gave me nod, I pulled hard on the crank and the engine sputtered. Dad opened the choke a bit and gave me another nod. The engine sputtered again but kept running. Grandpa’s tractor was running. “Jump in the seat and see if it’ll drive,” Dad said, and in a flash I was in the seat with my foot on the clutch pedal. I pushed the shifter into first and let out the clutch. The tractor jerked forward. My joy was complete. I was driving Grandpa’s tractor. I went around the barn and then back to the machine shed. When I pulled on the hand brakes, the tractor stopped.
Dad let me sit on the tractor for a few moments, reveling in my joy, before he grounded out the magneto and stopped the tractor. When I jumped off the seat, he patted my back. “Well you got her going,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think this old tractor would ever run again, but you got her going. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the engine has a terrible knock. I was a little worried when you told me about the work you did on the crank journal. Normally when you have a bad crank journal, the engine has to be disassembled, and you take the crankshaft to a shop and have it ground to new specs.”
“I was devastated. “You mean after all of my work we can’t use the tractor?”
“Oh, you can drive it around a bit, but the problem will just get worse, and you’ll be doing more damage to the engine. I think the best thing would be to put it back in the shed and maybe someday fix it properly. But you can tell Grandpa that you got it running.” So that is what I did. I drove Grandpa’s little Allis into the shed. “One day I will fix you properly,” I promised and closed the door.