The Snake and My Russell/Fordson Grader

Robert W. Saufley
March/April 1998


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Rt. 1, Box 373, Mt. Crawford, Virginia 22841

I got this Russell/Fordson motor grader, serial number 229, and the snake, one hundred miles from my home. I came across this machine while walking through a woods in May. I stopped and took a long look and thought, 'What a piece of junk!' Lying under this machine was a large black snake, so I didn't get too close. For as long as I can remember, I never liked those long critters. This was my first visit to this farm and we were house sitting with our grandchildren.

About a year passed by, and I was told that the farm would be sold and if I wanted the grader I could have it. I said, 'No way would I want that piece of junk!' However, I would walk out there and take another look. Guess what! There was that black snake! Later we returned the one hundred miles home.

Several days later a Mr. Benson came by my machine shop for some repairs on one of his F20 Farmall tractors that he collects. I knew he would be interested in the old grader as he has other machines he plays with in tractor pulls. I offered the grader to him. He told me he was not interested and that I should take it for myself. I said to him, 'You must think I am nuts to haul that thing 100 miles up here.' A couple of days went by and Mr. Benson called to say he thought he had a way I could get that machine to the valley for maybe nothing. He had just bought a John Deere H for a Mr. Smith, a tractor collector who lived only ten miles from where the grader was located, and that he was coming here with a trailer that would haul five tons. He gave me Mr. Smith's phone number, and I don't know why I called, but I did. I told him of the grader. He said he would be glad to look at the machine to see if he could haul it. I got into my car the next Sunday, picked up Mr. Smith at his home ten miles from the grader, and went to see the machine. We saw the grader together, and there was that black snake! The snake felt our presence and crawled into the bottom rusted-out gas tank. Mr. Smith said, 'He has a home in there.' I offered the snake and grader to him. He said no, but he would be glad to bring it to the Shenandoah Valley for me when farming allowed some playing time to pick up his tractor.

A week or so went by and I received a phone call from Mr. Smith. The grader was on his trailer and he was coming today. He had picked it up two days earlier and parked it by his house. He asked for the best way to come to my place. I told him to come west on 1-64 and north on 1-81, exit 235 east, plus some Rockingham County roads. True to his word, here coming into my drive was the grader. We unloaded the machine. Coming up the interstate highway Mr. Smith said he heard this car honking its horn and the people were pointing to this black snake up on the steering wheel of the grader. He said this happened many more times and that the last time he saw the snake was back about 20 miles and the snake was hanging down over the edge of the trailer. He guessed he finally fell off. We continued to talk tractors and other good stuff for some time. Then we noticed the snake coming out of the gas tank! He's dead now, after a 100-mile trip. He measured out at six feet, six inches in length. I paid Mr. Smith and thanked him and he went to get his John Deere H tractor.

A couple of days went by and Mr. Benson showed up with some of his friends. They were quite amused and asked, 'How long is it going to take you to get it running?' I told them I had no intention of getting it running, and if I did, it probably would be ten years or so. One of the men said he didn't believe that I could get it running. Word of mouth travels fast around here and others began to come see the Russell/Ford-son powered motor grader. One 85 year old gentleman said he used to work on those graders when he worked with the highway department before 1930. He said, 'Never could get them Fordsons running before noon and, by the looks of the missing parts, you may not ever get it running.' Well now, that stirred a little challenge. I have never worked' on a Fordson tractor motor but figured that it couldn't be that hard a task. Some people gave more encouragement saying, 'Y'all get it going.' Then my children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters got after me to get started. I thought well, well, well!

I started on it about June 15th. Totally missing were the ignition system, carburetor, bottom half of the gas tank and a bad leaking radiator. There wasn't a governor, and the only thing salvageable on the outside was the manifold. The spark plugs had long ago rusted completely out and were consumed by water. The motor head was removed and water had filled the cylinders, froze in the winter and cracked the cylinder walls. It took a week to free the pistons. After this I took the motor out and into my shop and onto my horizontal mill, bored out the cylinder holes, purchased dry sleeves and pressed them into the bored holes. Then rebred the sleeves to fit the salvaged pistons.

By the way, I found out where those horseshoe magnets came from that I used to play with when I was a younger man in the '30s. When I played in my dad's blacksmith shop, he didn't tell me they were attached to the flywheel and that's where the power came from for the coil ignition system.

A few years ago, my wife Betty and I started attending gas engine shows, so I know where to obtain some parts if needed. I didn't try to keep anything original in order to get the motor running. I got a governor in Canandaigua, New York, a carburetor in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, a magneto in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, a Fordson tractor book in Denton, North Carolina, and other things in Virginia shows. When I had every system installed and about 200 hours labor into it, I cranked it up on September 15th and drove it around the place. Those doubters were now believers. Maybe that's when the old iron hit me, or maybe it was there from my childhood and just needed to be forced out into the open again. Since then I have obtained several older tractors, hit and miss motors and many air cooled motors, plus many other pieces of good stuff. I help lots of other tractor men get their old stuff going. Some have found me by way of word of mouth. I make parts for the serious tractor pullers on the national circuit.

I was born in 1930 on a farm at home and live within a mile of where my roots in this country were homesteaded in 1742. I left the farm in 1950 when I married Betty and by 1954 had two sons and a daughter. Into industry, I quickly found out that more education would be necessary and so back into night schools for many, many years studying all engineering fields. I am retired from industry now, but I covered a lot of responsibility over the years being in charge of manufacturing, engineering, safety and quality, plus I traveled on business through 43 of the 50 busiest airports in the world.

The Russell/Fordson motor grader sits in our front yard by the road now for all to see and enjoy. I work in my shop, travel, and enjoy sitting on the front porch looking out over the Shenandoah River at the Blue Ridge Mountains some five miles away. Betty and I will be attending many gas engine shows throughout the country this year. Hope to see you at a gas engine show!


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