BABE, THE BLUE OX

My first view of Tug

My first view of Tug #2, I am on the left. I know my friends were thinking, 'You paid how much for this?'

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514 Brown Street, Jackson, Minnesota 56143 Reprinted with permission from, The 9N-2N-8N Newsletter.

Maybe I was born with tractor grease under my fingernails. In 1918 my dad bought a new Emerson Branting-ham 12-20 tractor to use on the family farm. I was one year old. This machine was advanced for its time . . . had what they called a high-speed engine. It was powerful and had good traction in the muddy fields. It was a 'dog' though, as something was always going out. Whenever Dad was repairing it, I was around managing to get real greasy.

Five years later, Dad sold it and bought a well-used 1921 Fordson. This one also seemed to need a lot of engine repair. The cast-iron valve heads would separate from their steel stems causing all sorts of confusion in the combustion chamber, and finally go through a piston or a cylinder head. So, Dad was the neighborhood Fordson and Model T fixer-upper. That gave me plenty of opportunity to help dissect and repair the Fords.

A later model Fordson came next, and it was real modern because it had a governor. The engine was much better, and this one did a lot of work on the farm. The transmission was something else, however, requiring three overhauls in the last season of its use. Dad switched to Farmalls.

When the 9N appeared, farmers did not rush to buy them because of their misfortunes with the Fordson. There were many on-the-farm demonstrations, but it took a daring farmer to buy one. Any farmer with an ounce of brains could see this 9N was just a toy and that it would never be able to do a day's work with that newfangled three point hitch and such, and that it was just a joke, and how could you expect to cultivate corn by looking ahead and have a cultivator trailing behind you ... I thought we should have one, but Dad vetoed that idea.

Ford founded the National Farm Youth Foundation in 1940, and I enrolled with our dealer in a correspondence course in Farm Engineering and Management. Just as I was completing the first year, I received a letter from the County Courthouse 'inviting' me to spend the next four years in Europe. Dad wrote to me while I was in Italy saying he had been lucky enough to purchase a wartime 2N.

After discharge I began a job in a repair shop specializing in automotive electrical and engine rebuilding. Soon the shop became mine. (What that meant was I could now work 100+ hours a week!) We began to get many Ford Ns in for repair. I really enjoyed working on them, they were easy to work on and very dependable. Parts were easy to get, and at reasonable prices. We were doing so many that I kept a supply of rebuilt engines on hand so a customer could go out in a day with a rebuilt engine. Customers came from far distances with their engine to trade for a rebuilt. I even sent a 9N engine to a bush pilot in Alaska and he flew it in 150 miles.

In that shop I had the chance to work on pretty much every kind of tractor, and I thought I had seen them all. There would be two exceptions. One, I had not yet met Palmer Fossum, whose collection extends beyond imagination. And two, I was about to learn of an Airport Tug.

Some ten years ago, a boyhood friend who had spent most of his life as an airport mechanic suffered a stroke and returned to live nearby. He brought many things which he had collected; among them was this airport tractor. Impaired by the stroke, he couldn't speak much, so getting information about the tractor was difficult. I could see that it had a 2N engine, transmission and rear center section, and steering. The rear axle housings, the front axle and spindles were not familiar. My friend was able to do a little work, so together we started to overhaul the engine. After we completed the engine, his health failed and he passed away. I did other work on the family's 9N there, and whenever I visited I always looked at this airport tractor and wondered what it might be like if complete. One day I asked if I could be first in line if it came up for sale. About a year later, Muriel, my friend's sister, told me I could be the new owner. I'm sure she saw me as a little boy with a nickel in each hand, nose pressed against the glass of the candy store that was closed for the weekend.

Finding all the parts for this tractor was quite a chore. Several trips to the farm to search through motorcycle, aircraft, auto and tractor parts yielded a few of the items, but I would still have to find front and rear wheels, front hubs, radiator, hood, grille, and half of the steering gear housing. I also needed a dash, air cleaner, tool box, seat and its small parts, fuel tank, and a slew of strange parts that fastened to the sub-frame.

First off I wrote to Ford Tractor Company headquarters. I described this tractor in detail. The reply, a very long time in coming, stated there were no records of such a tractor being manufactured. They gave their personal opinion that I had some variant of a Ford 800. Next I wrote to the 9N-2N-8N Newsletter. I got a quick reply from Bob Brown (NJ), who said not only had he seen one, he had repaired one that was still in use in a factory near him. He was very helpful in getting me some snapshots of that tractor. Then I realized how it would appear. William Morgan (RI) wrote that he had restored and modified one for his brother-in-law, and it was in use for yard chores in Maine. Several other people sent copies of BN-O literature to me. At that time I felt I'd never find the parts so I'd have to restore it as a one-off.

It was the beginning of winter and my brother Ivan, a farmer, had plenty of spare time, so the two of us tore down the tractor to the last nut. We hot-tanked the parts to remove the years of dirt, grease and four coats of paint. Next a friend, Martin, sand' blasted all the exterior parts. Then we started assembly, replacing gaskets and seals. The rear axle and axle seals had Ferguson parts numbers on them, indicating that Ferguson had probably manufactured them, but I still can't find any listing on any Ferguson tractor using these numbers.

The Jackson County Fair and Vintage Village Restoration Association, in which I am a member, has a real nice fringe benefit. Anytime any member is scouring the countryside for parts, he keeps in mind the needs of other members as well. Somehow we all seem to know what the other guy is seeking. My sharp-eyed friend, Frank Vrchota, while on such a mission, spotted a BN-O half sunken into the ground amongst all the other machinery. When he was assured it was for sale, he telephoned me, and I wasted no time in calling the owner and making a deal to buy it. He refused my check and stopped me in my tracks, saying it would all have to wait until spring, as the tractor was frozen into that winter's ground. I tried to convince him to let me try. He said if I wanted the tractor it would wait 'til spring.

Boy, was that ever a long winter. Luckily, we had other things to do on the BN-O in the shop to keep us busy and work off the excitement. The brakes are hydraulic, self-energizing, disc brakes. One side was stuck when we took it apart. To disassemble and assemble these brakes I made special tools. The linings were good, so we sandblasted the wheel cylinders, honed them and installed new kits. We made new brake lines to replace the rusted ones. The master cylinder was badly rusted and stuck. It was a Wagner, not a Ford, and there was no parts listing on it. 1 knew that a rebuilder could rebore it and press in a brass or stainless liner, but I didn't want to wait for that, so I thought I would give it a try.

I found the brass overflow tube in a toilet water tank was 1/16 inch too small, so I made a steel plug the size of the desired bore, started pressing it into the brass tube, and all the while tapping out the side of the tube to expand it as the plug pressed in. Then I removed the plug, machined it down about .002, honed the cylinder bore, so I would have a press fit, applied epoxy to the bore walls and pressed the brass tube into the bore. Then I pressed the steel plug into the tube again to force the tube walls out against the bore walls in a nice tight, epoxied fit. After the epoxy hardened, I drilled the bleed hole, honed the brass cylinder, installed a repair kit, and presto, new master cylinder.

By spring, my tractor was as complete as it could be until we could get that other tractor out of the frozen ground. Soon I received the call to come get it. First examination showed that someone had taken the steering gear, dash, hood, fuel tank, grille, and radiator. The water outlet on the cylinder head had not been covered and the engine had filled with water, frozen and split the block, head and crankcase. The seat frame was twisted and broken, and the upholstery was gone. I took what was left to Martin's for some more sandblasting. With a cutting torch I removed the bolts that held rear fenders, front push bumper, front fender-running boards. Then all this half-inch thick metal faced Martin's blast gun. (Good thing for me that Martin, an ex-Navy man, has had experience on battleships.)

The front wheels, though present, were bent. It wasn't easy getting them back into shape. The BN-O has dual rears, but this example only had two rear wheels left. These cleaned up well, but I still needed two more. My brother and I drove many miles from salvage yards to farm groves following tips which usually proved luckless. Some people even brought wheels to my shop, but never the right one. These wheels were used on Ford 1? ton trucks, 1938-44. Another friend brought in two wheels (not incorrect), a steering gear case, and a dash which he donated to the project. (He owns 9N #1313.) I found front tires at our local tire shop and that was a real surprise in a project where everything is scarce as hen's teeth. Rear tires were non-existent.

Nonetheless, things began to fall into place and we felt we were making progress. Lots of well-wishers visited the shop regularly to pay respects to the project and see how we were doing. The heavy parts went into place easily, but beating the running boards back into shape was a real job. I rebuilt the seat frame and an upholsterer friend did the rest. A horn salvaged from our old English Ford Cortina car fit right into place perfectly. I strayed a little from stock by switching to a 12-volt electrical system. I have plans for the future that will require 12 volts.

It was time to visit Palmer. We traded a hood with an air cleaner opening for one without. He also had a brand new air cleaner to go with it. We traded tool boxes so I could have the right one. Palmer knew I needed rear wheels and directed me to look in the corn crib. Sure enough, there was one there. (What'd we do without Palmer?)

A few weeks later we passed through a town with a nice salvage yard we'd visited several times before, but never with any luck. As we approached, there was a wheel right up front, newly placed there, like it was there for me! It was right!

Now I just needed tires and a muffler. I had been using some Ford truck wheels on the tractor to test drive it. The muffler remains denoted it was very large with a spark arrestor built in. None were available anywhere, of course. (What a surprise.) A friend showed up with a muffler a little smaller, but with the openings in the correct positions. (Thanks for good friends.) So I had the exhaust pipe made up in a muffler shop. It is now about the same as a stock N, a little louder than the original might have been.

A tire company specializing in hard-to-find tires, advertising in Gas Engine Magazine, sent me a listing. They had exactly what I wanted. Only the day before our Fair I had put the wheels on the Tug, and brought it to fairgrounds. It was put to work as the people-mover.

Volunteers drove my Tug, and all exclaimed that it was so much easier to handle than many other farm tractors of the past. Several said I shouldn't put it to use as I have, but rather display it in a museum or showroom, but I don't subscribe to that idea. All my other tractors and cars are always ready for a full day of work. I think of them as 'working classics.' I like to hear those engines purring when they are working. It sounds like old times.

Now I have added headlights to complete the restoration. I made adapters to fit small auto sealed beams into the old N headlamps.

The paint on this tractor is a story by itself. During restoration I discovered my tug had been painted gray, euclid green, orange, then red. The literature listed Ford gray or lusterless gray, or olive drab or lusterless olive drab. I've received unconfirmed reports that each branch of the service used its own color. I decided to use the Air Corps blue. While I'm not certain my paint is that exact color, I'm certain that I like it. Bob Brown said the two he knew of were called 'Blue Mules.' In Maine, Fleet-wood Pride calls his 'the Blue Moose.' I believe the moose is their state animal but, if I ever name my tug, it will have to be 'Babe, the Blue Ox.' I am a loyal Minnesotan and this is the home of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox.

The serial numbers of my two tugs are #825 and #441. The chassis of the second is #225. The plaque on the sheet metal cover between the left rear fender and the transmission case says Ferguson, not Ford. I did notice that the literature shows differences in the seats, air cleaners, and hoods. No doubt they made changes as time passed. There is a difference on my two tugs on how the steering arms are attached to the front spindles. Otherwise, they are pretty similar.

This project has taken two years and I am proud of the results, of course, but I must thank my friends, relatives, and even some very kind strangers whose help made it possible to find parts, transport things, and get important tips. There were many donated parts, services, and photos and literature from around the country too. Brother Ivan was my right hand man. Thanks, Ivan. And thanks to Muriel Schroen who made it possible for me to own my first airport tractor.