6750 Rattalee, Clarkston, Michigan 48348
In the late Thirties, a young man bought out the local John Deere dealership. The previous owner was a real gentleman and was retained as the grand old man to deal with the older customers and help the new owner gain acceptance into the small community. At first things were slow, easy and business as usual; little did we know that big changes were hatching in the brain of Henry, the new owner.
Our town was located about 60 miles north of Detroit, and when Mr. Ford was trying to buy back his company, he pushed thousands of his Fordson tractors in every direction. Ford car dealers found themselves forced into taking unwanted tractors to get hot selling Model T cars. Many farmers in our area would come in from the fields at night and find a Fordson tractor sitting in their yard. Without instruction or prior experience, many farmers went from horse to tractor just because it was there. An official of the board of health for the county told me that for years the largest single cause of injury and death was the Fordson tractor. By 1923, the first year for the John Deere tractor, more Fordson tractors had been sold in the world than by all other tractor manufacturers put together. Fordsons were everywhere, and most everyone that survived the experience of trying to farm with one quickly learned valuable lessons about good and bad tractor features.
Henry, the new owner, seized the opportunity to both satisfy the pent up need for good quality farm equipment and allow Fordson owners to save face, all in one marketing package. Maybe this was an idea handed down from JD headquarters, or maybe it was unique to Henry; I'd like to know. The deal was this: buy a John Deere tractor, and Henry would allow $100 for any Fordson, regardless of condition, which would also serve as the down payment. Wow what a strategy! Word of the deal spread like wildfire, and Henry couldn't get tractors quick enough. Flatcars of John Deere tractors would arrive in town almost as if on a schedule, and the backyard was filled with Fordson tractors. Talk about a successful launch of a new business; this guy must have broken all the records and then some. Strangely enough, one of the biggest problems was what to do with all those Fordsons.
The Fordson problem solved itself when a junk dealer from Detroit bought the whole lot for scrap. I often wish I could have taken pictures of the scrapping process. An enormous black man broke up all those Fordsons with a sledge and loaded the pieces and parts by hand on a stake rack truck. As I remember, the yard would hold around 35 Fordsons, and it was cleaned out two or three times. I've always regarded Henry's marketing plan as more of a service to mankind than anything else, because it took away virtually all the widow maker Fordson tractors for many miles around, and put a lot of farmers in the business of farming with real quality equipment.
Henry put most of his profit back in the dealership in the form of parts and service facilities. When the mother lode of Fordsons ran out, Henry was ready with another plan-customer service. It was an unadvertised special that everyone knew about: if any farmer's JD equipment broke down in the field for any reason, a call to Henry would bring help. Henry ran the business like a good neighbor, a formula that I believe works wherever it's been applied.
While the other kids had heroes in Hollywood and sports, my heroes were at the John Deere dealership. These guys found fun in most everything they did, and not always from satisfying a customer. Some of the practical jokes and pranks that were played on themselves and others could fill a few pages. They worked hard, played hard, and yes, drank hard. This all seemed quite natural to me as I was growing up, and only later in life did I realize that some people aren't equipped to blend all three activities proportionately.
The largest single problem with the John Deere tractor seemed to be in the carburetor. The factory had an exchange program for rebuilding because the dealers couldn't always fix the problem. Sometimes two or three rebuilt carbs would be installed before the tractor would settle down and run right. There was a boxelder stump just outside the shop door and it was used to test out governors and carburetor adjustment. My job was to warm up the tractor and hook it on a chain that stayed on the stump. I would then put the tractor in top gear and load the engine by holding in the clutch while a mechanic adjusted the carburetor. I would guess the stump idea started back in the days of the model D, because it had lousy brakes. You could tell right away if the carb was any good as soon as the load was put on, and if it was bad there didn't seem to be anything that could be done. It must be that many other dealers sorted through the rebuilt carbs, because it became more difficult to find a good one. Some mechanics would purposely strip out the fuel inlet threads or damage the body in some way so that it wouldn't come back. I'm here to tell you there is nothing in this world that sounds as good as a John Deere tractor with a good, properly adjusted carburetor under full load. I once heard someone say that there is something about the sound of a John Deere that is good for the soul of man.