Portrait of A Smithsonian Tractor

The museum's rigger/labor crew guides the model D

The museum's rigger/labor crew guides the model D out of Agricultural Hall. Larry Jones (second from left) checks the clearance. Dollies he constructed are clearly visible. Photo by Jeff Tinsley

Jeff Tinsley

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The Smithsonian's John. Deere Model D poster came about from a scattering of conversations and ideas that finally came into focus. Larry Jones, who works in the Division of Conservation and on special projects with the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, first came up with the idea. The Model D had been in storage at the Smithsonian's Silver Hill facility, but it came out of retirement in February 1986. Pete Daniel, curator in the division, enthusiastically agreed that the time was right for the project, and both approached Jeff Tinsley, one of the Smithsonian photographers.

From the beginning, Larry and Pete agreed that the project should be carefully planned and executed and that nothing could be sacrificed when it came to authenticity. The first objective was to find a farm with buildings that dated to the early twenties, when the Model D was manufactured. Larry and his wife, Signy, and daughter, Signy (Signy is the name of the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter, an Icelandic custom that has prevailed for ten generations of Buddvasdottir women) visited Richard Gosheff, who had helped the museum on a previous project. Since his farm was of a more recent vintage,

Richard suggested a visit to William O. Tucker's farm in nearby David sonville, Maryland. The white frame house had been built in 1906 and the red barn in 1919; the setting was perfect.

The property had been in the Tucker family since 1919, and since their marriage in 1934, Genie and William Tucker have run the farm, at times tilling up to 350 acres. They had met when William's sister, a fifth grade teacher, brought Genie to her brother's sixteenth birthday party. Both Tuckers have always farmed. They personify the best of the family farm tradition, for they are tied closely to the community and are good neighbors.

Fate guided Larry to the Tucker farm. William O. Tucker loves machinery (when it works properly), has several vintage tractors (a John Deere R, W-9 International Harvester, F-12 Farmall, and 1948 HD-5 Allis Chalmers Dozer), a family of contemporary tractors and implements, a sawmill (owned with a partner), and a pickup converted from diesel to gasoline (a story that is best told by Mr. Tucker). When he and Larry began talking machinery, it was the give and take of two people who intricately understood working parts. After exhausting the merits of various tractor shows, they started in on competent repair shops (there were few within a hundred miles), exchanged disaster stories about incompetent shops, and ended up dissecting the brake problem with Mr. Tucker's truck. After a careful analysis of every line, drum, cylinder, and booster-Jones offering a theory and Tucker countering that he had already tried that-finally Mr. Tucker said with some exasperation, 'Hell, I've replaced everything but the engine trying to get it to stop.'

But what would such a practical people as the Tuckers say to having a herd of museum types stomping around the place trying to take a picture? Larry wondered if they might think this just another hairbrained government project. Whatever they thought at the time, they agreed to host the project.

A few weeks later the Tuckers welcomed our crew-Larry, Pete, Jeff, and designer Crimilda Pontes. It didn't take Crimilda and Jeff a half hour to agree that the tractor should sit down the hill from the barn. Then Genie Tucker drove the Farmall Cub down the hill to pose for Polaroids to check composition. She assured us that she would be through plowing that part of the farm by mid-April, so we put our plan to move the tractor in gear.

The tractor had arrived in the museum without front wheel lead rings and minus spades on the rear wheels. Yet trade literature from 1924 showed it with spades and lead rings. To be authentic it needed these items. Larry set out to find a set of forty-eight spades. Walter Messick of Taylor-Messick Company of Harrington, Delaware, generously lent us the spades from his collection. Mr. Messick has a sizeable collection of tractors in several buildings at his dealership. We did not have to look as far for the lead rings, for less than twenty feet from the Deere sat the museum's Waterloo Boy, shod with lead rings, which we borrowed. Since it had been in storage for years and had a few scratches, Larry used some touch-up paint and polish. As he worked in the Agriculture Hall, visitors to the museum quizzed him about the tractor, giving him an excuse to engage a number of farmers and collectors in fascinating conversations about machinery. At last it looked the part, a working farm tractor from 1924.

From the beginning, Pete and Larry carefully planned each step of the project, for both have a healthy respect for Murphy's Law. First, they processed the papers that assured the Registrar's office that the tractor would be properly cared for outside the museum. For transportation, we had hoped to use Mr. Tucker's truck, but the brake gremlin persisted. Larry then contacted Dru Denton, chief of the Smithsonian Transportation Branch, and she offered the Institution's rollback truck. We also realized that we needed a driver to free Pete, Larry and Jeff to concentrate on the photograph, so labor foreman Richard Day assigned Steve Jones to the team.

Moving museum objects is a chore at best, but tractors present more challenges than stamps, typewriters, or dishes. Indeed, we always had a difficult time moving some of the larger objects around the museum. Some tractors, for example, have cleated wheels and all are difficult to steer and turn in the narrow aisles between exhibits. Larry had been working on this problem in his mind for some time, and the solution fortunately came in time to ease the move.

As luck would have it, on the day of the move, the nearby east elevator on the first floor was inaccessible, so we pushed the tractor by the Pendulum and the Pain Exhibit (a portent?) to the west elevator, rode up to the second floor, because the basement corridor in the west side of the building was blocked, and thrilled the crowd waiting to get into the Holly wood exhibit as we sped past to the east elevator. After completing this maze, we got the D loaded and secured it. The work crew that moves museum objects accomplished this project with its usual professionalism. They are one of the hardest working, most efficient, and probably least appreciated groups in the museum. Steve Jones, who would drive the truck the next day, worked on this elite crew.

Jeff had a late shooting assignment at the museum that night, but finally at ten o'clock, Larry, Pete and Jeff shared a pizza and made final plans before retiring for the night at Pete's house. We hoped to get a few hours' rest before getting up at 2:00 to beat sunrise to the Tuckers'. As we drove out of Washington at 4:00 the next morning, Larry and Steve in the truck and Pete and Jeff following in the car, the weather looked bad. It had been raining during the night, and the temperature was dropping into the twenties.

'What's that blowing across the road?' 'Oh, must be buds from the trees.' 'Look again. It's snow.'

Indeed, it was cold and overcast, and the snow flurries continued till dawn. The lighter it got, the worse our predicament looked. Sure enough, there was water standing in the field where we had decided to set the tractor. We had planned for a dawn shot with the sun warming the tractor and highlighting the red barn and white house on the hill beyond, but the sun had a lot of work left to burn through the scudding clouds. We huddled in the car with the heater on dreading to get out in the cold but determined to get a poster-quality photograph.

When we finally got out of the car and looked down the hill into the gray dawn and the water standing in the field, we still knew we had to try. Mrs. Tucker smiled, shrugged, and wished us well. We walked down to the bottom and stomped around looking for firm ground, and then Larry determinedly urged the truck toward the selected spot. And he almost made it. Within ten feet of the spot the left side wheels lost their purchase and spun; we were stuck. We walked up the hill and asked Mrs. Tucker to pull us out. Still smiling, she hitched up the truck to her Allis Chalmers and towed us up the hill. So much for the perfect setting.

Back on the hill beside the barn we had almost decided to give up for a while and have breakfast when we all looked at the barn, scratched our heads, and started saying almost in unison, 'Why not here?' Larry had pictured the tractor there from the beginning, observing that it would look as if the farmer had just driven up and parked it. There wasn't going to be any red dawn, but, on the other hand, the light was coming evenly through the morning clouds. Now, Jeff worried that the sun would come out and throw harsh shadows across the tractor. He looked up, shivered, and concluded that we had about an hour of good light to work with.

To give more character to the barn, we opened the doors exposing wood. Just inside the doors were two large tractor tires, unlike anything produced in the 1920s. We rolled them out of sight and propped open one of the doors with a hoe. Then we unloaded the tractor just where Jeff wanted it. Meanwhile it was freezing. The temperature stayed in the twenties, and Jeff and Larry wore coats from Pete's closet. Still, we all were cold.

Jeff used a 6 x 7 format Mamiya RZ67 camera with a 50mm f4.5 wide-angle lens and Fugichrome 100D color transparency film. The rollback truck body tilted handily to support the camera-on-tripod some seven feet above ground level, an angle that properly separated the barn and tractor. To make the tractor stand out from the background both in detail and in color on such a gray day, Jeff did two things. First, he set the aperture at f5.6 to give less depth of field, so that the barn was just slightly out of focus from the main subject. Second, the tractor was flash-filled to enhance details and also to coax the color of the tractor as close to John Deere green and yellow as possible.

This was not a one-shot deal. Jeff shot Polaroids, measured light, fretted over angle, raised and lowered the truck bed, and, from time to time, actually took photographs. The Tuckers occasionally peered out at the circus in their side yard; they had a look of compassion, perhaps even a glint of hope, that we would amount to something. At last Jeff declared the shoot ended.

To that point, we had piled up a dismal record-snow flurries, getting stuck, shivering, and giving up our chosen location for the shot. After loading the tractor, the truck's brakes wouldn't release; there was moisture in the air brake system, which had turned to ice. By now the Tuckers no doubt thought we were inept but determined. But when Larry hesitantly asked Mrs. Tucker for a pan of hot water, we figured she would give up on us. Later she told us that asking for something practical as hot water showed that we were not total misfits. Fortunately, Larry had trucked for some fifteen years, and he knew many of the peculiarities of brakes. This truck was not equipped with an alcohol injector on the compressor to prevent this kind of freeze up, but when he poured the tea kettle of hot water over the check valve, the compressor immediately started to pump air. Also, by this time the engine had warmed up enough to feed the compressor warm air. Muddy, cold, and hungry, we set off to Hardees for breakfast.

The next day Jeff excitedly called us all to the photo studio to see the results. The transparencies were simply stunning. One could see so much detail that the tractor seemed to be moving off the image toward you. In a way, we were all amazed that our improvisation had worked so well. We got the image we wanted. But we all agreed that the shot did not show how cold it was.

Our desire to market the poster for summer visitors to the museum faded week by week and finally month by month. Larry and Pete had set out to complete the entire project without running up any costs, and up to the printing of the poster they had achieved the goal. At the last minute, however, a deal with a printer fell through. We then approached the people at Deere & Company for printing funds, and they came to our rescue. We were impressed that they trusted us so completely, for they never asked about the image or the design and requested that their sup port be recognized in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

Naturally, we were all thrilled when the poster came off the press; we are proud of it. The Tuckers are too. We convinced them that we were serious workers. On our first visit, Jeff snapped some shots of the Tuckers sitting inside the barn with soft light streaming across their faces. Long before we took a framed poster to them, Larry made up a special frame for two photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Tucker and then put together a composite of several other pictures. It was a warm spring day in May when we presented this present to them, a small token of our appreciation and admiration.

Then we got on to our business at hand-photographing the museum's Waterloo Boy tractor. We think that the resulting transparencies are even better than the John Deere Model D.