4 East Gate Road, Sufferm, New York 10901
I located my 1939 John Deere model H, serial No. 1869, in Somerville, New Jersey, while looking for an engine block for a 1941 John Deere H that I was planning to restore. The owner of the tractor, Mr. John Yablonski, a very affable dairy farmer who dabbles in tired iron, recommended I buy the complete '39 for a little more money than I would have to pay for the needed engine casting. The tractor looked fairly good for its age, and I bought with full knowledge that it had a bad knock in the engine.
At the time I knew very little about John Deere tractors and felt that the knock would be something rather easy to fix. After I transported the tractor home and unsuccessfully fielded questions from my two daughters as to why I needed another tractor, my neighbor Tommy Fisher generously offered to store the tractor in his greenhouse for the winter, and assured me we could get it going. If Tommy weren't such a good mechanic and so charitable with his time, I may have given up on the project long ago.
In a few short minutes of engine diagnosis, Tommy found the knock in the engine. It was the result of the left main bearing's having been run without oil. The engine had been run long enough in that condition to hammer the Babbitt metal out through the crankshaft journals. Upon dismantling the engine, we discovered that the crank was badly scored and the piston rod ruined. I then went to the '41, which quickly became the parts tractor, and removed the perfect crank and babbitted the rods. While we had the '39 engine apart, we replaced the rings and ground the valves.
After reassembling the engine and rebuilding the carburetor, Tommy directed me to start it up with an expression of confidence that one seldom witnesses in life. Well, I pulled and pulled and pulled on the flywheel until my arms, back and hands could take no more.
Finally, with greatly reduced confidence, we resorted to towing the old John Deere with Tom's Farmall Cub. (He always takes great pleasure in towing me with his fine running IHC tractors.) After what seemed to be an eternity, we heard a few pops and putts and fought in earnest to keep the engine running. To be honest, I was very disappointed how badly the tractor ran and sounded, particularly after all the work that was put into it.
The following days were spent adjusting the carburetor and just plain running the engine, trying to get it to smooth out a bit, and to start by hand cranking. One of the amazing discoveries was that the engine would run about the same if, after starting it, we disconnected the right spark plug wire. Yet it would also run, but not as well, if we reconnected the right plug wire and disconnected the left. I have yet to get an explanation as to why this was the case, and welcome any light one could shed on the matter.
After closer inspection of the magneto, we realized that it needed a tune-up. The rotor, points, and electrodes on the distributor cap were very badly eroded. In fact, I'm surprised the engine fired at all. After the magneto was renewed, the next problem was the throttle. The tractor had two settings, low idle and high idle. After dismantling the governor, we learned that it was totally worn out because of a blocked oil passage. Thank goodness for the parts tractor! We replaced the needed parts from the '41. By now the tractor was running pretty well, except it seemed to produce a lot of black smoke and used a copious amount of fuel. I repaired the original canvas shutter, which then allowed the tractor to reach proper operating temperature, and PRESTO! more power, less fuel, and no more unsightly smoke.
To mechanically complete the restoration, I rebuilt the brakes and the steering. The steering was easy, but the brakes met pulling the axles and drum housings. The drum on the right side was badly pitted from rust, so I decided to have it tuned. The machinist at a local auto parts store could not turn the drum on his lathe, for the steel was too hard. Fortunately, he was able to grind it down, cleaning it beautifully. I installed new brake shoes from a John Deere kit, and now the brakes work as well as their design allows.
The final phase was the painting. It took days to strip what was left of the old finish and to repair 50 years of dings and scratches. The grilles were very difficult and I had to marry the good sections of the '41 to the '39 in order to end up with a presentable grille assembly.
Finally, I put the last coat of finish on the hood with the help of a good friend, Greg Phillips. I installed the decals and was very proud of the accomplishment, achieved with the help of my friends.
I use the tractor mainly to run my log splitter, which has a Prince power take off pump. I'm amazed how well it runs it, for the tractor has limited horsepower (about 13). The explanation to why the tractor powers the splitter so well, is the kinetic energy it stores in the flywheel. The resistance of a knotty piece of rock maple just makes the old John Deere pop a little more than usual, until the governor settles down, rather than stall my bigger and more powerful four cylinder tractors.
In closing, one wonders why someone would spend so much time, energy, and money restoring an old tractor of limited value. After committing sufficient thought to the question, I have concluded that it must be an attempt to recapture a little bit of the past that had a special and indelible meaning. For me, it was the nineteen-fifties, while growing up on a dairy farm in West Chazy, New York. Area farmers had a practice of exchanging time with neighbors in the fall during silo filling time. This was the most exciting time of the year.
When our silo was being filled, the farm was inundated with new faces, different ways of doing things, and of course, many brands, colors and models of tractors. Having worked primarily with Allis Chalmers and Farmall tractors with foot clutches, the John Deere Hs owned by my father's late friend, Ralph Recor, were a godsend. The hand clutch was the key; it made my work so much easier. During the silo filling process, most of the adult men were employed in the fields pitching corn bundles on flat rack hay wagons, cut by our ground driven corn harvester. My job was to drive one of the tractors during the loading process. Since the speed of the loading process was always irregular, it required frequent short stops and sometimes extended stops when the adult conversation turned to topical happenings, such as politics.
My adolescent left leg would quickly tire on the foot clutched tractors, but never on the John Deeres. The Hs were a cinch to operate, for all one had to do was pull back on the clutch lever and it would remain in that effortless position until the men had exhausted their often verbose positions on the topic at hand; remembered their purpose, and resumed their arduous chore.
Finally, I would like to give thanks to Eric and Norma Binder who have encouraged me through the restoration, and allow me to exercise my tractors on their picturesque and historic homestead.