Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.
Dayton Daily News & Radio's 'Joe's Journal'
There are tractor men -- and there are tractor men. But to me there's one tractor man who's out-survived the sturdy line of old-time Aultman-Taylors, Titans, Waterloo Boys, Hubers and and Rumelys which he repaired to thresh the nation's grain half a century ago -- and he's still rising at 5 o'clock every morning to keep the modern tractors and gas engines of America popping 'n purring.
'The old tractors had better materials and workmanship in them,' says Ira Edger whose experience in threshing and tractor repair spans fifty years in the evolution of the internal-combustion prime-mover. 'Slower speed and low-compression engines have enabled many of the old-time tractors to far out-last the modern, high-speed ones of today.'
The first time I met Ira Edger was at the Ira Cox farm, west of Greenville, Ohio, where he and his brother, Willie, had just finished threshing a jag 'o wheat, back in '46, and I crawled up onto the pulsating deck of the big 30-60 Aultman-Taylor Gas Tractor to make a recording. My long microphone cable reached all the way to my old two-turntable disc recorder, propped on a table sufficient distance to prevent damaging the record grooves by vibrations from the huge four-cylinder engine.
Ira Edger handled the throttle and clutch of the big Aultman-Taylor which looked more like a steam engine than a tractor -- even sounded almost like a steam engine, while the Edger Brothers conversed in steam-engine terminology which was still the language of that day.
It was the first record of an engine I had ever made and a new experience it was, trying to ask intelligent questions about a big engine I knew nothing about, and getting intelligent answers from men who did.
'I've watched you start this big tractor and you use a crank about a yard long,' I yelled over the loud staccato chug of the mighty four-cylinder Aultman-Taylor.
To which replied Ira Edger, 'Yes, that's right. The crank is about a yard long.'
'And those drive-wheels look about seven feet tall,' I bellowed.
'That's right, they are seven feet tall,' answered Ira Edger, adding that the plugs and valves and all other parts were original with the engine. 'It's the kind of tractor that was made mainly for use out west.'
To me it seemed the perfect machine to bridge the transition from steam power to gas on the American farm. The designers had made it look like a steam engine, and almost run like one to the point that a died-in-the-wool steam engineer could honestly run one without his conscience hurting quite as much as if it looked and acted strictly gas. Even the big boiler-and-flue type radiator looked more like a sawed-off steam engine boiler than it did an internal-combustion radiator. And that part alone eased many a steam engineer's conscience from one era to the next.
The only 'confounded' gas tractor that the elder C. S. Edger (A Garr-Scott man) liked was this 30-60 Aultman-Taylor which Ira bought. L. to r. is Dad -- C. S. Edger (strictly steam) and Ira Edger.
The big Aultman-Taylor looked and acted enough like steam to make the switch from steam to gas without a fight.
This photo was made off an old negative taken years ago by a hired girl who stayed with the Edgers and happened to have an ancient box camera.
A fellow could look up at the big Aultman-Taylor and still half feel he was looking at a steam engine. He could listen to her chug and almost imagine it was steam, not gasoline. Though the switch from steam to gas was painful to many an engineer (who'd rather fight than switch), those running Aultman-Taylors made the switch without fighting.
'My father, C. S. Edger, was strictly a steam man. He did a lot of threshing, and every four years got a new Garr-Scott Engine right from the factory,' reminisces Ira Edger. 'He'd start out with the horses and the water wagon about two in the morning, from our home place on the county-line New Madison-Coletown Road, and drive to the Richmond, Ind., factory, arriving at daybreak. As a little boy, I'd usually go along. By ten in the morning, we'd be all fired up and have all the adjustments made and start driving the new Garr-Scott Engine up Route 121 towards home.'
Leola and Ira Edger in their basement library at Greenville, Ohio. The one-time schoolma'rm compiles notes for a book on local history - 'Palestine, (Ohio) - The Promised Land' - husband Ira reminisces over a photo of the old 30-60 family Rumely Oil Pull. Their diverse interests merge in marital harmony.
It was a beautiful sight, seeing that brand new, red 'n black Garr-Scott Engine winding its way around the curves and over bridges, through the villages of Braffettsville, New Paris, and New Madison, across Darke County in western Ohio toward the Edger home.
'We'd drive all night, going about three miles an hour, with nothing more than a kerosene lantern hanging on the front of the engine for illumination,' recalls Ira. 'Whenever I got sleepy, I'd just lie down on top of the water wagon. No, I didn't roll off -- we had sides built up on the water wagon to hold the wood slabs which we burned in the firebox. There were no barnyard farm lights in those days, and no traffic on those narrow dirt roads. We'd usually arrive home with the new engine about two, three or four o'clock in the morning, depending on whether we had trouble along the way.'
'When gas power started coming in, Dad wouldn't have a thing to do with a tractor,' muses Edger. 'But he did like the big Aultman-Taylor Tractor I bought when I grew up. It was the only tractor Dad cared for. I guess it looked enough like a steam engine for him to accept it.'
Thus it was that big tractors, such as the Aultman-Taylor and their kind, helped in making the transformation from steam to gas power on the American farm a little more tolerable. At least the trick worked in the Edger family.
When Ira Edger attended the Sweeney Automobile School in Kansas City, to learn the tractor repair trade some fifty years ago, there were no such modern foibles as football teams, protest marches or campus riots. He went to college strictly for gas engine knowledge -- and got it.
Last of the heavies in Ira Edger's love affair with big gas tractors. The last Rumely Oil-Pull that Ira Edger owned was this 25-40. With him are two grandsons, Joe and Jim VanVickle. Edger was driving it over the Darke County Threshers' Reunion grounds to be auctioned at a sale. They all thought it would be their last ride on Ol' Rumely. But it wasn't. After it was sold to Iron-Man Percy Sherman, the old tractor, somehow or other, wound up again in Ira Edger's barn, and everyone lived happily thereafter till Spark Plug Joe King up and bought it. 'Old tractors never die -- they just keep chuggin' from one home to the next.
Harmony at the Edger household. Mrs. Leola Edger hops on a little lawn tractor that hubby, Ira, has just put back together. Ira bends over to adjust the carburetor while she starts it. She won't get any oil on her clothes. Ira never leaves a drop of it on the machinery. He puts newspapers on the bench, to keep the shop clean. You never see a drop of oil on Edger's floor after a tractor has been put back together. You could eat a sandwich under a tractor he was working on. 'I learned to scrub my shop floors at the tractor factories I worked in years ago,' says Ira. 'I even mopped the boiler room floors where I've worked in various plants.'
In the background hanging on the wall is the tractor diploma that has hung in Ira Edger's shop for fifty years - and its clean as the day he got it from Sweeney School.
'I went there to work,' says Edger. 'For six months I learned to work on all kinds of the old tractors. That was back in 1921. When I graduated with my diploma, I immediately went to the Aultman-Taylor Branch at Kansas City where I worked six months.
In those days, if you bought a new tractor and something went wrong that the local mechanics couldn't cope with, the factory sent its own representative, or 'expert' out to fix it in the field.
'The Aultman-Taylor Company sent me in April of that year out to Genoa, Nebraska, to see what was wrong with one of the new tractors a Polish family had purchased,' reminds Ira Edger. 'The only member of the family who could speak English, and I could talk to, was a husky eighteen year old girl who operated the big tractor. When I got it ready to go again, I rode along while she drove it several rounds, plowing a mile-long field at three and a quarter miles an hour.' (No power-steering here, girls. How's that for Women's Lib?)
They say that opportunity knocks but once. But Ira Edger heard that knock, shall we say, by a rather ignominious quirk of fate. It came rather as the result of doing a little favor for a local Greenville acquaintance, and led to a position at the Aultman-Taylor main plant.
'A local banker, George Sigafoos, Sr., had sent a sealed letter along with me when I embarked for Kansas City, asking me to deliver it to his son, George Sigafoos, Jr., who was branch manager of the Goodrich Tire and Rubber Co. there,' is the way Ira Edger tells it. 'While I was delivering the letter, a Mr. Powers, branch manager of Aultman-Taylor Co., happened to come into the office to see Sigafoos, and I learned from him that they needed help at the main Aultman-Taylor works in Mansfield, Ohio. 1 boarded the next train and went directly to the plant.'
'When I got there, I found out they needed help on the erecting floor, I was there six months, babbitting bearings on the frames of the big 30-60 Aultman-Taylors,' says Ira.
The veteran tractor repairman, Ira Edger, had indeed cut his eye-teeth on the 'big ones' -- right on the factory floor.
'The Aultman Company made about two of the big 30-60's a week, explains Edger. 'Altogether they made around three thousand of the 30-60's and 22-45's. A lot of them went west, some went to Canada, and others to South America, principally Argentina.'
Two of the big Aultman 30-60's figured in Ira Edger's long life of threshing. But there were other old tractors, both larger and smaller, which growled and chugged the golden grain from the whining separators of the well-known Edger brothers, Willie and Ira.
'We had the old two-cylinder Case, two-cylinder Averys, the old Rumely Pulls -- they were all big tractors in that day,' says Ira. 'The first Rumely I had was a 30-60 Model S. It was a big one.'
As the years went by, the Edger brothers tried the gamut of barnyard names in tractors all of which did themselves proud at the far end of the separator belt.
'We had a 22-36 McCormick Deering, a 32-45 Huber Super-Four, made in '32, and a Waterloo Boy which we used to run a corn husker,' recalled Edger of the good ol' days, back when. 'Then we had, of course, Farmalls, but I never will forget the Moline we threshed with.'
'That was the front-wheel drive tractor with a joint in the middle, wasn't it, Ira?' asked I. 'The drive wiggled in the opposite direction to which the engine was going. In other words, if the engine started heading east, you started heading west?'
'Yes -- that's it exactly,' chuckled Ira Edger, shifting his cud of Havana Blossom to his other cheek.
Then later was the 25-40 Rumely Oil-Pull which came into the Edger threshing family and later was sold at auction on the Darke County Threshers' Reunion grounds, east of Greenville, Ohio, three years ago.
But rumor, by way of the grapevine, had it that Iron-Man Percy Sherman bought the old Rumely and somehow it wound up right back in Ira Edger's barn once again.
Meantime, a former Spark Plug, Joe King, dickered with Spark Plug, Ira Edger, making only the kind of deal that Spark Pluggers are capable of, and the old Rumely found its new home in the well-appointed town garage on Central Ave., Greenville, where King kept his other engines and tractors.
But the biggest deal was yet to come. Spark Plug King needed more room for the family horses, and pined to get out in the country once again, while Spark Plug Edger was wanting to move to town.
Spark Plug Ira Edger finishes assembling an International McCormick 460 - just the evening before, the pistons, valves and motor parts were all outside. By ten the next morning, when I went to his shop, it was all together.
'I put it together before breakfast,' chuckled the 71 year old Edger who rises at five to get a start on the day.
'I traded Joe King my 19-acre farm down on the township line for his place in town,' muses Edger.
After all, Ira Edger had retired several years before as fireman for twelve years at the local Greenville Farm Plant. His many years as a prominent area thresherman, fireman at various local industries on the third 'night trick,' and his many labors at keeping the local farm tractors in the fields -- it was time he was taking things easy. -- or was it?
To others less noble than Ira Edger, moving to the city might well have meant the life of ease and taking up a hobby. But what has been Ira Edger's hobby since moving to the county seat? Well, it's been nothing else than working on -- yes, you guessed it -- more and more farm tractors which find their ways to his garage repair-shop door. That, and the dozens, yea the hundreds of smaller gas-engine tractors, mowers, power-saws and what-nots that everyone seems to think only Ira Edger can work on.
'I get up at five every morning,' laughs Ira. And how well I know that. For once I saw a large farm tractor all apart in his garage, one evening. The next morning at ten, it had all been put together. 'I put that tractor back together, pistons, valves, everything, before breakfast this morning,' he chuckled. And he really had. Yet there wasn't a drop of oil on the garage floor which was clean enough to spread a picnic lunch.
But all life is not labor at the Ira Edger domicile. In the basement study of the Edgers, Ira enjoys the evening hours, looking over old tractor photos and reminiscing, while his lovely wife, Leola, a former one-room school teacher, busily goes over her notes, preparing a history of the local Darke County area.
'Ira's family is Scotch-Irish,' says she with a winsome smile. 'The Germans always waited till the Scotch-Irish worked over the frontier, before they moved in later and life was better. I ought to know -- I'm Pennsylvania Dutch.'
'The Village of Palestine, Ohio, was once called 'the Promised Land' when early settlers first came to live, west of here, 'she explains. 'We know it's really the Promised Land. We've all had such a good life here. It's almost as wonderful as the Promised Land in Bible Times.'
The bond that holds Ira and Leola together is that rather rare quality these days, known as marital harmony. If they ever had a family argument, I'm sure the world has never heard of it, nor heave the neighbors. The strong, steady tractor expert, factory trouble-shooter and mechanic, the schoolma'rm who recently returned from a trip to Australia in quest of exotic culture which has been such a help in compiling her notes for a book on local history -- these are the diverse interests that have made Edgers fond of each other.
Why didn't you go along with your wife to Australia?' I asked.
'Well, I wasn't invited,' laughed Ira.
'What did you do with your time while she was abroad?' I queried.
'Worked on tractors,' replied he.
For keeping the 'Big Boys' working in the fields, and the modern tractors too -- we welcome you, Ira Edger, to an honorary seat in our hallowed Hall of Spark Plug Fame. And for her work in preserving the memories of our early American Heritage, fetch the missus along