I do know that they became a huge part of my life until both of them were gone, and they made a lasting impression upon meone that is accompanied by memories to this day. I think I was fourteen that fall when Dwight first took me over to help with the rice harvest. For years, Dwight Bradley would drive the combine for Shelby, and since he also had a ten-wheel grain truck, he would also haul grain to Riceland Foods at Tuckerman. For me, the joy of working in the river bottoms never grew boring.
The Smith Farm was a near magical place upon which I would free-roam for two decades or more and learn to love and enjoy, although perhaps not as much as Shelby. The first paper that I published was in Jackson County’s Stream of History Quarterly about the Smith ferry that was operated on the Black River during the late 1800s and early 1900s. After Shelby died, I would go over and walk through the old garage and tractor shed and return as many things as I could to the correct place where they “lived,” as Shelby had always done. As time passed, more and more people just simply pillaged through all the treasures from generations of Smiths that had lived there, and what they didn’t take, they simply discarded upon the ground. In time, someone would also burn the entire place to the ground with all the things that remained inside.
Dwight eventually did grow tired of the work and worked for himself on his own farm while I stayed around as long as I could. I think I worked something like 18 autumns helping Shelby in some way. During the fall of 1986, while attending Harding University, I could only help on the weekends and couldn’t wait until my last class dismissed on Friday to head home and to the bottoms with my shotgun. I was unable to help during the fall of 1987, as my schedule at Arkansas State would simply not allow it. That fall I helped Cleo Watkins, Sr. on his farm (on the western side of Crowley’s Ridge near Bono) get his rice and corn out. The following fall, however, I knew when it was time to head to the bottoms and take my place.
The day that Shelby introduced me to the “Ol' 97” marked a union that would last for numerous years. Apparently, Massey Ferguson didn’t officially make their Model 97 Rice Tractor. As one of the gauges would indicate, the tractor was actually a Minneapolis Moline of some model that had been repainted in the traditional Massey Ferguson colors. Even though Shelby had once told me, I didn’t see it until years later when the paint had fadedwhen the light hit the front of the tractor in just the right way, you could see the actual MM model number through the red.
At the age of 14, this particular Ol' 97 was a treasured, vintage antique, but fully functional. It had large flotation tires in the rear by which you gained access over the drawbar to the oversized spring-loaded seat. The massive hand clutch lever was, of course, on the right and must have been between three and four feet long. The gear shifter was between the driver’s knees beneath the steering wheel complete with knob. The PTO lever was under the right side of the seat, and it took a bit of experience in order to roll it into position as you carefully applied the clutch.
When you would need to unload a buggy full of rice, you would have to go down to the carburetor and gently move the linkage in just a certain way to slow the old six-cylinder motor down even more than what the linkage allowed. The front end was narrow with tires like you would have typically found on a combine of its daynarrow with one rib. With a little experience, you could nearly drive the old tractor with rusty round buggy in tow almost anywhere, especially after you had cut a set of ruts to the combine in which to travel back out of the field. The motor on the old thing was huge with three large heads, one of which was MM yellow (from when Shelby had to replace it) and was fueled by propane.
Driving the 97 was a unique experience. The combination of the hand clutch, seat on the rear, lack of a three-point hitch, narrow front and wide rear with huge fenders that flopped slightly made it some contraption. I can understand why the style didn’t last (better equipment was being produced), but it had its place and time in American farm history, especially on the Smith Farm. I remember seeing a truckload of Belarus tractors on a Wednesday evening before Bible study at Swifton that resembled the old MM design. They were some thirty plus years out of date, but the Belarusians were making them as if they were new technology and Lloyd Hulett, my granddad and I got a good laugh about them.
The first time I ever rode on the Ol' 97, Shelby reached in his pocket and pulled out a paper towel, a staple on the Smith Farm, and made himself some ear plugs. I was initially puzzled about that, but I soon discovered the reason. The exhaust pipe on the old thing was probably five inches in diameter and pointed in such a way that the roar was directed towards the driver. I made my own custom ear plugs from then on, too. He showed me how to drive it, find reverse, roll the PTO lever into place and set the carburetor. I learned quickly to cut the ruts to the combine before you actually pick up the load, or it will take you some time to slip out of the field. I also soon learned the right way to cross levees without becoming high-centered. Shelby had to come and get me off of the levee the first time. To do this, he put the tractor in a gear that I did not know existed and got enough speed while astraddle of the levee until he could turn the wheels, getting the tire out of the furrow. Then, he quickly turned the wheel back into the levee and crossed it.
One season, my school schedule did not allow me to get to the field until late in the afternoon on some days. I would get there in just enough time for Shelby to head to Tuckerman, dump a load and then make it back by the time I had another ready to go or, in some instances, would have the buggies filled and be waiting on him to return.
On one day I reached the field and Shelby looked at his watch and the fuel gauge on the 97. The only fuel that we had up in the field in any of the tanks was in the Wilson Bendopposite of the old Samp and Johnny Wilson Farm, just across the river. Shelby got in the seat, motioned for me to sit on the fender, and then instructed me to never drive his tractor the way he was about to drive it. He reached down and found yet another gear that I had never discovered, pushed the throttle as high as it would go, and we proceeded around the east side of the brake and off to the Wilson Bend. I’m not sure how fast we were actually traveling, but the flopping of the fender upon which I was sitting prompted me to believe that we were nearly able to take flight. We filled the tractor with fuel and then proceeded back around to the southeast corner of the brake at the end of the airstrip in the pasture.
On the angle-iron framework underneath the hopper on the old rusty buggy was an assortment of old wooden poles, relics of many years of pushing rice out of the inside of the buggy. In time, some of these old poles would rot in two and have to be discarded or simply fall off along the way. I never did throw away a pole that was still capable of riding on the undercarriage for another season. In spite of the fact that these were no longer of any use for punching rice and, although Shelby and I never spoke of them, I think it was understood that they had earned their place there. One fall, Shelby instructed me to go and cut a new pole for the season. The pole was some 12 to 15 feet long and was used to punch into the auger the remaining five to ten bushels of rice that would stick to the inside of the rusty buggy.
There is no way in written words that I can adequately describe just how specific Shelby’s instructions were about anything. He provided so much detail that it was as if you were reading a technical instruction manual about something as simple as getting the bow saw from behind the truck seat. Everything had its own place at which it “lived.”
We once had to make a repair on the combine header’s sickle and were close enough to the pasture that we could simply walk from the truck with the necessary tools, cross the outside levee and make the repair. Every one of the perhaps hundreds of tools or attachments that resided in Shelby’s toolbox had its own special place to live. On that occasion, we were able to make the repair relatively quickly with me running hammers, punches and vise grips to them.
When Shelby returned to the tailgate and saw the way in which I had replaced everything in his toolbox he wanted to know what in the world I had done to his toolbox. We were in a hurry to get back in the rice, but he stopped and emptied everything out of the box onto the tailgate and then meticulously put everything back in its place where it had lived for years. I can remember him saying something to the effect that “if you had done that to Dad’s toolbox you would have gotten your backside skinned,” a direct quote as best as I can recall with the exception of one word that his dad, Ollie used instead of “backside.”
Shelby told me something to the effect, “Go to my pickup and behind the seat on the passenger’s side behind the funnel wrapped in an old tee shirt and inside the Walmart bag and get the bow saw and go cut us a new punching pole.”
It was the first of many times I would experience the ceremonial cutting of the punching pole. I always tended to overdo many things, putting too many nails in a board, welding an extra bead on something that didn’t need it, and in this case, I cut a hackberry punching pole with a fork on the small end and some two and a half inches in diameter. Had the pole actually been dry it would not have been so heavy. Being five foot six, it was all that I could do to flip the pole over the side of the buggy and into the rice. Still, it was my first punching pole and I was resolved to use it.
Later that week, Shelby had to empty several buggies of rice while I was at school. When I made it to the field he told me that pole “would hair lip a gorilla,” (whatever that means). I agreed that it was a bit much and went and got the saw, proceeded into the brake and cut a new one. This time I picked out a light one. A day or two later, Shelby again had to buggy some rice, and when I made it to the field he asked, somewhat puzzled, what type of pole I had cut that was so light. It was Pawpaw. It made it through the season with faithful service and rode on the bottom of the buggy for several years. When we retired the buggyafter Shelby bought his last combine, (an 860 Massey Ferguson, which held more rice than the old round, rusty buggy would hold)the Pawpaw pole was still on the undercarriage.
It was almost an art to correctly and safely punch the rice out of the buggy. You had to roll the PTO lever into place as you moved the clutch forward, set the throttle, remove the pole from beneath the hopper and climb the ladder on the tongue of the buggy. At the top of the ladder you had to swing the pole over the top and into the rice, but not into the auger. The buggy had undergone some transformations over the years, including an extra ring, which had been added to the top.
For Shelby, being about 6’ 4” tall, this was no problem. For me, on the other hand, it was quite a challenge. I had to hang my arm over the top of the buggy and wrap my leg around the ladder in such a way that I would not fall off. Then, I would have to attempt to punch the rice into the auger. I had always assumed that if I did accidentally put the pole in the auger that it would bind and kill the tractor motor at such a slow speed. I was wrong. Once, and only once, I let the pole get into the auger and knew instantly that I was in trouble. I knew that when I let go of the pole it would go all over the inside of the buggy and possibly hit me as I hung over the top ring. When the motor did not die after a few revolutions of the auger, I knew that I couldn’t hold onto the gyrating pole forever. I decided that I would quickly let go of the pole, get out of the way and scurry down the ladder and shut the PTO off. I tried my best to time the events, but I don’t think any planning would have allowed for a safe escape. As soon as I released the pole, it made about two revolutions inside the buggy and then proceeded to thrash me on the forearm, which was keeping me from falling off of the ladder. I did manage to get down the ladder and shut off the PTO.
When Shelby arrived back at the field from Riceland, he immediately knew that something was wrong by the expression on my face. He asked what had happened and I showed him my bruised and bleeding arm. He dropped everything and drove me to see the medic, his mother, friend and teacher, Mrs. Zelpha, whose idea of a first aid kit was methiolate and bandaids. You simply must experience the burn of methiolate on such a wound in order to fully understand how badly it burns. I have made reference to the accident a few times in my life since and said that I never put the punching pole in the auger again because the treatment for such was about as painful as the experience itself.
After Shelby died, and before his equipment was sold, I tearfully recovered the old Pawpaw pole from the belly of the old, rusty, round buggy and placed it in the loft of the barn that I had built at my old home place and instructed Corey, my son, to never destroy it. The insects had really worked on the light, soft wood over the years and the bark had nearly all slipped off, but it was still enough in tact that I fondly remembered its cutting and purpose. “Frog” Light, an equipment dealer from near Portia, bought the Ol' 97 for about $800 when Shelby’s family sold the equipment and to this day it still sits, for sale, near the highway just east of Portia.
I stopped and visited my old friend one last time in the summer of 2006 and reminisced about the number of times that I had crawled up in the seat, buggied a load of rice out of the field and then fetched the punching pole to help the last ten bushels of rice on its way to the global food supply.
The Ol' 97’s paint had faded and its tires were more cracked than ever, due to sitting in the sun and not being used. The sad expression on the old tractor’s gauges indicated that it was out of place and naked without the old rusty round buggy and assortment of punching poles in tow.
Anthony Holt was born in Jackson County, Arkansas and lived in the New Home Community near Swifton until his late 20s. His family raised rice, soybeans, soft red winter wheat and grain sorghum. He has taught both high school and college courses for 18 years and also preached at two small churches in NE Arkansas for 13 years. He currently teaches biology at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. He and his wife, Camille, and their two youngest sons live in Perryville, Arkansas, where pine trees are grown rather than rice and mosquitoes.