Welcoming Fergie Two

May 12, 2019


I often hear people talking about wanting to build a community, which is cool, but it’s also sad in that most of them lack the skills and tools needed to do the work. In part, I’m talking about the historical knowledge of the many people who’ve tried to create an intentional community, and how they failed and why, but I’m also thinking of all the tangible tools that are needed to create the basic life support systems involved. And the more self-reliant and off-grid their dream is, the greater the amount of resources they’re going to need.

Sustainable systems are capital intensive, and one way to work around the amount of capital needed is to learn how to salvage resources that the system has discarded, be that land, tools or even people.

The Repair Manifesto makes the point that if you don’t have the ability to fix something, you don’t own it; you’re just renting it. When dreaming about creating a viable, alternative community, you don’t just need to have the tools necessary to build and then fix things, there’s also the need for the tools you’ll need to maintain the tools. As a small example, our tool room has a range of ratchet sets with ¼”, ⅜”, ½” and ¾” drives. And if the ¾” drive ratchet isn’t powerful enough, we have a portable, hydraulic system that can ramp up the torque considerably. And then there’s the acetylene torch that doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

Where this really comes into play involves the capitalization of core life support systems. People who are good at playing the financial system can throw money at the problems that develop‒they can hire technicians to maintain those systems‒as long as the money doesn’t run out. But the people who are good at playing the money game are rarely interested in stepping outside the mainstream and creating a viable alternative. Why would they walk away from a system that’s working for them? For one author’s answer to that question, I’d invite you to check out the short story ofThose Who Walk Away From Omelas.

It’s generally the people who aren’t good at the money game that need to find another way to build a life. One of the other ways that’s served us well involves salvaging resources that the main stream no longer has a use for. For those of us with more time than money, learning the crafts involved in repairing equipment is a way to gain the utility that we need to function independently.

A good example is our need for a light duty tractor. For the last two decades, we’ve relied on a 1952 Ferguson orchard tractor we call “Fergie”.

Walt and Fergie hauling water

Walt and Fergie hauling water

Fergie has enabled us to do all sorts of operational things, but most important of all is Fergie’s ability to deliver 300 gallons of water to wherever it’s needed on property. Here on the edge of the Cascadian wilderness, the greatest natural danger we face is fire. When it’s hyper dry in August, fire danger is an ever present concern, and Fergie is our first line of defense.

In the thirty years we’ve been on this land, we’ve been threatened by wildfire three times. Once a fire gets started on property, it can spread through the dry grass very quickly, but on two of those three occasions, Fergie enabled us to stop the spread of the fire at our property line. That’s why, when it’s dry and the fire danger is high, Fergie is kept close at hand with the water tanker attached and ready to roll.

There’s a natural tendency to become emotionally attached to the equipment that protects the things one loves; so, I’ll confess that I’m sentimental when it comes to Fergie.

Fergie has also played an important role in how we deal with snow. When winter brings up to a foot of snow, we drive Fergie around our roads to break through and compact the snow so that our vehicles are better able to move around on property. Fergie becomes our valued path finder.

This past winter, we had two back-to-back snow events that left us with two feet of snow and more in some places. That normally would have been fine—we would have just thrown another log on the fire and waited it out—except that come this snow storm, Windward’s latest project, the Herland Forest natural burial cemetery, had three funerals that needed to go forward regardless of the snow. With people flying in to attend the interments, our ability to provide services was on the line.

Even at a depth of two feet, Fergie did a great job of forcing her way through the snow by ramming forward to break the snow pack with the narrow front tires, and then packing down the snow with the large back tires. When the forward momentum was exhausted, we’d back up ten feet, and launch forward again, opening up another five feet. We’d repeat, and repeat until a credible path was created.

Using this technique, Fergie fought her way through to the crossroads (about half way from the county road to the grave sites). We were doing fine until the engine just stopped. It didn’t sputter or show any prior sign of having a problem; it just did a dead stop like when the ignition switch is turned off.

I went through the usual check list making sure that the engine had gas and that there was spark, but everything checked out. Investigating further, I discovered that the distributor had come loose. The bolt that holds the distributor in place had worked its way out and was gone. That allowed the distributor to rise up and disconnect from the gear on the camshaft that turns the rotor inside the distributor.

Okay, then; I went back to the shop, got a bolt to replace the missing bolt, reset the timing and bolted the distributor back into place. Fergie started up fine, and so we headed back home. We only made it about a hundred yards before the engine died abruptly again. Only this time, the rotor inside the distributor didn’t want to turn at all.

Okay, then; I got on the Internet and ordered a new distributor. When it arrived, I installed it and Fergie was up and running again. But within an hour of use, Fergie died abruptly again. A quick check of the distributor showed that the new distributor had come apart. Evidently something was seriously wrong, but what?

The distributor connects to the camshaft via a spiral gear, and the spiral gear that should have been on the bottom of the distributor assembly was gone; evidently it had fallen down into the oil pan.

Okay then; I got back on the phone and got another distributor and an oil pan gasket on the way from Yesterday’s Tractor. They’re definitely a 5-star organization, and I highly recommend them to anyone trying to keep old iron working.

When the parts arrived, I pulled the oil pan, recovered the missing distributor shaft, and was able to visually check out the camshaft’s spiral gear. Evidently what had happened was that when the distributor had originally come loose and risen up, the gear on the distributor had chewed up the gear on the camshaft.

the spiral gear on a replacement camshaft and the distributor gear that meshes with it

the spiral gear on a replacement camshaft and the distributor gear that meshes with it

That was a serious problem in that replacing a camshaft (a $200 part) requires a substantial disassembly of the engine since the camshaft is about as integral a part as you’ll find on an engine. We’re talking a lot of work, and it’s one of those things where if you’re that deep into the engine, there’s a good argument that you might as well do a full engine rebuild.

So, I was looking at that, and seeing a lot of operational time being eaten up doing repairs before we would have our light-duty tractor back on line and productive again. We’re coming up on summer, and there’s already lots of projects scheduled. My conclusion was that it was time to do a search to see if another TO-30 tractor was available in the region, and Craigslist came through.

We were able to acquire Fergie2 for $1,500, and retire Fergie1. Now, my current project involves blending the two tractors together, taking the best parts from each to make a tractor that’s better than either. For example, Fergie2 didn’t have a draw hitch; now it has Fergie1’s hitch. Also Fergie1’s intake/exhaust manifold is better than Fergie2’s manifold, so that will be moved over to Fergie2.

An alternative could have been to purchase a new, light-duty tractor. We have a neighbor who recently acquired one for something over thirty thousand, and another neighbor who uses a similar tractor to power a snow blower. When we were struggling with the snow back in late February, we hired him to to blow out the driveway. He got about a quarter of the way in when the center mount on the shiny new tractor’s 3-point hitch broke.

There are a couple of things I draw from this failure, notably that the new tractor was poorly designed and that the metal was of poor quality. My understanding is that even though the tractor had an American brand name, it was actually manufactured in China. The failure suggests that pretty much the only way to get a rugged, American-made tractor in this power range is to buy a used tractor that was actually made in America.

The failed attachment point is a good example of how things have devolved from the days when even an orchard-scale tractor such as Fergie was expected to do serious work. Fergie’s attachment point has a shock absorber design that uses a heavy spring that keeps the equipment from directly impacting the mount. That limits the ability of the attachment to stress the housing and the metal it’s cast from.

The recently purchased new tractor’s attachment point failed in its first season; Fergie’s attachment point is still in service after 66 years of use.

Once we’re done transferring some components from Fergie1 to Fergie2 to create the best tractor we can out of the two units, the other key thing will be to take this time to change out Fergie’s fluids. It’s important to make sure that they’re clean and ready to do a good day’s work. With attentive care, we’re hoping that Fergie2 will be a good helpmate for years to come.