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Old Iron: The family farm and the tractors we used

Lance Phillips Published on 29 April 2019
Memorial Day in 2006 at Lance Phillips' family farm

As this issue of the magazine reaches you, Memorial Day will be just around the corner. I recently came across a photo of the family farm I took Memorial Day weekend back in 2006.

I had just finished my second year of pharmacy school and hadn’t been able to play with tractors in quite some time, so I decided to empty the shop and the barn. Several neighbors and other folks stopped by to check them out that weekend, which was nice. This is also a nice view of our family farm at Fugate’s Hill, in the Big Moccasin Valley of Russell County, the heart of southwest Virginia.

The farm has been in our family since the mid-1800s and was also the site of Fugate’s Hill Post Office, a hand-hewn log structure commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service in 1864. The postmaster, my great-great-grandfather, would travel on horseback across Clinch Mountain to Mendota, Virginia, to take and receive mail that arrived there by train. The log structure has been restored and is still on the farm today.

My grandfather “Papaw Pete” Paul McNew ran the beef cattle operation with help from Dad and myself when I was big enough. We only had two tractors on the farm for many years, the Massey Ferguson 135 and the Allis-Chalmers WD. We still have almost all the original equipment that came with each tractor except the front-end loader and chisel-tooth plow that came with the WD.

Paul McNew on his 1952 Allis-Chalmers WD

Things changed when I was about 13 years old, when Dad bought the 2950 John Deere 4X4 with a front-end loader. It was quite an improvement to be able to feed two 4-by-5 rolls of hay at a time fairly effortlessly. Feeding hay with the 135 could be pretty challenging in winter weather. It only had a heat-houser cab, and we had to steer it with the brakes because the hay would raise the front of the tractor off the ground at times.

Dad would use the 135, and Papaw would use the WD when they were into plowing or mowing hay. I remember one year they were plowing a cornfield, and an axle broke on the WD. I also remember certain sounds the WD would make when they were mowing hay. Papaw would come to the end of the swath to change directions, and I could hear the lift raise the mower.

There was also a distinct noise like a vibration of the grill against the hood while running at high rpms, almost like a really loud cricket or something. I would usually be on my Massey Ferguson pedal tractor (which I still have) “mowing hay” in Papaw’s yard, mimicking all they were doing in the field and probably killing his grass from driving over and over it. In those days, we mowed the hay, and our friend June Bevins and his family would bale it.

A heart attack in 1991 forced Papaw to retire from his job at the AFG glass plant in Kingsport, Tennessee, and slowed down his farming as well. With his extra time, he decided the WD could use a paint job. There’s no telling how many hours he spent prepping and painting it, all with rattle cans. He did it right there in the dusty barn, as we didn’t have a shop yet. It turned out pretty nice, considering, and I will always treasure it because he did it. He always said we were part owners of it, but he gave me full ownership of the tractor a short time before he passed away.

Most summer mornings, my alarm clock was Papaw cranking up the 135 in the barn just down from our house. I would hurry outside to see what we were going to get into that day. He would usually be going to work in his huge garden, fix the fence, clean out the creek with the scoop or countless other jobs he loved to piddle with to keep the farm looking the way he wanted it. He really enjoyed using the grader blade on the 135 to clear brush and maintain the farm roads. I recall several times he would get a little too ambitious pushing stumps or rocks and break the lift pins on the blade or the lift arms on the tractor. It was also while doing these types of jobs that the 135 was prone to hang in reverse, and on occasion it still does.

Many mornings, we would head off to dig thistles, iron weeds, wild roses and anything else he didn’t want growing in the pasture. This was done with a mattock and a hoe, taking them out by the roots. He was being a good steward of what he had, and this has passed on to me. I do my best to keep my farm looking like his did, but time restraints limit what I can do. Since his passing in 2014, we haven’t quite been able to do it like he did, but thankfully a big Bushhog pulled by the 2950 has replaced most of the manual labor. Our friend Tony has also been very helpful in taking care of the family cemetery and other work or mowing that Mamaw needs done.

Little did I know that exactly six years after this picture was taken, my daughter, Olivia Brynn, would be born. I’m so thankful Papaw got to enjoy her for a couple of years; I just wish he could have met his great-grandson, Griffin Paul, who came along about three years later. I will never forget the lessons learned on this farm and all the hard work we put in there.  end mark

PHOTO 1: This photo was taken Memorial Day weekend in 2006 at Lance Phillips’ family’s farm in southwest Virginia. The Massey Ferguson 135 (referenced in the text) is third from the left in the foreground.

PHOTO 2: Lance’s grandfather Paul McNew sits on his freshly painted 1952 Allis-Chalmers WD, taken around 1995. Photos by Lance Phillips.