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Second newly learned skill: tractor driving

June 10, 2012

Earlier today, I was trolling the Internet for information I never thought I’d be looking for:  how to drive a tractor.

I grew up a city girl. I’d never even sat on a tractor before, aside from a toy pedal tractor in my grandparents’ basement.

I wanted to have some clue before I showed up at the Farm And Ranch Museum for my first-ever tractor driving lesson.

Somehow, I let myself get talked into driving one of FARM’s tractors on the final leg of the inaugural Nebraska Antique Farming Association‘s Tractor Relay Across Nebraska.

Agreeing to learn how to drive a tractor around a field or parking lot (what I initially thought I was agreeing to) is a bit different from taking said tractor on a 25-mile group joyride from Gering to the Wyoming border (what I ultimately wound up doing).

Really? You want *me* to drive a tractor 25 miles?

Actually, driving the tractor out on the open road was not difficult. The hard part was starting, stopping and navigating in the “traffic” of the other tractor drivers.

A 1954 Ford NAA wound up being my ride for the day.

My friend Chabella took this photo for me.

It was a good little tractor – fairly easy to drive, for which I was grateful. I was also grateful that I was not the only student tractor driver, and that the other student got the bigger tractor.

Leslie Smith wound up on a big ol’ International Harvester Farmall tractor. That’s my little Ford to the left – plenty of machine for me!

A few basics I learned from the Internet:

  • Many tractors have two brake pedals – one for each rear wheel. By braking just one wheel, experienced tractor drivers can make a really tight turn. (Inexperienced tractor drivers who forget to release the clutch when trying to slow down can do inadvertent donuts with the two-brake-pedal system.)
  • Stomp the clutch to be able to put the tractor into gear. Stomp the clutch and take the tractor out of gear to stop the tractor. Tractors have enough torque that you may not be able to stop by using the brakes alone. (Or, if you only depress one brake pedal, you may do donuts.)
  • While speed can be modulated by depressing the clutch, don’t do it or you’ll wear out the clutch.

Some things I learned while driving around the parking lot at FARM:

  • Let the clutch out slowly, or the tractor will suddenly lurch into gear and the tractor guys will laugh.
  • Push the throttle lever forward to slow down. Pull back to speed up.
  • Come to a complete stop to change gears, or the gears will grind.
  • Fourth gear is a little hard to slip into. Reverse is much easier. (Whoops!)
  • To stop, depress the clutch and shift into neutral. Use the brakes if needed. (See above notes about donuts.)

Some things I learned while on the road:

  • How to kill the engine. (Not sure how I did that, but it was right at the start when I needed to get going quickly because other tractors were coming up behind me. I managed to get it re-started OK.)
  • How to make the engine backfire. (To keep up with the tractor group, I had to run my little tractor full throttle. However, the throttle lever would sometimes slip out of the full-open position and cause the engine to choke and/or backfire. I held the lever in place for nearly the entire 2-hour ride. The proof: my forearms are sunburned, save for a stripe on my right arm that was in the shade of the steering wheel while I held the throttle lever.)

At the wheel of a 1954 Ford NAA heading up the Old Oregon Trail towards Mitchell Pass.

Aside from the need to fret about the throttle and the other tractors, driving through the countryside at about 14 miles per hour is pretty relaxing. It would have been more relaxing had the wind not been blowing at a sustained 20-30 miles per hour and gusting to 40.

I could not keep my ballcap on in that fierce wind, so I wound up getting a bit of the “sunburned raccoon” look. Thank goodness I grabbed Jeff’s sunglasses out of the car, or my eyeballs would have dried out and gotten sand and bugs imbedded in them.

One the road, sunburned raccoon in the making.

Out on the road, I waved to every vehicle that passed and had a chance to look around at the scenery.

I finally got a picture of one of the odd “junk tipis” on the north side of highway 92 west of Scottsbluff. I’ve seen them many times on the way out to visit my friends Kathi and Dan, but never had a chance to photograph them.

“junk tipi”

Speaking of Kathi and Dan (of Country Chicken Girl and Dan the Man fame) – the ride went right past their ranch.


By the way – the “cloud” you see in that photo of the Manville place? It’s not a cloud. It’s the smoke from the High Park fire, near Fort Collins, Colorado, about 140 miles away.

There was a bit of smoke in the north, too, from a grass fire near Mitchell.

Bad day for fires, with all that wind.

Despite the wind, I and the other tractor drivers made it safely to the state line, turned around, and had a lovely picnic in the Lyman city park (pop. 341). Thank you, Lyman, for your hospitality!

Then my little Ford tractor was trailered back to FARM, along with a rare 1938 Minneapolis Moline UDLX.

Tractor driving: one more thing to add to my “been there, done that” list, right under “oxen driving.”

UPDATE: Farm And Ranch Museum joined forces with the former North Platte Valley Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2012 by Katie Bradshaw

5 Comments leave one →
  1. suemommy permalink
    June 11, 2012 4:07 am

    You are a very brave girl, Katie! When do you start planting fields? Will you use a tractor or a team of oxen?

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink
      June 11, 2012 5:52 am

      I think I am still only qualified to operate a hand plow. I would need other people to train the oxen / maintain the tractor engine for me. Not that I couldn’t learn to do such things eventually!

  2. June 12, 2012 7:18 am

    We totally missed the parade! What time did you putter by?

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink
      June 12, 2012 7:10 pm

      I’m not sure. We were supposed to leave FARM around 1. Maybe we did? Then calculate driving speed at no more than 14 mph …. Wish I had thought about the route earlier so I could have called you. I was not talented enough to be able to manipulate my phone from the tractor seat.


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