Tractors ‘Deere’ to ex-Rockdale man’s heart

Preservation passion drives lifelong mission on ‘iron art’
Publisher, East Texas Journal

Kenny Earman is a tractor mechanic with an artisan’s touch in his work, restoring old machinery. 
Photo courtesy Hudson Old/East Texas Journal Kenny Earman is a tractor mechanic with an artisan’s touch in his work, restoring old machinery. Photo courtesy Hudson Old/East Texas Journal Editor’s note: This feature on former Rockdale resident Kenny Earman was published this spring in the East Texas Journal of Mount Pleasant and is reprinted with the permission of the author, who is also the paper’s publisher.

HICKORY HILL – According to Kenny Earman, expert, it was John Deere whose humble start ultimately gutted the harness and mule market. There really was a man named John Deere, a New England blacksmith who came along shortly after the end of the Colonial era.

His name stuck to the company that in the mid 1920’s put its first “Popping Johnnys” in the field.

“Those first tractors matched the power of a set of four mules,” Kenny said. “ They didn’t have to be broke or trained. They used a little fuel but you didn’t have to feed them.”

And farmers who’d lived their lives marching in the dust behind mules were suddenly riding. They came to know their tractors like they’d known their mules.

Fuel mix—a Popping Johnny has two fuel tanks, one for gas, one for almost any refined petroleum product that burns if it’s made hot enough.

“You’d crank it with gas from the small tank,” Kenny said. “Once you got the block hot you switched over to the auxiliary tank.”

GENERATIONAL—Growing up in Rockdale, north of Austin, he came of age in the 1960’s during what turned out to be the last generation of family farms. An experienced Popping Johnny operator, he bought his first tractor to plant the 34 acres of corn he raised for his Future Farmers of America project.

“We lived in the country,” he said. “My two uncles lived a mile either side of us.”

His early memories include the quiet of early farm mornings when he’d hear his uncles’ Popping Johnnys coming along the road in front of his house. “The name comes from the distinctive sound of the engine,” he said, slipping back through time to the last days a hundred acre farm would support a family. “We lived right in the middle of the land they farmed and they were always moving equipment up and down the road. The minute I heard them coming I was outta the house.” By grade school years he was an apprentice, riding to corn fields standing between an uncle’s knees.

The uncovered fly wheel on the early models had finger grips.

“There’s a petcock to let off the back pressure so you can spin the fly wheel by hand to fire the engine,” he said.

Exposed on the f lank of the motor, just in front of his boyhood position straddling the frame, the open fly wheel could be used to pull a belt driving whatever kind of mill would once have been turned by a mule.

He learned to grind and mix corn stalks and milo, making winter feed with the hammer mill that not long ago he went home and bought from his cousin.

ON THE MOVE—His father worked for an electrical generating giant and a promotion ultimately moved Kenny’s family to Dallas. But not before the teenage years when he became an FFA Chapter Farmer in the days when Gail, a girl who became a friend in their sixth-grade year, had grown into a member of the Rockdale High homecoming court.

But not even an early brush with royalty distracted him from is passion for farming. He earned his blue blazer with the gold FFA logo growing corn that paid for his first two tractors.

His day job is at Priefert Manufacturing. In the evening he moonlights, shop doors open to the nights in the cool of the year. In summer he’s got AC streaming through ducts beneath the high insulated ceiling of the shop he built when he got serious about this business.

The cost of dismantling a tractor to the frame, going piece by part through everything, either replacing or cleaning, priming and repainting everything is almost always greater than a tractor’s fully-restored market value.

He restores about a tractor and a half a year.

“Before I take a job I talk to my customers,” he said. “If it’s just a cool tractor they want, they can buy one for less than it costs to restore one. So the people I work for have a reason for wanting what they want. It was an old tractor their family used or it was the tractor they started with.”

After his family moved to Dallas he worked in the service department of Darr Equipment while going to school. He earned an associates degree in diesel mechanics.

But it’s configuring a hammer mill’s belt over an open flywheel, the noise and dust of grinding feed, the days he worked his corn crop and the imprint of the sound of an uncle’s tractor coming that he remembers as the best years of his education.

It was during the tail end of his Dallas days that the long-term friendship that had turned to a long-distance friendship with Gail took a romantic turn. In the same way bringing an old tractor back to life takes time, love wasn’t rushed and courtship was savored before she became Mrs. Earman.

UNIQUE —Today, his recognized status as the reigning authority on Popping Johnnys is reflected in his being the only working mechanic quoted in John Dietz’s book, The Two-Cylinder Tractor Buyer’s Guide.

“He’d call and ask questions for hours,” Kenny said. “If I’d known he was really going to write the book I’d have been a bit more careful about what I said.”

The sentence about the old family farmer knowing his tractor like he knew his mule is true enough. “If he had a crescent and a couple of box end wrenches any farmer with good sense learned to overhaul his tractor in the field,” Kenny said. “The only fabricated steel on the early models was a one-piece hood. You could touch just about any part without taking something off. There weren’t any safety shields.” For example, he said, the brake drum spins right by your foot.”

“They’re amazingly simple machines,” he said. “The design was intended to make them easy to understand and work on. OSHA would have freaked out.”

Their simplicity didn’t take away an element of art in operation.

“I’ve never been very successful at running the poor-grade fuels my mother remembers her brothers using in the old days,” he said.

“The early ‘Un-styled’ models didn’t have a shroud or a grill around the radiator. Guys would cover the radiator and when the pre-heater was hot enough they’d switch over to the cheapest fuel they could burn.”

It was called ‘distillate’ and the quality ranged from near diesel to kerosene or coal oil.

HISTORIC DEERE—Understanding why and how it was that John Deere fits into the story of American farming, Kenny’s something of a historian.

Native Geezerplexians are excused from knowing the history of Popping Johnnys since they were developed for row cropping, a thing mostly played out here before the 1925 delivery of the first John Deere Model D.

Farming here had little in common with the tale of American farmers unleashing the fertile wealth of the Midwest farm belt where in 1836 native Vermont blacksmith John Deere planted the seed of his company’s rise with an anvil and forge.

Rich soils clung to the iron plow bottoms the first farmers used to break the American plains. Cast iron was fine for turning light and sandy New England soils but Midwestern farmers found themselves stopping every few steps to scrape soil from their plow bottom.

FAMOUS VOW—John Deere studied the problem and built a highly-polished and properly shaped moldboard and share that scoured itself as it turned furrows.

It was the practice of blacksmiths in those days to build tools on order. John Deere went into mass production, manufacturing his plows then going out selling over the countryside.

Word of his polished steel plow spread and his success set a standard for putting quality ahead of cost.

Farmers recognized their return on investment.

John Deere the man is remembered for his vow, “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.”

Two generations passed.

“When they started building tractors they’d put them to work and after they’d run them in the ground they’d bring them back to the factory, tear them down and refine their design accordingly,” said Kenny, who once made the company’s Moline, Illinois factory a family vacation destination.

(The finer points of his highly honed appreciation of John Deere’s part of the American tale reaches beyond the grasp of Mrs. Earman, an artist and designer, interior decor consultant and matriarch of Mt. Pleasant’s initial Texas Main Street movement.)

“Until I remember to plant that hedge row she wants between our house and the tractors on the porch at my shop, our marriage won’t be perfect,” he said.

In another example, visitors will notice that Kenny’s larger collection of vintage tractors is shielded from view from the veranda overlooking the pond, pier and fountains below the family home on the hill. Where she sees rusty hulks of ancient steel, he sees but the veneer of patina over equipment that changed the way men work.

FUTURE PLANS—“When I quit working for customers I’d like to restore this for myself,” he said, pausing at the old hammer mill he bought from his cousin.

Over time, he’s cannibalized parts from his rows of old tractors while leaving the best prospects for restoration in tact.

It’s been years since he rebuilt a tractor for himself – the last pair, a unique set separated by a single digit in their serial numbers, had rolled off the assembly line on the same day with only one tractor between them.

It made them semi-unique, appealing in the same way a set of matched mules lent an element of aesthetic status to farmers. Mrs. Earman readily agreed and further encouraged their being turned to cash earmarked for their sons’ college tuitions.

At 59, Kenny thinks of retiring, golden years and traveling with Gail and so he’s slowly selling off most of his tractors for others to restore. He doesn’t advertise, but 20 years into his work, word has filtered out and people come hunting him.

For a few years after leaving the coal mines that landed his family here, he worked full-time restoring tractors.

“Eight hours a day gets to be too much,” he said. If the mechanics are simple, the work of breaking through years of rust is brutal enough and the goal of cleaning and restoring everything to new grows tedious.

“A few hours after work is better,” he said. “I catch myself wondering who used the tractor I’m working on.” He can get some framework of information from company records based on a serial number.

“It’s better when I take the time to find out what I can about a tractor and when I think about a customer willing to pay me because he wants that particular tractor to be perfect again,” he said. “That’s how I like it and it’s like any job – it’s easiest to do your best work when you’re in the right frame of mind.”

The magic is in a mind geared to getting as close to perfect as human effort might and finding the taste of satisfaction there.

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