Ben and Fin have an impromptu consultation as Rye hangs out with the cows.
Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
I’m skidding balsam-fir sawlogs from our woodlot on a fine Saturday morning in late July when one of the many small linkage pieces that make up the tractor’s three-point hitch comes loose and drops to the forest floor. The three-point hitch is the mechanism at the rear of the machine that allows for the operation of numerous implements, such as the cable winch I use for skidding logs. A tractor without a functioning three-point hitch is like a pizza without pepperoni: not entirely useless, but definitely compromised.
I stop the tractor and bend to the ground in search of the missing part, which turns out to be little more than a bolt that in a fit of engineering genius has been modified in a manner ensuring that an off-the-shelf hardware-store unit won’t suffice. The forest duff is cool and soft as it sifts through my fingers, and I crab-walk back and forth along the skid road, though I don’t have high hopes for recovery; I’ve been cutting a copse of balsam fir at the farthest westerly corner of our property. The skid road is nearly a half-mile long, and I can’t say exactly or even roughly where the not-quite-a-bolt has dislodged, so after my second pass fails to uncover the missing piece, I abandon my quest and strike out in search of chanterelle mushrooms, a mission I know has a far likelier chance of success. Why, only yesterday the boys returned from the woods with pockets bulging and tongues wagging. “Look, Papa, look,” they called, racing across the lawn, choice specimens clutched in their sweaty palms. “The first chanterelles! The first chanterelles!” We fried the mushrooms in butter from the morning churning and ate them with fresh eggs, thinking ourselves royalty.
Still, the tractor needs its hitch rehabilitated. Not long ago, if I needed a tractor part, I’d go to Rowell Brothers, the tractor and farm-equipment repair business on the outskirts of Hardwick, a small town of about 3,000 folks eight miles east of us. I always liked going to Rowell Brothers; it was cluttered and confusing and generally unkempt. There were parts stacked upon parts, some on shelves, but many more simply heaped in piles atop the dusty floor, and although there must have been a vague organizational logic to the system, I was never able to figure it out. The air was thick with the mingled smells of grease, rubber, and cleaning solvents. It should have been an objectionable odor, but for some reason wasn’t.
The man behind Rowell’s counter was Morris Rowell, and I’m not sure how old he was, but certainly older than 70. Maybe older than 80. If Morris didn’t have the part I needed, he’d write it down on a scrap of paper and promise to order it, and when I’d call a week later to see if it had come in, he’d say, “Oh, dang, I forgot,” and then he’d order it. Dang: Morris is the only person I’ve known who uses that word. After a while, I learned not to wait a week before my first call. That speeded up the whole process considerably.
There was a two-bay garage attached to the parts room, and anyone could walk freely into the garage to ask a question of Chris or Fred, the mechanics. There was no “employees only” sign; I doubt Morris gave much thought to liability, though he probably should have, given the profusion of parts and tools, most of which were heavy or jagged or precarious or some combination of the three. These parts and tools were invariably as old as I was or older; Chris and Fred didn’t think much of newer machines, though to be fair, the owners of newer machines probably didn’t think much of the minor chaos that prevailed in the garage at Rowell’s.
But replacing the almost-bolt from the stock at Rowell Brothers isn’t an option this time, because the business closed last year. Morris spent some time trying to find a buyer, but no one stepped forward. It was one of the few times I wished I was wealthy, because I would have loved to buy the place. I wouldn’t have actually wanted to run it—I’m not completely crazy—but since I was wealthy, I could have just hired someone.
Heck, maybe Morris would have stayed on for the right deal. Maybe then when I needed a part I could have still stopped at Rowell’s and Morris would have either extracted the part from where it was buried under a pile of entirely unrelated parts where no one but Morris could find it, or written it down and then forgotten to order it, and in a few days I’d call to see whether it had come in. “Oh, dang,” he’d say, and then I’d know that my part was really on its way.
As it is, I get my part at Tractor Supply, which is sort of like the Walmart of farm-and-garden-supply stores. I’m not sure how many Tractor Supply stores there are across the country, but I think quite a few. I know of three within a one-hour radius of our place, though I’ve never needed to visit one before; Rowell’s always sufficed.
I quickly find the part I need, with no assistance from any of the clerks. It gleams in a well-lit bin and is cheaper than I thought it might be, and I briefly consider buying two, so that I’ll have a replacement if I lose another one. But then I have the irrational notion that maybe I’ll find the original one after all and thus have no need for a backup.
I check out and emerge back into the sunlit afternoon. During the entire transaction, I’ve spoken only three words: “Cash” and “Thank you.” I suppose I could have talked more, but to be honest, I just wanted to get out of there, because it smelled funny. Or maybe it was just that it didn’t smell the way I thought it should smell. No grease. No rubber. No solvent. And then I get it: It smelled clean.
On my drive home from Tractor Supply, my new part tucked securely into a front pocket of my work pants, I consider my family’s dependence on the machines that make our life possible. Or maybe “possible” isn’t the right word, because of course people did what we do for generations before the advent of the combustion engine. They pulled sawlogs with oxen; they felled trees by axe and crosscut saw; they rode to church behind the muscled flanks of horses. In my weaker moments, which seem to coincide with the breakdowns that plague our nearly two-decade-old Ford plow truck, I romanticize the days before connecting rods and exhaust valves, before worn-out brakes and car insurance. Certainly before tractor parts that fall to the forest floor, to be found some unknowable years hence by someone who finds his eye drawn to the inorganic shape of rusted metal, lifts it from the ground, and ponders its history.
Yet we’ve also benefited mightily from the vehicles we’ve owned. We carried this house—or the majority of it, anyway—stick of lumber by stick of lumber in the bed of a tricolor, two-wheel-drive Dodge pickup of late-’70s vintage. We’d bought the Dodge for $200 from the fellow who lived up the road from the $100-a-month cabin we rented while building. Actually, “cabin” is far too generous a word for the structure, which didn’t have running water but which, through an ill-advised assemblage of extension cords, featured not one, but two, live electrical outlets.
That Dodge never broke down on us. Not even once. It had a standard-shift transmission with a three-speed on the column, and finding the right gear was an art form unto itself; those of you who know old trucks know exactly what I’m talking about. It was powered by a six-cylinder engine, and when its bed was fully loaded with lumber, it could barely climb the steep hill at the road end of our driveway, and even then only if I backed into the road to get a run at the slope.
Whenever I hear people discussing modern trucks, arguing horsepower and amenities, torque curves and tow ratings as if they were matters of life and death, I think of our old Dodge, which was woefully inadequate in each of these categories but which still managed to get done what needed doing. Heck, I even shaved in its side-view mirror the morning of our wedding.
We drove that truck for two years, and would have driven it longer if the frame hadn’t succumbed to rust. I parked it in the woods behind the house, in part because no Vermont hill farm is complete without at least one abandoned vehicle listing into the ground, and in part because we just couldn’t bring ourselves to send the old girl for scrap. Two days later, I returned with a crescent wrench, removed the side-view mirror, and bolted it to the bathroom wall.
Eventually, thrift prevailed over sentiment, and we hauled the Dodge to the salvage yard. I can’t remember exactly how much we received in scrap value, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t much less than we’d paid for the truck in the first place.
When I return from Tractor Supply, I walk to where I left the tractor and install the almost-bolt. It’s a perfect fit, and just like that, I’m back in business. This makes me happy, and I think that maybe it’s okay that Rowell Brothers has closed. The world will keep spinning. The parts we need to keep our tractor running will keep being made, and I’ll still be able to find them in those well-lit bins at Tractor Supply. In some ways, it was easier than buying parts at Rowell’s; no digging through the logic-less piles, no reminder calls to Morris, no risk of bumping against something sharp or hot or oily.
But the funny thing is, those things are exactly what I miss.
A note on Cabot’s location from Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce (and a Northeast Kingdom native): “Many residents of Cabot feel more of an affinity with the Northeast Kingdom than central Vermont, being right on the border, and we’re proud to have them in the fold … Considering yourself a resident of the Northeast Kingdom goes beyond borders but often [reflects] where a person feels most at home. It speaks volumes that the Hewitts identify with our independent spirit … We’re proud to count them as Northeast Kingdom residents.” —Eds.