Bill Coe and his wife, Gwen, who farm near Carnegie, Okla., share a passion for preserving the history and traditions that molded a generation of farm families into what is arguably the most productive agrarian society ever.
They spend hours researching family histories and can trace some ancestors back hundreds of years to Great Britain.
Bill, who has earned a living from his Caddo County farm for 50 years, remembers stacking peanuts in shocks to dry and then forking them into a stationary threshing machine.
“We had to bag the threshed peanuts to take them to market,” he recalls.
They seem almost wistful as they recall early days on the farm, but credit the countless technological advances of the last half-century for making farmers both more productive and more efficient.
Coe, according to other farmers in the area, has been a leader in adopting technology. And he has witnessed a lot of changes since the early ’50s.
He can tell you about evolutions in farm programs, equipment, hybrids, insecticides and herbicides that revolutionized agriculture in the mid-’60s. He can explain how he incorporated new technology into his operation and made it more efficient.
But if you want to see his face light up, ask him about his collection of classic John Deere tractors. At last count, he had six, in various stages of restoration. And he's always interested in another one if he thinks he can restore it to working condition.
He hires a lot of the restoration done. “We do some, and we can save a lot of money if we do most of the work ourselves, but I'm not much of a mechanic,” he says.
Restored, the John Deeres “look better than new,” Coe says. “The paint job we get on these tractors is better than when they came out of the factory. We have better paint available than they did when they were new.”
He prefers John Deere tractors because, “that's what my father used when he started farming in 1944. If it's not green and doesn't pop, I don't want it.”
The famous Poppin‘ Johnnies are his favorites.
“It's always a special thrill to find an old tractor that a family member owned,” Gwen says.
“I keep looking for the tractor my father had,” Coe says.
But he wants more than a shiny reminder of the past with his classic John Deere tractors. He expects them to pull.
“We compete in antique and classic tractor pulls,” he explains. “And it may take six weeks of steady work to get an old tractor in shape to be competitive.”
He's currently entering a 1950-G John Deere in six or seven pulls a year. He's working on another, a 1952 John Deere he has named “the money pit.”
“I don't even want to think about how much money I've put into it.”
Parts for these old tractors are available from companies that specialize in “replacement parts, but they are expensive,” Coe says.
When he's checking out a possibility — and he has gone as far as Illinois to buy a good one — he likes to hear it run before he invests any money in it.
“I want to know if it can pull,” he says. “Otherwise, we might buy it just for parts.”
The 1950-G “pulls very well,” he says. “We've won some first places with it. But we compete mostly just to have a good time and see what these old machines will do.”
He has a collection of plaques and trophies that Gwen shows off proudly but they admit that winning is mostly for bragging rights. “We get into a lot of brand rivalry,” Coe says. “I want my John Deere to beat the Allis Chalmers, the McCormick Deerings and the Olivers in a contest. The M Farmalls give us a tussle.”
“Other contestants we've met over the years keep asking us what we're doing to the tractor,” Gwen says. “They want to know the secrets.”
“But we can only do so much and stay within the rules,” Coe adds.
Gwen says the competition brings people together. “It's a great family hobby, and we've met a lot of nice people.”
She says she particularly enjoys “the looks on the men's faces when they're pulling. They have such a contented smile, especially when they pop the front end off the ground. I think they reminisce about the past, but the competition also gives them an opportunity to play with their tractors.”
“I want to see what it will do,” Coe admits. “I don't get a lot of fun out of driving these tractors in parades. I like to see them work.”
He says Gwen gets just about as involved as he does. “She could crawl on one of these tractors and pull with any of them,” he says. “But she would pull against men; we don't have a ladies division.”
Antique and classic pulls are designed for tractors no newer than 1959 models. Scores are based on how far the tractor can pull a set amount of weight in first gear. Categories range from 3,500 pound sleds to 6,500. “We can move the tractor up a category by adjusting the tractor's weight,” Coe says.
He and Gwen organize a pull at Hydro, Okla., each year, and may attract 60 to 70 contestants.
“We also could enter plow days,” he says, “where classic and antique tractors pull old moldboard plows. We haven't been in one of those yet.”
They almost always attend and participate in the National Two-Cylinder Club, a John Deere event held the third week of July in Fairview, Oklahoma.
The Fairview historical society also sponsors a “Threshing Bee” each fall. “That event includes a lot of old time equipment,” Gwen says. “Visitors get to see old pickers, steam engines and threshers.”
“We don't get to that one too often,” Coe says. “We're usually too busy planting wheat or threshing peanuts. Occasionally we may go up for just one day for the tractor pull.”
Gwen says their hobby started off innocently enough with a toy tractor collection. “I've been collecting toy tractors about 15 years,” Coe says. “I started looking for tractors like my father used about 10 years ago. I bought my first one, a 1940 model, in 1994.”
Even with sons involved in the farming operation, Bill and Gwen keep the hobby in perspective.
“We could enter a tractor pull at least every month,” Coe says. “But we still have to farm. We'll do just six or seven a year.”
The rest of the time, he's content to tinker with the engines as he gets time, or look for a possible bargain. And he's always willing to back one out of the barn and let a visitor hear its distinct pop, pop, pop.
And Gwen is right — his face does break out in a smile as runs the machine through its paces.