The Family’s First New Tractor: The Ford 8N

The Family’s First New Tractor: the Ford 8N


Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the March/April 1999 issue of

 Belt Pulley  Magazine         


The evening milking was all done and the family had eaten their supper. In the farm house on the hill overlooking the snow-covered fields of western Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota in January of 1948, Howard and Ethel Hanks sat down with their eldest son Fred to review their farming operation and to make plans for the coming spring. As related elsewhere (See “The Case NCM and a Family’s Crucial Year” in the January/February 1995 issue of Belt Pulley, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 31. and the article on the Ford/Ferguson 2N in the January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), 1947 had been a critical year for the Hanks family. The spring of 1947 had started with such miserable prospects and had gotten worse as the year progressed because of the unrelenting rain. However, in July the rains had stopped and the rest of the year was almost perfect. As a consequence, the Hanks family had gotten all their crops harvested before the snow started falling on the evening of November 14, 1947.

          Now in mid-January 1948, as the family gathered around the table discussing the upcoming year, the short winter day had ended and it was already dark. Howard lit a lantern and placed it on the table. (Rural Electric Association (REA) service would not reach this area of Beaver Township in Fillmore County until February of 1949). The family realized that their financial position was somewhat more secure than it had been in the previous year, thanks both to the weather and the gamble the family had taken in purchasing a Case NCM baler to perform some custom baling. As noted in a previous article (January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), the baler had been purchased together with a Ford/Ferguson 2N and a series of accompanying Ford/Ferguson implements.

          The Hanks family and Howard and Ethel’s, son-in-law Wayne Wells, had used the 2N and the Case baler to augment their farm income through custom baling of hay and straw in the neighborhood. Howard and Ethel’s 11-year-old son John had driven the 2N around and around many a hay field in the neighborhood. The used Ford\Ferguson 2N and the Case NCM baler that they had purchased in the spring of 1947 had really saved the family from financial ruin. The 2N was a good match for the Case NCM baler in terms of the proper slow speeds for the field. Furthermore, the addition of the Sherman step-up auxiliary unit to the transmission had meant that the little tractor would waste less time in moving the baler and hay racks around the neighborhood, helping the Hanks family complete all the custom baling that the family had contracted that year.

          Now, as Howard, Ethel and Fred sat by the kitchen table, they realized that they would need to do a good deal of custom baling again in 1948 to further consolidate their economic position on the farm. They looked at the potential manpower that they would have available for custom baling and they also looked at their current farm equipment. Although there had been substantial changes in the family over the last year, with three marriages in a single year (Bruce Hanks in April, Lorraine (Hanks) Westfall in June and Marilyn (Hanks) Wells in July), one strong point remained in favor of the Hanks family: the number of people available to help out in the busy summer season. On this particular night in January, Howard and Ethel’s youngest daughter, Hildreth, was not in the house. Currently, she was involved in school activities as a member of the LeRoy High School Cardinal annual staff which involved many meetings after school hours. Hildreth intended to join her brother Bruce at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the fall of 1948. In the interim, however, Hildreth would be available to help the family for the summer.

          Wayne Wells, who had originally proposed the idea of purchasing the Case NCM baler to his brothers-in-law Fred and Bruce Hanks, was now farming on his parents’ farm two miles to the west of the Hanks farm. He had owned 1/3 interest in the baler and the Ford/Ferguson 2N tractor together with Fred and Bruce. He had cooperated with the Hanks family during baling season and also with the custom baling they did in 1947 and would do so again in the coming year.  

          Besides Fred, young John, and son-in-law Wayne Wells, Howard and Ethel’s second son Bruce would be available during the month of August. While Bruce’s course of study at Moody occupied the entire year, the month of August was summer vacation. Bruce and Mary intended to return to the farm in LeRoy in August of 1948 and for each year after until Bruce graduated. Therefore, Bruce would also be available to help out on the farm for one very busy month of the summer season.  

          Additionally, the Hanks family knew they would probably have to hire some help just as they had in 1947. Accordingly, the family assumed that they would again be hiring Keith Hall, Billy Blade and some other high school age boys from the town of LeRoy to help out at different times during the year when the workload was the heaviest.

          In a review of their farm machinery, the Hanks family began considering the little 2N tractor. While the Ford\Ferguson 2N had served the family well in the previous year, the little gray tractor did have its imperfections. One of the most striking shortcomings of the Ford 2N which was noted by the Hanks family was the awkward arrangement of its operator foot brake pedals. As pointed out in a previous article (January/February 1998 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 12, No. 1.), the Ford Company designed their tractors to have a low center of gravity. While this was an appealing feature, especially where farming was conducted on steep, hilly fields, the low center of gravity was obtained by having the operator of the tractor straddle the power train, with one foot on the right side and one foot on the left side of the transmission. Like the Ford/Ferguson 9N which had preceded the 2N in production, in addition to the left-side brake pedal being located on the left side of the tractor, the foot clutch of the 9N and 2N was also located on the left side of the tractor. For sharp left turns from a dead stop, the operator was already using his left foot to release the clutch and therefore could not engage the left brake to aid in a turn. This was a definite disadvantage when pulling the manure spreader in the cow yard and positioning it near the barn for loading from the manure carrier, when backing any farm wagons or other farm implements around the yard, or when making sharp turns in the fields while cultivating corn or beans. Additionally, although the Model 2N had been equipped with the auxiliary Sherman Step-Up transmission, the little three-speed transmission was still out of date.

          In the fall and winter months of 1947-1948, Fred was attracted by information about the new Ford tractor–the Model 8N, which had just been introduced. Models of the new red and gray Ford 8N had been on display at Regan’s, the local Ford car and tractor dealership located in LeRoy, since September. Since returning to civilian life in June of 1947 following a tour of duty in Italy as part of the occupation forces of the United States Army, Fred had become friends with Stub Orke who was working as a salesman at Regan’s. Stub Orke pointed out to Fred all the improved features of the Model 8N.

          The new Ford 8N offered an improved hydraulic system, running boards and other refinements. The new 8N, following the arrangement common to most all other foot-clutch tractors, was designed with both brakes pedals located on the right side of the tractor. This improvement corrected the awkwardness of the Ford/Ferguson 2N. Of all the improvements in the new model 8N, one of the most important for the Hanks family was the new four-speed transmission. Furthermore, the 8N could be ordered with its own factory-installed optional overdrive transmission. (This overdrive unit was very similar to the unit pictured in the advertisement located between page 12 and page 13 in the Autumn 1995 issue of the 9N-2N-8N Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 4.) The optional overdrive meant that the 8N would have eight speed ranges from which the operator could chose. Although the Hanks family had installed the Sherman Step-Up auxiliary unit to the 2N, and although this unit had supposedly increased the road speed of the 2N from 7.48 mph at 1400 rpm and 11.75 mph at 2269 rpm (See Alan C. King, The Fordson and Ford Tractor, [Independent Print Shop Co.: Delaware, Ohio, 1989] p. 24) to as high as 18 mph (Robert Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Ford Tractors, [Motorbooks International: Oseola, Wis., 1990] p. 60.), the truth of the matter was that under a load, this increase in speed was effectively compromised. The 2N had rarely been on the road in 1947 without the baler and a hayrack (or possibly two) in tow. Therefore, much of the theoretical increase in the road speed of the 2N, obtained with the addition of the Sherman overdrive, was missing in actual practice. The new Ford 8N, with the factory-installed overdrive, would supposedly have a road speed of 17.8 mph at 1750 rpm. Additionally, the horsepower was increased from 19 hp. for the 2N to nearly 26 hp. for the 8N. (Robert Pripps and Andrew Morland, Ford Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisconsin, 1990].) Therefore, the new 8N would offer a better chance of maintaining that speed even under a load which may include the baler and hayracks. Thus the custom baling operation could be moved from farm to farm at a quicker pace. The family knew that “time is money” in custom farming and that the time spent on the road did not make money. With the operational road speed of 17-18 mph, the 8N would reduce travel time by 50% over the 2N.

          Still, despite all the changes in design, the Model 8N retained the same gear ratios in first and second gears that had been present in the 2N. (Robert Pripps and Andrew Morland, Ford Tractors [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisconsin, 1990], p. 37.) Experience had shown that the 2N was the only tractor that could “walk” along at the proper speed in the hayfield to allow the crew riding the Case baler time enough to complete the wire tying of each bale. Young John Hanks found that while pulling the baler in the hayfield, a simple throttle adjustment was all that was needed to retain the proper speed under the changing conditions of hills and increasing load on the hay rack. There was no need to resort to frequent changes of gears to pull the baler and partially loaded wagon. Since the 8N retained the same gear ratios for the lower speeds, the 8N should be as good a match to the Case NCM baler as the 2N had been.

          Additionally, the 8N would be a brand new tractor–the very first new tractor owned by the Hanks family with all the benefits that a tractor straight from the factory could offer in terms of low maintenance and reliability. The 8N would join the family’s first tractors–a 1929 John Deere D purchased in 1935 and a 1942 Farmall H purchased in 1944 as part of the purchase of the farm. (See “The Wartime Farmall H” located at page 13 of the July/August 1994 Belt Pulley.)

          Furthermore, all of the attachable implements of the Ferguson System which the Hanks family had purchased with the 2N would be thoroughly adaptable to the new 8N. (The implements of the Ferguson System are pictured in an advertisement on page 32 of Ford Tractors: N Series, Fordson, Ford and Ferguson, 1914-1954, by Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Morland [Motorbooks International Publishers: Osceola, Wisc., 1990].)

          After planning for the coming year, the Hanks family traded in the 2N Ford/Ferguson on the purchase of the new Ford 8N at Regan Ford dealership in the winter of 1948. They were not alone. The Ford 8N became the most popular tractor ever sold by Ford, with 100,000 8Ns being produced and sold per year in 1948 and 1949. (Michael Williams, Ford and Fordson Tractors [Farming Press: Frome and London, England, 1985] p. 105.)

          Since the equipment that came with the used 2N in the spring of 1947 did not include a row corn and bean cultivator, the Hanks family ordered a new Ford/Dearborn two-row shank cultivator along with the new 8N. The new red painted Ford/Dearborn was put aside in the machine shed to await cultivating season. However, the Hanks family did not have to wait until summer to put the new little 8N to work.

          Wintertime was the traditional time of the year for farmers to bale the straw in their threshing stacks. Consequently, even in winter there were neighbors who needed someone to perform custom baling. The advent of pickup balers made stack threshing a much faster operation than had previously been the case with stationary balers. Ordinarily, the Case NCM baler had a ground driven pick-up which was powered by a chain from the left wheel of the baler. However, Case had provided a stationary baling attachment which would allow the pickup to be powered by the baler’s Wisconsin VE-4 air-cooled engine. Indeed, the Hanks family found that the stationary baling pickup attachment worked so well they left the attachment on the baler all year around and used the engine to power the pickup even when baling from the windrow in the field.

          The Case NCM baler baled with wires and did not have an automatic tying mechanism. Instead, two members of the baling crew sat on seats located on either side of the bale chute. The worker sitting on the left side of the baler behind the left wheel would poke the wires through the hay in holes provided by the bale divider which was located between the bales. The worker on the left would also have to rescue the bale divider from the end of the chute when the preceding bale had dropped out onto the ground or was pulled out by the worker on a wagon trailing along behind the baler. The worker on the left side of the bale chute would also be responsible for placing the divider on the bale divider carriage. At the proper time, he/she would also slide the carriage and divider into the bale chute and quickly withdraw the carriage leaving the divider in the hay. This procedure would have to be done quickly before the plunger pushed more hay/straw down the bale chute.  

          The miserable summertime working conditions for the crew on the NCM baler and the tediousness of working with the Wisconsin VE-4 engine on the NCM baler (described in “The Case NCM and a Family’s Crucial Year” in the January/February 1995 issue of Belt Pulley, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 31) were somewhat abated by winter weather. To be sure, the work was still dusty, but the workers did not get hot and sweaty in the winter, like he/she did in the summer, when dressed in lots of tight fitting clothing to prevent dust infiltration. Additionally, the cold weather meant that the four-cylinder VE-4 Wisconsin engine was easier to start when it inadvertently stalled on a big lump of straw. The vapor lock problem with which the engine seemed to be afflicted was not as prevalent in the wintertime as it was under the hot summer sun.

          The Hanks family put the new little 8N to work immediately towing the Case baler. Arriving at a farm that winter, the baler would be set up next to the straw stack, then the Wisconsin engine on the baler would be started and baling would begin. The straw in the stack would be fed into the pickup on the baler by workers with pitchforks. The 8N and baler were providing a source of extra income to the Hanks family in the wintertime when few other sources of income were available.

          Spring soon arrived, however, and it was time to carry out the plans that had been made during the winter. First, the 8N was used for field tillage. Most often, the 8N could be found attached to the Ferguson System field cultivator, working the fresh ground in preparation for seeding and corn planting. The ease with which the Ford 8N could be operated with its hydraulic three-point hitch meant that many times 13-year-old John Hanks could help with the field work.

          The Hanks family continued to be optimistic about the year ahead. All indications were bright that spring. Ever since Secretary of State George C. Marshall had, in a commencement speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, proposed a program to send United State’s aid to Europe to assist in the post-war recovery, there had been a rise in farm prices. This program, which had started as a Truman Administration proposal, was later passed by Congress and became known as the “Marshall Plan.” (David McCullough, Truman, [Simon and Schuster: New York, NY, 1992], pp. 562-563.)   The rise in farm prices, stimulated by the Marshall Plan, was continuing into 1948. This was putting an end to the post-war recession for the farm markets. Furthermore, the heavy rains in the spring and summer of 1947 had caused the crop yields in 1947 to be small. This shortage was a further spur to farm commodity prices.

          Before haying season in 1948, the Hanks family and Wayne Wells decided a change was desirable in the baler they had employed in 1947. Accordingly, they sold the old used Case NCM baler to Howard Hanks’ brothers, Stanley and Harlan Hanks, of Winnebago, Minnesota. (See “The Larson Bundle Wagon” in the March/April 1996 issue of Belt Pulley Vol. 9, No. 2, p. 28, and “The Sandwich Manufacturing Co.” in the July/August 1998 issue of Belt Pulley, Vol 11, No. 4, p. 16 for a discussion of haying on the Winnebago farms of Stanley and Harlan Hanks prior to the arrival of this Case NCM baler in 1948.)

        After selling the old Case NCM, Howard and Fred Hanks and Wayne Wells then went shopping for a new baler. Unfortunately, they did not purchase a new New Holland Model 76 “Automaton” baler with its fine twine self-tying system, nor did they turn to the new McCormick-Deering Model 50-T pickup baler. Had they done so, the family might have found that baling with a self-tying baler was much easier, cleaner and quicker. They might have found that twine was a product that was much safer for a dairy herd (less “hardware disease” from cows swallowing little fragments of wire). Instead, the family went to Wetter-Krinke Implement Dealership, the local Case dealership in LeRoy, and bought another new Case NCM hand-tying baler. No doubt the reason they did not go with the self-tying machine was that they were offered a very good price on a new Case NCM hand-tying baler. Case was already seeing the writing on the wall with regard to the hand-tying pickup baler. The 1947 suggested price of the NCM was $1,140. When Case introduced its own twine tying baler in 1950, the price would be $2,110. (C.H. Wendel, 150 Years of J.I. Case, Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Florida, 1991), p. 74.) Additionally, the Hanks family no doubt felt that they would continue to have a sizeable work force in the future which was necessary to man a hand-tying baler system. Bruce would continue in school at Moody until 1951, but would be available on the farm every August until that time. Furthermore, Wayne Wells remained part owner of the baler and would be cooperating at hay making time. Wayne’s father, George M. Wells, still took an active interest in the farming operation he had retired from and would be helping out during busy times of the year, like hay season. Furthermore, young John Hanks, now out of junior high school for the summer, could be put into service driving the 8N most of the time.

          Accordingly, Wayne Wells and Fred and Howard Hanks all put up the money they needed to purchase the new Case NCM baler and went to the hay fields in the summer of 1948 with a new tractor and a new baler. The 8N worked well with the Case baler just as the 2N had with the old Case baler. However, the new 8N was more flexible and convenient to use. When the family was not baling hay or straw, they could immediately back into and attach the rear-mounted corn and bean cultivator and head off to the fields in a jiffy to do some quick cultivating.

          Unlike 1947, the weather cooperated all year and the family found that the custom baling kept them very busy all summer. Even with Bruce returning home in August to help with the custom work, the family was busy all summer. They hardly had time to complete all the field work on the home farm. The 8N worked well all year and helped the family not only to complete all their own field work but to successfully complete all the custom work on the long list of neighbors that had contracted with the them to do hay and straw baling.

          The Ford 8N would continue to serve the family in a variety of tasks in 1948 and through the following years. Having no silo on their own farm, the Hanks’ rented two silos on the Lloyd Tapp farm in 1949 and 1950. Hauling wagon loads of silage over the two miles of dirt roads past the Wayne Wells farm to the Lloyd Tapp farm was a chance for the family to once again appreciate the relatively fast road speed and increased power of the 8N.

          Still, the operator did have time to daydream on this little trip. Once George Wells was driving the 8N down the road with a full load of silage from the Hanks farm. Everything was functioning just fine and George found himself thinking of other topics as he drove along. In the past, George had expressed the desire that he had always wanted to be a minister. Perhaps he was thinking about this or some other subject, as he absent-mindedly drove right past the driveway to the Lloyd Tapp farm even waving politely to Fred Hanks and some of the men who were waiting to unload the silage. As he started up the Frank Klassey hill just past the Tapp farm driveway, George Wells realized his error and had to stop and back the wagon and tractor up to turn into the Tapp farm. He had to face some embarrassing, light ribbing from the men gathered there.

          Despite advanced features like modern hydraulics and the three-point hitch, the Ford 8N became antiquated on mid-western farms because of the ever increasing demand for more horsepower which was becoming universal in the 1950s. When the Hanks family traded the Case NCM baler in on the new John Deere 14T baler in 1956, the main reason for keeping the 8N was gone. Consequently, in 1956, the 8N was sold by Wayne Wells and the Hanks family.

          The Ford 8N stirs memories of farming during a simpler time. No doubt memories will once again be roused in a major way in the summer of 1999 when the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association Show hosts the national Ford Collectors Association summer convention on the Pioneer Power showgrounds on August 27-29, 1999. Without a doubt, many restored examples of the Ford 8N will be on exhibit at that show.

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