17 November 2023

Firing up grey Fergies, Howard and Farmall tractors for rally celebrating special breed of workhorse

| John Thistleton
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man on tractor hauling a cut tree

Jack Handley hauling a mountain ash at his property “The Water Fall’’ at Cowper’s Creek, Myrtleville, near Taralga. Photo: Handley family collection.

Standing in paddocks, iron sheds and under shady trees and loved like retired working dogs with greying jowls, old tractors refuse to die.

Easy to repair and ever reliable, they are often pressed into service again.

Almost 20 years ago, many of their owners formed the Southern Tablelands Vintage Farm Machinery Club to remember and celebrate their legacy. They’re getting together later this month for a rally and to celebrate two 100-year-old models, the Howard and International Formal tractors.

Farmers who have never let go of their old tractors had a chuckle in April this year when the British-owned Inmarsat satellite, which supports the GPS systems in agricultural machinery, was down for 12 hours. That grounded modern tractors reliant on GPS.

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“If you had these old girls, they just keep on going,” Robert Handley said, nodding to a couple of well-worn Massey Fergusons on his farm at Myrtleville, near Taralga.

One’s a 1960s 35-horsepower model with a three-cylinder Perkins motor that belonged to his father Jack.

“He used it for getting around the paddocks – drove it like a four-wheel motorbike sort of thing,” Robert said. “It was an easy way of getting around the paddock. As you can see, there are a lot of steep hills around here, you can get up and down all the hills.”

man with tractor in his shed

Robert Handley with a 1949 Massey Harris tractor that powered a large breaking-down saw. The timber was used for farm sheds and cattle yards in the 1950s and ’60s. Photo: John Thistleton.

Robert likes to recount the story of scores of little Massey Fergusons saving the border town of Wentworth on the Murray River back in 1956 from rising flood waters. In driving rain, most machinery was useless but the Fergies excelled in the slippery going, dragging, dumping and compacting soil on levee banks, and preventing more flooding in town.

So grateful were the good people of Wentworth they built a memorial to the Ferguson, just as a group of tractor enthusiasts has made a plaque and rotary hoe commemorating Arthur Howard, who was born in Crookwell in 1893 and invented the rotary hoe and later established the first large-scale production of tractors in Australia.

The Southern Tablelands Vintage Farm Machinery Club, which made the Howard memorial, will celebrate the Howard and International Farmall centenaries at a rally at Taralga on 18 and 19 November.

Robert, the club president, said plenty of family entertainment had been organised for the rally at the Taralga Showground, including free hay rides for kids. Farmer Bobby Blay will provide sheep for a shearing demonstration by shearer Lindsay Cosgrove.

Classic cars and trucks, small engines, an 1889 Robey thrasher, traction steam engines and numerous tractors will be on display, bringing back the days when ingenuity made life easier on the farm.

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A few mates started the club in 2004, membership grew and rallies have been held along with tractor treks, including the national tractor trek, which they hosted in 2010.

Drawing more than 70 tractors, they made two trips from Taralga to the Goulburn Historic Waterworks Museum and to Wombeyan Caves, using back roads and fire trails.

“They need a good run occasionally,” Robert said. “You get the oils up into their bearings, otherwise the seals dry out and when you go to use them [with damaged seals], everything starts leaking out.”

On his 180-acre (72-hectare) property Stratheden, which he bought from his father, Robert’s vintage machines include an old International bulldozer that Jack had bought brand new in 1968 when he was a contractor, making roads, dams and pushing over trees. He had two or three dozers going at once in those days.

“I worked with him when I first left school,” Robert said. “I used to drive them when I was 14.”

Still running well, the dozer was handy ripping out rocks recently on one of Robert’s paddocks. About 10 years ago, he bought an old Massey Ferguson 165, a 1950s model that was the first to have power steering, from a Berrima hobby farmer.

tractor badge

Promising a ”velvet ride for your comfort and health”, the 1949 Massey Harris had a heavy spring under its seat. But it was far from a soft journey on the powerful, rugged machine. Photo: John Thistleton.

In one of Robert’s sheds is a 1948 grey Fergie, a garden tractor he bought from Chevalier College, Bowral, and still in good working order.

“The little grey Fergie was a great invention when it came out,” Robert said.

”It could do so many things on the farm, it took over from the horses. It was small, easy to operate, with so many implements you could put on it and do all the jobs around the farm.”

Southern Tablelands Vintage Farm Machinery Club’s rally is at the Taralga Showground on 18-19 November, 9 am to 4 pm.

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