I ease off the clutch, yet no matter how slowly I lift my foot, the tractor jumps forward in a quick and unexpected way—reminding me that this is no car. This is a hard working farm vehicle that has tilled many acres. The tractor does not have power steering and it gives you a workout as it plows through the South Carolina soil. The large tires turn slowly; the exhaust permeates the air with the smell of burning gasoline and engine oil just an arm’s length from my face. This tractor was built in the good old days when smoke was good for you. I am engulfed in an atmosphere of warm sunshine and a cool breeze that carries with it exhaust fumes and the smell of fresh cut grass and turned earth—sensations tied to farm machinery and open land. This is not a luxurious joy ride with leather-trimmed seats and cool air conditioning—and I would not want it any other way.
The history of the tractor is layered in the rust, dirt, and paint chips collected over many years across its surface. The tractor currently resides on my Uncle Phillip’s land in Kingstree, South Carolina, where he teaches me about the four-cylinder gasoline engine tractor operation. He explains that once I am seated, I step on the clutch and shift the tractor into gear. Different attachments─a harrow, bush hog, disc plow, or seed drill─can be connected to the back of the tractor. A lever by the seat activates the hydraulics that raise or lower the attachment.
Sitting on the tractor, it feels strong and sturdy, as if time has had no effect on it. Unlike its powerful metal gears and gleaming sides, the small black leather seat I’m sitting on is soft and worn-out, testifying to its use over the years. Yet, for me, this seat is the tractor’s strength. I am the fourth generation in my family to sit on its black leather, starting with my great-granddad who originally purchased the tractor. My great-granddad was an automobile mechanic and He kept the tractor in peak running order. He also passed those skills to my granddad. Together, they have kept this 1953 Golden Jubilee in prime condition.
The din and movement open my imagination. I am this land and this place.
I turn the key and the engine rumbles alive like a southern summer thunderstorm. I use the disc harrow on the back of the tractor to till a small stretch of land. The blades rotate through the ground and churn up fresh soil. Inching along at five miles per hour, I savor every minute of the experience. My mind wanders and I lose track of time. Captured in the moment and ritual of farmwork, I connect with the land. It is just me, the rumble of the engine, and the soft turned soil stretching behind. The powerful tractor plows ahead as if it possesses a will of it own. I picture myself farming, preparing the soil for tobacco, cotton, corn, or soybeans. I am moved by a strong connection with the land around me and yet I have never farmed a day in my life. Driving the tractor, I feel as if I am working on a southern plantation in a different time. The din and movement open my imagination. I am this land and this place. The tractor is a vehicle traversing the connections between people, place, time, tradition, family.
The history of this 1953 Ford Golden Jubilee begins at Middleton Place, a plantation in North Charleston, where it was purchased to cut grass. Three decades later, Middleton Place no longer had any use for the tractor, but my great-granddad valued its utility and held the know-how to keep the old machine well-oiled and running. In 1983, he bought the tractor from Middleton Place to use on his own land, showing relentless strength as he neared his seventieth birthday. My great-granddad is a hardworking man and determined in every sense of the word. He has witnessed hardship and labored long hours, taking pride in his work and never letting his age slow him down. Thirty years after he purchased the Ford Golden Jubilee, my family gathered in Charleston to celebrate his hundredth birthday. I enjoyed a plate of South Carolina mustard barbecue with coleslaw and Brunswick stew, as 155 guests surrounded my great-granddad to celebrate this milestone in his life. I have heard his stories about living and working through the Great Depression before, but listened with renewed appreciation as he recalled in detail his memories from the 1920s and 1930s. He lived a history that I know only through words. I stand amazed at all that he has witnessed and experienced in the century of his lifetime.
I sat and talked with my great-granddad, listening to his stories and sharing a few of my own. I showed him a picture of me driving his old tractor, the 1953 Ford Golden Jubilee. “Oh that’s my old Jubilee,” he said with a big smile, his eyes alive with pleasure and memory. He and I are separated by nearly eighty years, but the venerable tractor connects us in ways beyond words. I know this every time engine cranks, the gears engage, the disc harrow descends into the dirt, and the tractor shudders forward as I let out the clutch. This powerful machine is a direct connection to the hard work of my great-granddad. Taking my place on the worn leather seat, I touch the lifetimes of hard work my family has known. “You’re the fourth generation to drive that tractor,” my uncle reminds me as I put my foot on its clutch for the first time.