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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    July 2008

Running Like a Deere

Norman Ruebush never met a John Deere tractor he didn't want to tinker with. You can see the results on the 4th of July.

Story and photos by David A. Fryxell

It's not hard to figure out which is Norman Ruebush's place. "Look for the first house with a stone wall," he says, giving directions within the Silver Acres subdivision south of Silver City. He oughta just say to look for the John Deere tractor.

Norman Ruebush in his tractor yard.

Make that tractors, plural. Ruebush has restored eight and has another 12 waiting to be worked on. The first one, back in the early 1990s, took him exactly a year; he has before and after photos with his granddaughter sitting atop the tractor, bookending the restoration. These days, tractors like the gleaming green-and-yellow John Deere "G" sitting out front of his workshop — twin exhausts jutting from the front like jade elephant tusks, mammoth rear tires the size of upended wading pools — might take him four months. "It depends on how much I go fishing," he says.

A dozen or more such vintage tractors, restored by Ruebush and a neighbor , Layne Fanning, similarly bitten by the tractor bug, will chug their way through Silver City's 4th of July parade this year. Then they'll be parked at the Silver City Museum, where another trusty John Deere engine will churn ice cream for the museum's 25th annual Ice Cream Social.

"Let me show you this," says Ruebush, tugging on the John Deere green ballcap that tops his gray hair. With a characteristic twinkle behind his eyeglasses, he leads the way past the sentinel "G" tractor into the first of a warren of workshops. Each room boasts its own assortment of tools, tanks, bins, cords, wheels, wrenches, brooms, antique whatchamacallits, parts, motors and cloth-covered works-in-progress. At the front entrance, a pair of cowboy boots, toes curling upward like a jester's footwear, hangs on either side of a pinkish metal pole.

Displaying a strength belying his age, Ruebush muscles a propane tank as tall as he is into position and hooks it up to a Rube Goldberg-ish contraption set on a wagon painted the inevitable green and yellow. The open-sided wagon holds a white freezer chest, twin two-gallon wooden-sided ice-cream makers, and a John Deere motor connected to a pair of metal wheels that in turn crank the ice cream. A sign on the side of the wagon reads, "Sponsored By The Grumpy Old Men With Tractors & Werner Tire."

The contraption debuted at last July 4th's ice-cream social — supplementing the museum's more mundane ice-cream-making machinery, Ruebush explains. Before being employed to make ice cream, an engine like this might have been used to pump water, grind feed or operate a forge in a blacksmith's shop.

"This here is called a 'hit or miss' engine," he adds. "Lemme show you why."

Ruebush begins furiously cranking the engine until it emits a burst of smoke, pauses to tweak something, then resumes cranking. Finally he's rewarded with a more or less steady puffing and burping from the engine. Satisfied, he takes a rag from a nearby bin, sidles over and uses it to briefly create resistance. The motor instantly responds by revving up to a rapid putt-putt-putt.

By "hitting" only when it needs to, this old but surprisingly efficient engine burns a minimum of fuel, Ruebush says. "It can run forever. I'll run it all year on that one tank. After the county fair last year, I went to top off the tank, and couldn't put any more in it!"

He nods in appreciation of the smarts of those long-ago John Deere engineers. "That's what it sounds like when we're making ice cream," he adds, as the engine resumes its previous rhythm and, as it warms up, spaces its bursts more than a second apart. "It can turn out a freezer of ice cream in seven minutes."

Last year, however, when the machine made its debut, Ruebush and the "grumpy old men" lost a "good-natured competition" with the museum board to see who could sell the most ice cream. That dependable Deere engine inexplicably conked out midway through. Sandy Hicks, president of the museum board, could be heard giving out a triumphant "yippee!"

Ruebush gives a thoughtful tug on his ballcap as he relates this, as if to say, "Not this year."

But it's not ice cream that interests Norman Ruebush — it's the tinkering. Especially on tractors. John Deere tractors.

"It's what I grew up with," he says, adding with that twinkle in his eye again, "I grew up in Deming, so I'm a long way from home. My family had a farm east of Deming, then my wife and I farmed for 11 years."

He took to tinkering at the age of 13, when he bought an old Model A Ford. "I was in the garage there, tearing everything loose, throwing everything out onto the floor," Ruebush recalls. "A Mr. Heard, who bought milk from us, came up to me and said, 'Son, do you realize you have to put those parts back in the same place they came out of?'"

After he'd had enough of farming, Ruebush moved to Grant County and worked as a welder at the Tyrone mine for 17 years, then operated a slaughterhouse for another 17 years before he "got tired of working." The former slaughterhouse — which he tried to sell, but couldn't find any takers — now helps house his tinkering.

His tractor obsession was already in full bloom by the time he shut down the slaughterhouse in 2001. When he bought and restored that first John Deere tractor, did he have any idea how consuming a passion this would prove to be?

"I had a stinkin' feeling," Ruebush confesses.

Soon he was "picking up stuff" everywhere he went — this old engine in Hatch, that tractor in Gainesville, Texas, this one still with the original tires down in Mexico. He says, "It gets to where you need to keep your eyes closed when you travel."

Happily for the Ruebushes' marriage, his wife Deleen supports his hobby and even helps spot tractors in need of TLC. "My wife found the last few I bought," he says. "I'll be driving along and she'll say, 'Honey, there's a tractor!' She was raised on a farm, too, in north Texas."

Bargains in old tractors are harder to find these days, however. "It used to be you could go to Mexico and pick up a tractor that still runs for $200 to $500," Ruebush goes on. "Now it's maybe $1,800." Collectors — many of whom have never even gotten grease on their hands — have discovered antique tractors, he explains. Given the number of die-hard devotees of every old brand, it'd be hard not to make money by buying and restoring antique tractors.

Not that Ruebush actually sells his tractors. "That's the only thing that gripes Deleen," he allows. "If somebody wanted one worse than I did, yeah, I might sell it, but they'd have to want it. I did sell one into California." His tone suggests that, in retrospect, this may have been something he regrets.

The rising interest in tractor collecting has even spawned several shows. His neighbor, Layne Fanning, who collects and restores Farmall tractors — red to John Deere's green — recently went all the way to Missouri for a "Red Power" exhibition. Deere sponsors two such shows a year, holding the summer event in its headquarters town of Moline, Ill.

Ruebush has several "expo" quality tractors, meeting the high standards of such shows. "They have to approve your tractor before you can bring it in," he explains. But he's never made the trek to the Deere show. "That's never appealed to me. Nobody in their right mind who lives in Silver City would want to go to Moline, Ill., in the summertime."

Nonetheless, Ruebush is a John Deere man, heart and soul. "I was raised on John Deere tractors, and my family never owned anything but," he says. "My neighbor down the road has all red tractors. I just tell everybody that he's misguided."

Truth be told, Ruebush actually owns two "red tractors" — Farmall brand, manufactured by International Harvester — himself. One was a gift and the other was, well, just too good a deal to pass up. He'd rather that word about this deviation from Deere not get out, however.

"There's something about those old two-cylinder John Deere tractors," he says. "Those engineers who built the first John Deeres knew what they were doing." The classic John Deere "D" tractors first rolled off the assembly line in 1923 — Ruebush has one dating to 1929 — and continued in production for 30 years, even as the company introduced new models up and down the alphabet.


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