For years now, we, the Orrell family, have spit-shined and hand-cranked our antique John Deere tractor to prepare it for Christmas parades, and every year we hear people say how remarkable it is that “the Deere still runs.” What’s remarkable to us, though, is not the tractor’s running, but the history behind how this piece of machinery got to my family in the late 1930s, and what it means to Davie County.
In the late 1930s, family and neighbors in Advance, North Carolina, helped each other and shared tools during the harvest. On Feb. 16, 1937, the farmers in Advance agreed to set up the Potts family’s steam-driven tractor—the only one in Davie County—in exchange for some of the harvested Kobe lespedeza, a grass used for hay, as well as some seed to use next season.
At about 10 a.m., something went horribly wrong. The vehicle’s steam engine blew up without warning, hurling large chunks of metal and sheets of iron hundreds of yards. The explosion could be heard for miles, and it shattered windows in the schoolhouse and nearby homes.
Harvey Dinkins, a Winston-Salem Journal newspaper reporter, described the scene like this: “The force of the explosion was almost incomprehensible. A large section of garden palings was picked up near the point of the blast and literally blown to splinters. . . Gearings off the engine proper were hurled about like leaves in the wind.” The running gears of the steam engine, which he said was the size of a school bus, were “stood on end” by the explosion and landed on a truck parked over 6 feet away.
Three people were killed that day, and at least one more suffered injuries from the blast. There would have been another person on-site, Paul Potts, but his mother, Ida, had an eerie feeling, perhaps a mother’s intuition, and she didn’t allow him to go that day.
As the community mourned the loss of loved ones and neighbors, crops sat in the fields waiting to be harvested. How would families who depended on selling the crops make ends meet?
Sunrise in our house growing up meant that everyone already was up preparing our land, before moving on to others who needed help.
My grandpa James Orrell and my parents, John and Maybell, weren’t about to give up. The three sat down by the light of an oil lamp and used the back of an envelope to calculate the pennies they would need to pinch to buy a new tractor. And pinch they did. Our home was filled with love, but lacked amenities. The house was heated by a woodstove, and had neither electricity nor an indoor bathroom.
This workhorse tractor couldn’t be just a piece of machinery, but it had to be depended on by both our family and others in the area. Several days after their meeting, my family went to Martin Brothers in Mocksville, North Carolina, and bought a new 1938 John Deere tractor, among the first rubber-tire tractors ever made.
In the following years, Grandpa and Dad took the tractor to many farms around Davie County to plow and harvest their fields. Sunrise in our house growing up meant that everyone already was up preparing our land, before moving on to others who needed help.
So it’s not just that this old 1938 Deere still runs. It’s that we can honor those who are no longer with us. We’re able to celebrate another harvest season and Christmas with our neighbors and families. This tractor is not just a piece of equipment—it’s also a reminder of an era when communities joined together for the good of the community. The old John Deere is an icon of an age when hard work, and a firm faith in the good Lord above, yielded a bountiful harvest of many descriptions.