TOM BRYANT: Tracking Down A Tractor Enthusiast
The morning sun was bright on a spring-like February day when I drove up to Mike Wilson's farm.
Rich Warters met me at the cut leading over the tracks. I followed him across the field where we were to meet Mike at one of the sheet metal buildings that houses his son's operation as a tool and dye engineer. It also shelters several Minneapolis-Moline tractors that I was there to see.
Mike is a native of Moore County, having grown up on the home place, attending West End schools and eventually retiring from the Air Force after 20 years. The farm where he lives is part of two original land grants, totaling 2,500 acres, purchased by his father and grandfather in the early 1900s.
Rich Warters, a bird dog/field trial man without equal, and his organization, Sandland Field Trial Club, lease part of the Wilson acreage for field trials and a place to work their bird dogs. He told me about Mike's and his son Lawrence's passion for Moline tractors and agreed to introduce me to them. We stood outside one of the barns and greeted Mike as he got out of his pickup.
Mike is a friendly fellow, easygoing with a Southern personality that invites conversation. I immediately asked him about his beautiful pine plantation.
"My brother and I inherited the farm and use it for timber, pine straw gathering, and also for the sand. The sand is really what saved the farm after peaches went belly-up in the 1920s. It was a great place to grown up. My three sons, Lawrence, who you will meet today, John who lives in Raleigh, and Mark who lives in Tampa, Fla., had a great childhood here. Emma Jean, my bride, runs the household and is still working as a RN."
"Yep, my grandfather and dad had peach orchards that stretched from here all the way to West End, just about. Where you came over the railroad tracks was a big three-story packing house. Workers would load train cars with peaches to be shipped north. From the very beginning, it was a risky operation. Lots of farmers lost their shirts trying to make the peach business work. Fortunately for us, the sand on our acreage was in great demand; and after the peaches went away, we were able to make it with that operation. And now we've got timber and pine straw to help."
About then, a big diesel pickup drove into the parking area, and Lawrence stepped out. Lawrence stands about 6 foot 6 and is big enough to handle any business his tool and dye operation might present; and as I was to discover later, he fit right in with those big Minneapolis-Moline tractors.
"How y'all doing?"
Like father, like son.
Lawrence is as hospitable as his dad. Lawrence had to answer his cell phone; and as he was doing business, Mike, Rich and I went in the shop to see the latest tractor restoration, a 1920, 17-28 Minneapolis-Moline in several stages of being disassembled. To my eye, it looked as if this tractor was beyond repair. To Mike, it was a diamond in the rough. He showed me how the Moline tractors had, way back then, perfected such things as overhead cams and four valves per piston, items today's modern cars brag about.
Lawrence walked in at that time and described the several stages of reconstruction that the tractor would go through before being completely restored. A monumental chore, I thought. We then walked down to several more outbuildings that housed more tractors. Some of them were in mint condition, completely restored by Mike and Lawrence.
There were sheds attached to the outbuildings stuffed with tractors and old motors of all kinds."We have probably 50 or 60 tractors around here, most of them Molines," Lawrence laughed, "and we work on them as we get time."
Lawrence was especially proud of a Moline that he had built for tractor pulls. His dad also had one rebuilt just for those contests.
When we walked outside, I asked Mike if he did any bird hunting.
"Well, I try to go once a year with Mills Hodge. I love to watch the dogs work." Hodge is the president of the Sandland club, and Warters is president of the Southeastern Region of the National Bird Dog Field Trial Association.
"These two boys look after me. As a matter of fact, they have a field trial coming up at the end of the month."
"That's right," Rich responded. "It starts Feb. 26. We should have a big crowd."
"In the old days when the Tufts family ran Pinehurst," Mike said, "they would bring guests out here on the farm to quail hunt. We had birds aplenty, and hunting was as big a sport back then as golf is today."
All too soon, the morning was gone; and as I was driving back home, I thought how we sometimes forget, with all the conversation about newcomers, resorts, golf tournaments and golf news, how lucky this county is to have people like Mike and Lawrence still around. Locals who are carrying on traditions that were native to our area long before golf ever came to town.
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