A farmer finds his first love

Harold Hathaway had a passion for tinkering with machinery and continued to do so even after leaving the farm

My father, Harold Hathaway, hated farming with horses. He remembered them as being temperamental and labour-intensive and much preferred to farm with tractors.

He used to say if you take care of the machinery, keep it oiled and repaired, it’ll always work for you, and in bad weather you don’t have to go out to feed them. A horse needs feed whether it works or not, and it may decide it doesn’t want to work on a particular day, he would say.

Harold’s father bought their first tractor when Harold was five years old in 1923. It was a used Fordson and was replaced in a few years by a Hart-Parr. When the Great Depression hit in 1930, the price of gasoline rose so high, they couldn’t afford to run it. In 1930, Harold, now 12 years old, was beginning to show a serious interest in farming and said he felt pretty disappointed at having to resort to horses for field work.

In those days, horses worked only for trips to town or delivering grain, leaving the more difficult field work for tractors. Horses in the field slowed down the work, affecting his dad’s ability to make a living. By the time the Depression ended in 1939, poplar trees had grown up around the Hart-Parr. Harold and his dad had work ahead of them to get it running again.

Harold plunged into fixing the Hart-Parr, a frustrating experience but it taught him lessons about the inner workings of motors. That was when Harold found his first true love: tinkering with machinery.

As a young couple, Harold and Louise bought a new farm and moved off the old one in 1947.

He referred to the old farm as the “worst pile of rocks in Alberta.” The new farm had a double garage with a dirt floor and that is where he spent his days in winter, as much as weather would permit, maintaining his machinery.

In the 1960s, he took a welding course and bought his own welder. Now he could do so much more for himself. Other farmers in the area also asked for welding repairs. He helped his neighbours when he could but had no intention of making welding into a sideline business.

The old garage had a lot to be desired as a workshop, not the least of which was a lack of heating. But in 1965, he finally had the money for a real shop. Equipped with a concrete floor, insulation and a wood-burning barrel heater, the new shop was his pride and joy. Now he could spend every day of the winters doing what he loved: adjusting, inventing and repairing.

Tools were well organized in the shop — a place for everything. | Hathaway family photo

“I don’t know how he can stay out in that shop all day,” his wife used to say. Then she’d allow a slow smile and add, “I think he’s trying to stay away from me.” The truth is, he just loved to tinker with machinery.

He was meticulous about keeping his tools organized, and now in the new shop, he had a place for everything.

“That shop is more orderly than my kitchen,” Louise joked. He would let you borrow a tool, but you better put it back in its place or you were in trouble and never, never leave a tool outside.

He took pride in his machinery, too, and kept them in top-notch shape. He got great satisfaction if he improved on an implement’s design and function.

While the new farm they moved to was an upgrade over the previous one, it came with its own rocky challenges. Harold spend many days in summer in the summerfallow with the stone boat picking rocks. Later, a modern rock picker replaced the stone boat, but the real challenge was the occasional boulder he sometimes encountered.

One memorable behemoth made itself known when it broke a cultivator shoe. It looked to be the size of a football until Harold started digging, first with a shovel, then with the bucket on the tractor, and finally hiring a local man with a Cat to unearth it and push it to the field’s border. It turned out to be as big as a mid-sized car.

For other rock problems, Harold usually could invent something to handle them. One winter, he invented something he called a rock ripper; an attachment on the front-end loader of the tractor. It worked well and he was able to lift some pretty big monsters out of his east field with it.

A rock ripper Harold invented helped remove some of the boulders in his fields. | Hathaway family photo

He also developed a hitch for the front of the pick-up truck so he could tow it as part of his train of implements during harvest transport. He also obtained a couple of blades and adjusted them to fit his tractor: one on the front for plowing snow, the other on the back for dragging the lane in summer, smoothing out ruts.

Harold made clawed buckets out of cultivator shanks and steel that worked better than the usual bucket design for picking up boulders, trees or anything of a large size. He made three of these: a big one for the tractor, a smaller one for the little John Deere and a neighbour asked for one. He could have bought a patent for it and gone into business but he wasn’t interested in any business that wasn’t farming.

Sometimes he’d turn his attention to small projects such as patio chairs made out of old, metal tractor seats and harrow discs, or a machine shed built to scale for a grandson’s toy farm machinery.

In the early 1970s, he added to the shop with a pit in the floor to make it easier to change oil and do other maintenance on the tractor and vehicles. Now he was in seventh heaven, as he called it, and proved it by staying out of the house even more, puttering around with machinery until he retired in 1987.

Fifty-three years spent fiddling with machinery would be long enough for anyone, or so his wife thought, but even after they moved into Lloydminster, Harold spent much of his time in the garage once again, maintaining the snow blower or lawn mower, sharpening garden equipment, making small repairs and just tinkering, ever faithful to the first love of his life.

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