Restoring By Feel And Memory
June 11, 2012
He walks to the wall where tools are hanging and selects the correct wrench. His hands slowly move over a casting, seeking the nuts that fasten it. Fingers check for rust pits on the sheet metal of a vintage farm tractor. Next they feel for the oil and grime that might indicate a leaky seal.
These actions might seem common for anyone restoring old tractors. But what’s uncommon is the fact Bob Sherrard is blind – the victim of a degenerative, genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Among Bob’s early symptoms was night blindness which resulted in his “wearing out a jillion flashlights.” In the first grade he got a pair of glasses but only wore them for a year. By age 18, however, eye wear became necessary. Although his vision slowly deteriorated, for most of his life he was able to function almost normally. He farmed, operated a construction company, fished, and drove a vehicle until 1985. Because unprotected exposure to sunlight accelerates the disease, he’s worn dark glasses with side protectors for over 25 years. Today, at age 79, the only thing he can see are the fluorescent lights illuminating his shop.
The shop, located in an 81-year-old stone barn, is so neat and clean it would put most restorers to shame. A blind mechanic can’t have tools and old parts lying around to trip over. As nuts, bolts, and small parts are removed, they’re placed in cans, his pockets, or shallow cardboard boxes. Lines are painted around each tool hanging on the wall over his work bench-not for Bob, but so his grandsons know where to put them back. When he uses tools and sets them aside for a moment, he must remember their location. Memory and feel compensate for the lack of eyesight – finger tips replace eyes. But those trusted fingers are starting to lose their sensitivity.
In past years he’s overhauled the engines of a 1945 John Deere “H” and a 1936 International Harvester “F12.” When asked, “How can you figure out what needs to be done to a tractor?” he responded, “I know how things are supposed to be.” He adds, “I used to be a fast worker, but I’ve learned patience.” While he’s not afraid to take a carburetor apart, replacing gaskets during an engine overhaul is a struggle. He gets his trusted son-in-law, Alan Brennan, to assist with them and with other tasks requiring vision, such as reading manuals and transporting their latest acquisition to the shop. Although Alan helps a lot, Bob is quick to state, “I don’t ask him to do anything I can do.”
Alan says, “One of the things I really admire about Bob is how he can hear whether an engine is running properly. Some restorers are happy just to get an old tractor started. Bob is more particular than that. Most of his rebuilt tractors are in good running condition.”
On his early restorations Bob was assisted by a retired mechanic, Francis Glenn, who marveled at what Bob was able to accomplish. With Francis’ declining health and eventual death, Bob became even more self-reliant. Today Danny Youngers is employed by Bob, providing a pair of eyes, working under Bob’s direction, and painting the restored tractors.
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Bob, Alan and Danny belong to the Kansas and Oklahoma Steam and Gas Engine Club and take part in its annual show at the fairgrounds in Winfield, Kansas, Bob’s home town. In 2009 the club successfully proposed Bob for membership in the National Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association Hall of Fame. Tom Yearian, Hall of Fame chairman, presented the honor at the start of the annual parade in front of the crowd gathered in the grandstand. Humorously, Bob says, “They say I was given a plaque, but I haven’t seen it.”
When the club decided to raffle a tractor for the 2011 show, it was Bob who took charge of restoring a 1950 Massey-Harris “30.”
Like many restorers, Bob grew up on a farm and learned a lot helping his father, Ellis. They had a team made up of a horse and a mule – the source of much frustration and some good stories – but Bob preferred their 1927 John Deere “D.” In 1945 Ellis started doing construction work – lathe and plaster and, later, masonry with stone and cement block. Bob helped his dad with this just as he did with the farm work.
After graduating from high school in 1949, Bob farmed with a favorite 1937 John Deere “B” until 1955. As his father before him, he needed to augment farming income and began laying block. He became accomplished in all the building trades and, eventually, established Bob Sherrard Builders and specialized in constructing residential and small commercial buildings until his retirement in 1988. His wife, Betty, observed, “He would tell his employees exactly what to do and how to do it. And it had better be done that way!”
The late Bill Drennan, who operated D & D Farm Equipment, the Winfield John Deere dealership, was a friend of Bob’s for decades. Not only did Bill sell him tractors, equipment, and parts, but hired Sherrard Builders to erect several commercial buildings and his home. Bill described Bob this way, “He’s honest, fair, decisive, and easy to work with.”
Like most restorers Bob didn’t stop after finishing his first tractor. One of his acquisitions was a 1928 John Deere model “D” – like the one he drove when he was growing up. The “D” has no muffler, just a short straight pipe coming out of the exhaust manifold. It leaves your ears ringing for hours and has two gears forward – slow and slower. The original finish was good enough Bob didn’t have it repainted.
There was a time when asked how many tractors he’d restored, Bob would rattle off the model and year of every restoration. Now, following a pregnant pause, he’ll say, “Oh, I think it’s at least 30.” An partial list of his restored Deeres includes: 1935 “D”, 1937 “B”, 1937 “AR”, 1945 “LI”, 1945 “H”, 1940, 46, & 49 “As”, 1949 “G”, 1950 “MT”, 1950 “B”, 1951 “AR”, and 1951 “R” Diesel.
Like many restorers, Bob Sherrard prefers old two-cylinder tractors, but he’s not a John Deere purist. Dedicated Deere restorers have accused him of “mixing colors.” Some of his restorations aren’t even tractors. His non-green projects include a 1936 International Harvester “F12”, a 1945 Allis-Chalmers “C”, a 1949 A-C “WD”, a 1950 A-C “CA”, a 1950 Massey-Harris “44”, a 1951 Massey-Harris Pony, a 1953 “DC” Case, 1947 “2N” & “8N” Fords, a 1945 Dodge half-ton pickup, a 1941 Chevrolet two-door sedan, a 1948 Studebaker two-ton truck, and a 1958 International half-ton pickup.
It’s remarkable to observe how Bob has dealt with his blindness. He’s not let it defeat him. Much courage, determination, and perseverance are required to develop touch, hearing, and memory in order to compensate for the loss of sight. Other than his sight, Bob’s health appears to be good. But retirement, for whatever reason, can leave a man with the question, “What am I going to do with my time?” Bob’s answer has been to replace construction with the challenging hobby of restoration.