ELLIS — There’s a story among all the grease and worn parts of the antique tractor sitting in the shop at Ellis High School. This one will have a final chapter not many pieces of farm equipment get, however.
The late-1950s Ford 601 Workmaster was the first tractor agriculture teacher Chelsea Bowen’s parents bought for their 10-acre farm they purchased in Kentucky in 1984.
“They went out and they found this tractor together with my grandfather. He basically said this is going to be a good tractor,” Bowen said.
She doesn’t have the fondest memories of it, however.
“I remember a couple different times having to chase it downhill,” she said.
But what it represents of her past and her students’ futures is more special.
After he retired from farming and driving a delivery truck, her grandfather took on projects to repair tractors and other equipment, with Bowen learning by his side.
“He taught me how to weld, how to work on trucks, how to work on tractors,” she said.
He didn’t do it for the money, though.
“Everything we did had a purpose, and it was always an education to somebody, or it was giving back to somebody,” Bowen said.
It was that work that inspired her to become a teacher.
By her junior year at the University of Kentucky, her parents were able to afford a new tractor and her grandfather decided to make the Ford a project.
“So he came to pick it up, and then a week later passed away,” Bowen said.
“It never got worked on. I had just basically been helping him with all these other tractors, and I didn’t really have the knowledge base,” Bowen said.
She finished her agriculture education degree and three years ago came to Ellis to teach. But the tractor was always in the back of her mind as a project that could carry on her grandfather’s ideals of education and paying back.
She just needed the right group of students. She found it in this year’s sophomore small gasoline engine class of Logan Armbrister, Keaton Keller, Weston Love, Lawrence Kreutzer and Coby Fischer.
“They worked really hard at getting through the fundamentals that I asked them to do,” she said.
When she got a postcard about a diesel tractor restoration competition, she told the students if they wanted to do it, she would help them, but they had to prove themselves first.
“I’ve got a tractor, I trust you guys, and if you want to work on it, then I’ll let you,” she told them.
“So we made a deal,” she said.
She returned to Kentucky over Christmas to retrieve the tractor, but that plan fell through. Literally. The tractor fell through the trailer.
At spring break, Bowen returned to Kentucky to refloor the trailer, and she and her parents got it to Ellis by the end of break.
The tractor looked much smaller than in her memories when it was wheeled into the high school shop, but her students quickly got to the business of tearing it down.
“The first four to five days, we just attacked it. We went at it, doing the best we could to start disassembling and start the restoration project,” Bowen said.
The back half of the tractor has been taken apart and the students work during their afternoon class period, when they’re not waiting for parts that Bowen pays for herself.
“We thought it was actually going to be a lot worse. There a lot of things that are wore out on it, but it’s a good project,” Armbrister said.
“We thought it was going to be a fun deal, and it is,” he said.
All the students are farm kids and have grown up working on tractors, but the complete restoration is something new for them.
“We don’t hardly get this deep into most other tractors,” Armbrister said.
Since it’s a gasoline engine, they won’t be able to enter it in the competition Bowen learned about, but she hopes when this project is complete, she can find a diesel tractor for the students to work on.
“Everything’s got basic components that are similar throughout the process, and I just want to make sure that they get at least a small feel for what they could be capable of,” Bowen said.
The project will extend into next school year, and Bowen hopes to enter the Ford in the state fair when it’s finished.
“Hopefully, it will place and make some money for the chapter and make some money for the boys,” she said.
The tractor’s story will be finished then, but Bowen said she will keep it as a showpiece for what Ellis agriculture education is capable of. Until then, it’s writing its next chapter as an education tool.
“I knew that’s what it needed to be, whether it was to teach me or teach my kids,” Bowen said. “It’s doing both. We’re learning alongside each other.”
And every now and then, Bowen said, she can feel her grandfather like a guardian angel over her shoulder.
She's made the emotional attachment clear to her students, but has kept a professional approach to the project so far.
“When it all gets together, that’s probably when I’ll get emotional,” she said.