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Swamp Yankee Stories: Yankee ingenuity collides with the motives of big business

Sep 16, 2023Sep 16, 2023

My father could fix almost anything. Although uneducated (his schooling stopped at the eighth grade), he was possessed of an uncanny cleverness and patience inherited from his mother. When a piece of his sawmill equipment, a small motor or shingle mill broke down, he had to rely on himself to get it working again.

One day I dropped in to the house and my mother said he was trying to fix something – I can't remember what. "He's been out there all day," she said. "He’ll get it eventually."

Silas Warren Thayer was not unique. He was just another self-sufficient Swamp Yankee who could not afford to call in an expert every time something broke down.

But today his breed is endangered, as manufacturers like John Deere have endeavored to make their equipment too complicated for the layman to fix. The motive is mercenary – these dealers want to make money on repairs and servicing.

For the average American farmer or handyman, this is a travesty. That's why 20 states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut (and in the last session, Rhode Island), have proposed Agricultural Right to Repair bills that would prevent manufacturers from employing proprietary software and parts that only their dealers can service.

Back in my father's day, manufacturers recognized that their customers needed to fix things themselves. That's why they published repair guides with explicit directions and sketches of parts. In the metal desk in our kitchen, the hub of his business, my father kept several of these manuals in a bottom drawer.

One of them, from International Harvester, was designed for five models of diesel engines and one carburetor engine. I think this was for one of his big trucks. My mother wrote on the manual's cover, "Thayer's Sawmill," in case anyone might think of walking off with it.

Our back yard was home to all manner of equipment: a hay baler; a bulldozer; two Michigan loaders; a sawmill with a Caterpillar motor; a shingle mill; and a red Farm-All tractor he had sold to a friend and borrowed back, more or less permanently. At any point one of these probably wasn't working.

I can see my father now, dashing into the kitchen, the cuffs of his green work pants trailing sawdust. He lifts a repair manual out of the drawer, pages through it, and traces the index with one of his calloused fingers.

Then it would be off to County Auto in Wakefield for the necessary part. My father had such a close relationship with this establishment that the owner came to his wake in 2006.

Of course, he couldn't fix everything. When his saw teeth needed more than a quick sharpening, he encased the saw in a rounded wooden crate (which he probably had made himself) and shipped it off to the R. Hoe & Co. of New York. There were certain car repairs he disliked doing, so he would entrust those to Wright's Garage in Carolina.

There were advantages to having a handy father. When I made the rash purchase of a 1965 Mustang Fastback, which was running through a quart of oil a week, he took the engine apart and replaced the piston rings. A week before I was due to return to college, car parts sat in three metal pans in our driveway. I knew he would put it back together in time.

Other people took advantage of his knowledge. It was the rare winter when there wasn't at least one chain saw on the kitchen floor, awaiting repair. Friends knew they could rely on him when a bulldozer wouldn't start or a tractor engine needed tinkering.

It was all part of the Swamp Yankee code – the person you helped one day would come to your aid the next. Repairing machinery was part of the ingenuity and self-reliance this country was founded on.

Unfortunately, equipment today is not built to be fixed by the user. The advent of computer software in engines, and the greed of big companies who put profit above customers, has made self-service increasingly impossible.

What these companies don't realize is that many farmers and heavy equipment operators could not survive if they had to pay service center prices every time something went wrong. The ability to fix your equipment as quickly and inexpensively as possible is a necessity for many rural businesses.

Toward the end of his life, my father rued the fact that auto engines had become so complicated that he couldn't even change his own spark plugs any more. The idea of a computer in a car was anathema to him.

Facing a backlash, John Deere signed a memorandum of agreement in January to let consumers repair their own heavy equipment. The Rhode Island Farm Bureau also has links on its web site to help farmers find repair resources. It's a start to solving a problem that shouldn't have arisen in the first place.

Betty J. Cotter teaches journalism at the University of Rhode Island and lives in the Shannock section of Charlestown.

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