Earl R. Webb remembers the day he and his dad bought the John Deere 4440. It was May 27, 1995 at a farm auction in Paris, Ohio. The tractor was the first item listed in the auction advertisement in the Farm and Dairy.
“Clean John Deere 4400 Tractor, full comfort cab, dual remotes, 20 BR38/23 degree radials, 1755 hrs.”
Earl R. Webb’s father, Earl E. Webb, knew what his price was. He was willing to pay up to $24,000 for the tractor. His son did the bidding for him. Earl had trouble hearing from his years of working in the mill.
Another bidder ran the price up just over their predetermined limit. That’s when Earl nudged his son. “It’d be a shame to go home without that tractor for $500,’” Earl R. recalled his dad saying. Earl R. raised his hand again. The other bidder stayed still. The tractor was theirs for $25,000.
That tractor is the one that took Earl E. “Bud” Webb on his last ride to the Muddy Creek Cemetery in Butler County, Pennsylvania, on June 18. He died June 15 at age 87 after a brief illness.
At the suggestion of their uncle, Earl’s sons hauled his casket from William F. Young Funeral Home in West Sunbury on a platform on the back of his John Deere 4440. The boys washed the dirt off of it, but didn’t powerwash it and wax it.
“It looks just the way it did the last time he saw it,” Earl R. said.
They drove a route past the farm in Clay Township heading to the cemetery.
“It’s the last thing we get to do for him,” Earl R. said.
The 4440 was more than a tractor. It was an investment in his family business and in his farm’s future. It also represented all the progress he’d made as a farmer.
Earl was born Sept. 1, 1934, to the late Earl D. and Laura Webb. His obituary says he was “a lifelong dairy farmer from age 2.” His sons said he grew up planting corn with horse-drawn equipment. The last horses on the farm were killed in a barn fire in 1971, Earl R. said.
He was a big guy at 5 feet and 11 and three-quarters inches tall and over 200 pounds, “all shoulders and not enough bottom end to hold his pants up,” Earl R. said., of his father.
He married Norma J. Glover on May 28, 1959. She survives him, as do his two sons, Earl R. and Jay, four daughters, Erla, Paula, Tammy and Kathy, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Earl R. said his dad instilled a strong work ethic in all of his children.
“All of us here got the chance to drive a tractor, even my sisters. My dad would send us out to cultivate corn,” he said.
Earl worked for Pullman Standard, a factory that built railcars, until the Butler plant closed in 1981. He’d worked there for 27 years, earning him enough time to technically retire at age 47.
In addition to being a farmer and a family man, Earl was an avid hunter. He had up to 13 weeks of paid vacation while working in the mill. He used that to go elk hunting in Montana and hunting for moose in Canada, Earl R. said.
All the while, he was milking Holsteins on the family farm. That’s what he fell back on after Pullman closed.
A messy farm transition left him running the dairy farm on land owned by others, until he was finally able to buy all of the acreage in 2000 after his mother passed away. He was in his 60s when he took out a loan to buy out his sisters’ share of the farm.
That’s why he bought tractors, his son, Jay said. They knew the realities of running a dairy farm. If they had to go out of business, they may not have land but at least they’d have equipment to sell, he recalled his dad saying.
There’s a lot of green paint on the farm now, but the 4440 is special, his sons said.
“For somebody of that era, that was the holy grail of tractors,” Jay said. “The 4440 power shift, it was the ultimate tractor for small farms.”
They also have two 4240s, a 4020 and a 6030, plus all the old red Farmalls that replaced the horses originally, Earl R. said.
They’re milking about 60 cows now. Earl signed the farm over to his two sons in 2012 after he had a bout with cancer. He didn’t want his children to have any battles over the farm or land access like he did.
The boys built a new barn with money from a gas lease and built their parents a new house. That’s where Earl spent his last years. He quit farm work about five years ago, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But he would still make regular trips out to the barn to check in on things. Once a farmer, always a farmer.
“He would always ask, ‘Any fresh cows?’ or if the vet was just here, ‘How’d the preg check go?’” Jay said.
Earl R. thought of what his dad would say when they got up on Sunday morning, the day after they buried their father, and found the barn flooded from a broken water pipe. Not exactly the way they wanted to start the day, cleaning out a soggy barn.
“The only way to get it done is to ‘get at it and get it done,’” he said. And so they got to it.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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