Turn it up! Radio on the farm

When radio was in its infancy, David Sarnoff saw the potential that the new medium offered, especially for farmers and others in rural areas. It was a major source of news and information beginning in the late 1920s and continues that function today.

Once the original bulky sets could be reduced in size, it wasn’t long before they were added to automobiles. And, once there was sufficient amplification to overcome the noise of a tractor engine, radios began to show up on tractor fenders and hoods.

My earliest memory of a tractor radio was the one we had on the right fender of our John Deere 3020 Diesel. The AM model brought in broadcasts from throughout southwestern Wisconsin—and beyond. Dad would tune it to either the country station in Lancaster or the country station in Platteville so as to get both local news and that day’s farm-market prices.

We also had a radio on the right fender of the first tractor I drove solo: our John Deere 2640 Utility. That receiver was also an AM model, and, since I didn’t care for the local country stations, I quickly discovered that I could tune in WLS from Chicago to enjoy rock and roll.

When WLS changed to a talk-radio format in the mid-1980s, I had to find a new station. By that time, we had the John Deere 4240 with its Sound-Gard cab and AM/FM radio, so I could tune in even more rock stations, since they were easier to find on FM. (It was also easier to hear them in that sound-dampening cab.) That radio—as well as the one in the cab of our John Deere 2950—had push buttons that could be set to favorite stations. As long as his local favorites had their own buttons, Dad didn’t mind that Mom and I took over the remaining choices.

And it was the same thing in Dad’s truck. His 1977 Ford only had an AM receiver, and, of course, most of its buttons were set for our local country stations. But WLS was programmed in on that radio, too, and—when it did broadcast music—provided adequate entertainment on a Friday night in town.

We also had a radio in the barn. It was a large, rectangular model from the late 1950s or early 1960s, and it provided the local news at milking time. I can remember many winter mornings being out in the barn and listening to the school-closing announcements. (Unlike many kids, I didn’t want a snow day. Snow days meant more chores to do.)

Whereas Dad liked to hear the news and markets and I liked to listen to music, my grandfather was a huge sports fan. He was known to have two different sports games on simultaneously—one on the living-room TV, the other on the kitchen radio—and he would go back and forth to follow whichever game was more exciting. He also liked to hear the game while driving the tractor, as did several of the men who worked for us over the years. I heard a lot of Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago White Sox broadcasts. Nevertheless, while my mind’s eye could conjure up images during old-time radio dramas and comedies, I had a more difficult time imagining the action on the baseball diamond.

When I worked for my godfather, Jack Northouse, during slower times at our farm, the tractor he assigned to me had not only an AM/FM radio, but also a cassette player. How that tape deck kept working with all the field dirt and debris flying around I’ll never know, but it did.

When the CB craze hit in the late 1970s, several neighbors installed those radios in their tractor cabs and had a lot of fun talking to each other while doing field work. During a very dry summer in the late 1980s, I was helping to rake hay on a nearby farm. Its fields had lain fallow for several years due to a government program that paid the owner not to plant crops. That year, however, the government allowed those fields to be harvested because the hay harvest was so low everywhere else. While I was working, I was using one of the neighbor’s tractors and had forgotten about the CB radio in its cab, so I was startled when it picked up a transmission from another neighbor’s tractor. That neighbor, Glen Ruchti, was raking the same large field with me and remarked, “For what Uncle Sam is paying for these fields, they sure are rough!” It was all in good fun, and we had a pleasant day raking the fields so that Dad could come and make round bales.

What are your memories of radio—AM, FM, and/or CB—on the farm? Share them in the comments below.

Have a farm memory that you wonder if I share? Let us know.

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