In 1947 the new school year was nearing the end of its first month but Larry had other things on his mind. Oh, he was bright enough but reading, writing and arithmetic didn’t hold the allure and fascination for the boy of nine that did his father’s business. Larry’s family lived on the outskirts of the small Southwest Missouri town of Noel and it was there on Park Street that farmers could buy implements or parts for their tractors or for that matter they could buy a brand new Ford 2N tractor. You see, Larry’s family owned the Ford Tractor and Implement Dealership.
The young boy’s weekdays were spent inside the small classroom at the Noel school but on weekends; well, when his chores at home were finished he could be found at the store. He was fascinated with the tractors and pieces of equipment and studied every lever, gear and part of those 2N tractors trying to figure out what their purpose was. For as long as Larry could remember he held a fascination for anything mechanical and he had to figure out what made machines work.
There came a cool early autumn afternoon when a stranger came into the tractor store. “Hey kid, do you know who owns this place?” As Larry tried and tried to recall if he had ever before laid eyes on the man he answered his question. “Yes sir, my father owns it.” It was at that moment when Larry’s father opened the front door and entered the room. “Something I can do for you, mister?” Larry was then convinced that he didn’t know the stranger as his father knew practically everyone living in Noel and on the surrounding farms and it was obvious that he didn’t know this man.
“Well, I was wondering if I could put one of these posters on your front window.” The man handed Larry’s father a brightly decorated poster adorned with colorful pictures and writing. “Oh, a circus is coming to town,” Larry’s father commented. “Well, the circus will really be in Southwest City but that’s only seven or eight miles from here.” The young boy’s curiosity must have been obvious as another poster was removed from the stack. “Here kid, take one for yourself.” “I had an interesting experience with a circus in Southwest City last year,” replied Larry’s father. “Why not, sure go ahead and stick the thing on the window.”
Larry really didn’t even hear the stranger leave the store as he was fully engulfed in the poster which announced the October 7th arrival of the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus. There were pictures of lions, camels and best of all, elephants. Larry knew something of the large Indian Elephant as a result of an event that took place in October of the previous year. That event also involved a circus and Southwest City.
In late September of 1946, the Ford Tractor business was steady but that time was a mere year removed from the end of the war. Those who had served their country were returning to their homes and farms with plans for the future and memories they wanted to forget.
The business needed a means to advertise the grey painted Ford 2N tractors but advertising dollars were hard to come by. It was on a day like any other that Larry’s father received a telephone call. The man on the phone introduced himself as a representative of a circus that would soon make its appearance in Southwest City. He told Larry’s father that he would like to make a proposition to the Ford tractor dealer that would give him some free advertising.
As Larry’s father hung up the phone he had something between a grin and a full-blown smile on his face. He could see that Larry was waiting to hear about the cause of his odd smile as the boy stood with a “what’s going on” look in his eyes. “That was a man with a circus. He wants to know if I’d like to have a tug of war with an elephant.” Before Larry could ask the obvious question, “Well, not me of course but with one of our tractors.”
Once again and before the boy could ask another predictable question, “I told him why not, what could it hurt.” Larry could think of a thousand questions but it appeared that his father had answered the most obvious and after all his father wasn’t known as someone who engaged in long conversations. The boy would save the multitude of other questions for later.
The afternoon of the tug of war came and Larry’s father loaded one of the new tractors on a trailer. The tractor was freshly washed and could best be described as “running like a top.” There wasn’t much conversation during the short drive to Southwest City as Larry’s thoughts were of the circus, cotton candy, roasted peanuts, the elephant and lions and tigers and; well you know the rest.
As the truck pulled onto the grounds, the circus tent seemed to be taller than any tree that surrounded the small town’s grassy park. A clearing near the big top had been left vacant as that was to be the site where the tractor and elephant would compete against one another. A crowd had already begun to gather in anticipation of the event.
The 119.7 cubic inch four cylinder motor roared to life and the three-speed transmission was shifted into reverse. Larry’s father slowly drove the tractor away from the trailer and the crowd was treated to the sound of the 3070-pound machine’s eighty-four pound-feet of torque. This was an impressive machine in its day.
Then there was a moment of silence as all those in attendance looked on in awe as the giant came from behind the tent. The Asian elephant, Elephas Maximus for you scholars, stood every bit of nine feet tall at the shoulders and weighed some 8000 or so pounds. The enormous beast trumpeted as it was led into the clearing by one lone brave man.
How ridiculous thought the young, and somewhat naïve, boy that an oddly dressed man could, with the aid of nothing more than a thin piece of wood, control the movements of the large animal. However, it was quite clear to Larry and all the bystanders that the elephant would turn, move forward or backward and even rise up with its massive front legs reaching skyward after only a few words spoken by the trainer and the accompanying soft touch of the piece of wood.
A large length of cable was attached to a harness worn by the beast while the other end of the cable was secured to the tractor’s rear drawbar. The crowd roared as the mighty engine came to life and once again the elephant let out an ear-shattering trumpet thus quieting the onlookers. With a signal from the handler, the two opponents began to pull and it seemed as though the taut length of cable must have been strained to its breaking point.
As for who bested the other that day, beast or machine, the victory and well-deserved accolades went to the pachyderm. With seemingly little effort the champion pulled the tractor across that field of dirt and grass. Larry’s father later commented that “the tractor couldn’t get any traction.” Now admittedly Larry didn’t know much about traction but, at least on that cool October afternoon in Southwest City, the Asian circus elephant had more of it then did the grey Ford 2N tractor.
Larry did go to the circus in October of 1947 and there was cotton candy, roasted peanuts and lions and tigers and so on and so on. There were also elephants but the youngster seemed to look at them differently than he had the previous year.
Time passed and Larry’s father eventually sold the Ford Tractor and Implement Store. The cool and windy autumns continued to each year signal the soon to follow cold Ozark winters and as Larry grew older the circuses stopped coming to Southwest City. However, Larry has never forgotten the sound of that great beast as it trumpeted in the park so many, many years ago.