Pilgrimage Courtesy Of John Deere

July 25, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — You’ve heard of taking a slow boat to China?

Well, how about an antique tractor trip from Grand Rapids to Alton, Iowa?

Dale Cooper, a chaplain at Calvin College, and his brother-in-law, Glenn DeJong, an Iowa farmer, departed from in front of Calvin’s main administration building last Wednesday on such a jaunt.

Their first stop was a farm outside Grant that Cooper’s father once owned. They then drove to Ludington for the fastest part of their trip — the car ferry Badger to Manitowoc. From there they took back roads to western Iowa where Cooper’s wife and DeJong grew up.

The two men respectively are driving 1941 John Deere B and 1938 John Deere B tractors, vehicles known for their reliability, ruggedness, lack of head cover and low speed.

Cooper said that cruising at up to 13 mph, they expected to reach Alton Tuesday of this week

Cooper told the Business Journal before he left that his brief life on the farm as a little boy left him his love of tractors. His father often gave him rides on a 1941 Deere in the mid-’40s and he never forgot the homely putt-putt of the vehicle’s two-cylinder engine — a motor noise one almost never hears nowadays.

But the real reasons for the trip, he said, are first, he wanted to slow down his life for at least part of the summer and, second, he wanted to undertake a sort of religious pilgrimage in tribute to the memory of his recently deceased father.

Cooper explained that his father had to sell the Grant farm after his young wife was stricken with polio in 1945 when Cooper was a toddler. She spent the remaining 40 years of her life in an iron lung. For all that time, Cooper said, she received minute-to-minute loving care from his father whom he describes as a very ordinary man, and very much a hero.

“And my Dad did it all so uncomplainingly,” Cooper said.

“He gave not even a hint that he thought life had cheated him, or given him a raw deal. On the contrary, he was life affirming and so full of joy. Without ever saying so, he considered caring for my Mom a sacred vocation, something God had called him to do.”

He said his father years later offered to give him the family tractor and Cooper turned him down.

“What was I going to do, living in the suburbs, with a tractor?” he said.

But after his father’s death 17 months ago, his brother-in-law spotted an identical, green 1941 John Deere at auction. Cooper begged him to bid on it. DeJong did, at the same time buying the 1938 for himself.

Cooper said he finds tractor driving fun — a statement coming during a week when line after line of severe thunderstorms (complete with hail and lightning) thundered along the route the two men had planned.

He conceded that while back-road speed limits may be low and relaxing, many drivers on such roads are the opposite, having a traditional impatience about farm vehicles. Finally, there’s the nervous issue of crossing the Mississippi where old, back-road spans are very, very high and very, very long — and about as wide as Grand Rapids’ Sixth Street Bridge.

But Cooper is an old hand at slow, long-distance travel. He and his son once bicycled from Vancouver to Mexico, and the 61-year-old has more than his share of stamina, also having run the Chicago Marathon.

Too, he has received assurances from Wisconsin and Iowa authorities that they will help with their low-speed crossing at the Mississippi.

“The part of the trip that really worries me,” he said, laughing, “is getting from Calvin to Grant.”            

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