Guest Column: When Yankee Ingenuity Meets Corporate Motives – The Tale of a Swamp Yankee

My dad was a skilled handyman who had the ability to fix almost anything. Despite having limited education, he was blessed with an exceptional amount of ingenuity and perseverance, which he inherited from his mother. Whenever any of his lumber machinery, small motors or shingle mills broke down, he had to depend on his own talents to get it back up and running. Once, when I visited my parents, my mom told me that my dad had been tinkering with something all day, and that he wouldn’t stop until he fixed it.

Cyrus Warren Thayer, my father, was a self-sufficient Swamp Yankee who couldn’t afford to pay specialists every time something went wrong. Today, his breed is endangered as manufacturers such as John Deere create equipment that is too complicated for average farmers and handymen to repair. Manufacturers prefer this because it allows them to make money on repairs and maintenance. However, 20 states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, have proposed farm repair rights bills that would prevent manufacturers from adopting proprietary software and parts that can only be serviced by dealers.

My father had a close relationship with his equipment and the supplies he needed. He kept several repair manuals in the bottom drawer of his metal desk in his kitchen, which he often referred to when fixing his equipment. Our backyard had a variety of equipment, including bulldozers, Michigan loaders, sawmills, shingle mills, and a red Farm-All tractor that he rented out permanently. Whenever one of his machines broke down, my father would run into the kitchen, pull out a manual, and trace the index with one of his calloused fingers, before heading to his auto in Wakefield County to pick up the parts he required.

My father’s knowledge was not just limited to his own equipment – even his friends sought his expertise. During winters, his kitchen floor always had at least one chainsaw sitting on it, waiting to be repaired. Friends knew that they could rely on him to help repair their equipment or tinker with their tractor’s engine. Fixing machines was a part of the Swamp Yankee legacy; it was seen as a testament to the ingenuity and self-reliance upon which this nation was built.

Unfortunately, today’s equipment is not designed for people to repair. With the advent of engine computer software and the greed of large corporations that prioritize profits over customer satisfaction, self-service has become nearly impossible. Many farmers and heavy equipment operators wouldn’t survive if they had to pay for expensive service center repairs every time something went wrong. Being able to repair equipment quickly and inexpensively is essential for many rural businesses.

Towards the end of his life, my father was frustrated with how complicated engines had become. He was no longer able to change spark plugs himself and detested the idea of having a computer in his car. However, there is hope for change; in January, John Deere signed a memorandum of understanding to allow consumers to repair their heavy equipment themselves. The Rhode Island Department of Agriculture website also has links to help farmers find repair resources. This is a step towards solving a problem that never should have arisen in the first place.

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