How does a southern Manitoba farmer end up pumping gas for Elvis Presley?
But it was love of farming and a lot of hard work rather than luck that resulted in the 90-year-old farmer sowing his 70th crop this spring on the farm he was raised on, now operated by his son Randy and daughter-in-law Donna.
“I just love working the land,” Jack said as he sat at the kitchen table one cold, cloudy day in May. “I look forward to it every spring.
“It gets in your blood.”
Jack enjoyed being his own boss, but he also knew the wage-earner’s life. In the early years, that’s how he supported his farming addiction. It’s also how he met Elvis.
In March 1957 Jack was working at a gas station in North Hollywood when Elvis Presley stopped to fill his Cadillac. “He gave me a $20 tip.”
He picked lemons in San Bernardino, sold Watkins products in North Hollywood and worked in a General Motors assembly plant in Long Beach. He hawked encyclopedias, but quit because he didn’t like high-pressure sales.
There were many other jobs — waiting tables at a Winnipeg Salisbury House, bus building at Motor Coach, delivering packages for Eaton’s, working in lamps and shades for the Hudson Bay, working at a tool company in Los Angeles, building boilers in Toronto, selling cars and farm equipment and assembling Massey Harris combines in Toronto — where he insisted they be built right.
“One guy said to me, ‘What the hell do you care? You’re getting paid.’ I said, ‘I’m a farmer from out west and I want that pulley on straight.’”
For a while Jack delivered beer in Winnipeg from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., then drove a taxi until 2 a.m.
“I held two full-time jobs,” he says. “But when I started farming, I put $200 on a tractor and paid for it before they delivered it. In them days a tractor was $1,500. It was a lot of money, but I owned the tractor before it come to the yard.”
Jack started working fields with horses at the age of 14. He remembers being scolded by his uncle — “a great horseman” and veteran of the Boer War and the First World War — for working the team too hard. As now, Jack was in a hurry.
One day his father told young Jack to harrow a field. Instead of the horses, Jack used his dad’s gasoline-powered Case tractor, which was reserved for powering a threshing machine.
When confronted by his dad, Jack declared: “‘If I have to drive those horses I’m leaving tomorrow, I can’t do it.’ And that’s how I got to drive the tractor.”
When 21, Jack was about to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but decided five years of northern patrols wasn’t for him. So in 1947 he took some agricultural courses in Brandon, where he learned more than farming.
Jack first spied his future wife Eileen at a dance, but as the drummer in David Alexander’s Agricultural Quartet, he was sidelined. Their paths crossed on the street one day. “I said, ‘You were the best dancer on the floor.’” Jack knew a few moves having been coached by a sister who was an Arthur Murray dance instructor.
Jack and Eileen were married 58 years until Eileen passed away several years ago. They had three sons and a daughter.
“Do you know why I liked farming?” Jack asks. “Because… it was the greatest place to raise kids.”
For about 18 years, Jack custom combined in the United States. His American competitors were skeptical of the air-cooled, German diesel engines in his combines. One hot Kansas day, Jack bet them a case of beer his machines would outlast their water-cooled, gas-powered combines.
“Two o’clock in the afternoon one gasoline engine went down and then another and another,” Jack says. “We were the only two left working that afternoon because it got so hot.
“I knew (German Army Field Marshall Erwin) Rommel had those air-cooled engines in his tanks (in North Africa during the Second World War) and if they could run in the desert they could damn well run down here.”
Jack has seen lots of change, including the weather. Springs were earlier and warmer in the 1950s. But falls were earlier too.
The baler and herbicides really changed farming, Jack adds. So did canola.
“Canola was actually a lifesaver for the farmer to pay his bills,” he said. “In the ’80s grain dropped to really low prices. And it was dry.”
Although Jack didn’t seed his first crop until 1945, he grew up during the Dirty ’30s. Times were tough then and again in the 1980s. Jack and his son Randy were expanding and like so many others, were clobbered by record-high interest rates peaking at more than 21 per cent.
Jack’s bank, Farm Credit Corporation and Manitoba Agricultural Credit Corporation, all declined to lend him more.
“They said the best thing you could do is take your suitcase and walk away,” Jack recalls. “I said, ‘That ain’t going to happen.’ I walked down to the credit union and 15 minutes later they loaned me the money. The banks didn’t want to help you. They were just grabbing (assets). They panicked.
“I lost about three quarters to settle with them. I fought them and I won. If it wasn’t for the credit union I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Times have been good in recent years, but Jack warns young farmers to be careful.
“Right now it’s harder than it ever was to start farming,” he says. “The price of land has got out of reach. You got to start small.
“Be careful when buying new machinery. Don’t buy stuff you can’t pay for. Stay with the old stuff as long as you can because things can change quickly. Prices can go down and you can’t cover it.”
There’s so much more to tell, but there isn’t space. Good thing Jack is writing a book about his life.
He celebrated his 90th birthday Jan. 21 in Las Vegas with his companion Evelyn Ginter and some relatives. They took him to see an Elvis impersonator.
“He did a good job,” Jack says.