Tractors in varying degrees of repair and disrepair form an antique array between metal shelves weighed heavy with tools and spare parts. A warm breeze pours through gaping overhead doors like the hot breath of giants.
Worn and weathered components stand in stark contrast to the young blonde leaning over a diesel engine.
“When I was little my mom would say, ‘Let’s clean house,’ and I’d just put on my shoes, run outside and help dad,” said Kelsie Fincher, 18. “I hopped in the tractor.”
“She followed at my hip pocket since she was 5,” Jim Fincher said. “She always wanted to help.”
Kelsie always possessed a penchant for the mechanical. She wanted to know how things worked. And for the last four years, she’s spent countless hours restoring antique tractors in Decatur High School’s ag building.
“When I got to high school, I thought I’d get on the tractor team just for something to do,” she said. “I thought I’d get in it, and then get out of it. But when I got into it, I figured out I really love it. I kept on doing it.”
Four years and a national title later, Kelsie plans on turning her passion for tractors into a profession.
“It takes up all your time, and you have to have real dedication to do it,” Kelsie said. “But it’s what I want to do for a living. I spend a lot of hours up here every day after school, sometimes on weekends and holidays.”
Tractor restoration begins with the bare minimum. Chunks of metal and machine, rusted, overgrown by countless cycles of weeds and winters, wind up in the tractor barn at Decatur High School, hauled in like a chariot from an ancient empire.
Over the course of a year, a team of students sacrifice evenings and weekends restoring every salvageable piece of the equipment. Sanding, shaving, tweaking, polishing and painstakingly painting every scrap and shard of the past until it shines and runs in the present.
The tractor restoration team finds new life and purpose for bygone machines.
Kelsie underwent her own metamorphosis during the restoration.
“This took a very shy and timid girl, and a beautiful young lady evolved out of this,” said Rick Elmore, ag science teacher at Decatur High School. “You would never think a beautiful lady would come out of a tractor program of all things.”
Elmore coaches the tractor team. His teams have won multiple national titles. In 2007, he led the first all-girl team to a national title, of which Kelsie was a freshman member.
“She came in and said she’d like to get involved,” Elmore said. “You’d think people would say, ‘Why Kelsie, you being a girl, would you want to work on a tractor? Why would you want to get all greasy when your classmates are going to the movies and Sonic? Why would you choose to work on equipment?’
“I have no answer for that.”
The all-girl tractor team was runner up for national title in 2006. When Kelsie joined the following year, being a shy girl with little experience, it was doubtful that she could play a significant role.
“There were some people very hesitant about Kelsie,” Elmore said. “She had struggled academically in school. People doubted her going to nationals. I didn’t. I thought she was a perfect fit.”
Elmore’s hunch proved correct.
“We were told in no uncertain terms that girls could not win,” he said. “This is a competition that is completely dominated by boys. They were told they could not win because they had to convince a panel of men. They had to fight every odd.”
Kelsie did the jobs the upperclassmen didn’t want to do. Her hard work and dedication proved pivotal.
“She was vital to the national championship,” he said. “Her desire to be involved and desire to learn was irreplaceable. Where she struggled academically, she made up for in heart. She was part of the first national championship ever won by an all-girl team. No one can ever take that away from her.”
Finding her call
The experience completely changed Kelsie’s direction in life.
“Winning nationals made me want to do this,” she said. “I had actually accomplished something. I thought, ‘If I like to do this so much, why not go out for a job?’ A diesel mechanic makes pretty good money.”
Soon after graduation in early June, Kelsie started working at Ag Power, a John Deere dealership in Rhome. She plans to attend technical college at Navarro this fall to further her knowledge of diesel engines.
“It’s her life, and I think she can make it and be good at it,” Mr. Fincher said. “I think she’s got the ability to be good at it.”
Mr. Fincher was a craftsman himself. He’s spent a lifetime crafting leather. He also found his profession at a young age.
“I decided I wanted to be a saddle maker,” he said. “I started working for a place in Dallas at 17.”
He went on to craft items for Tanya Tucker, Billy Ray Cyrus, the Dallas Cowboys, Texas A&M football team and others.
“(Cyrus) wanted a saddlebag for his Harley with an Indian chief in full headdress on one side and an Indian maid with one feather on the other,” Mr. Fincher said.
His reason for working with leather for so many years echoes his daughter’s infatuation with tractors.
“I just love to do it,” he said. “It’s all I really did.”
Elmore also supports her decision.
“It’s humbling to know a student will take your guidance and tutelage and turn it into a job,” he said. “I can see her working up through the ranks in this male-dominated industry.”
Leaving a mark
If anyone doubts Kelsie’s passion for John Deere tractors, all they need to do is lift the back of her T-shirt. It reveals the bright green ink of a 1966 John Deere 2510 High Crop.
“I have a really cool tattoo,” she said. “Over the top it reads ‘Live your dreams.’ It was that tractor that pushed me to do the thing I love to do. I got it because I’m going into the field to work on John Deeres. I worked on a John Deere as a freshman and won nationals with that tractor. Now I’m going to work on John Deeres the rest of my life or as long as I can.”
Kelsie got the tattoo in Weatherford one day after her 18th birthday.
“The first time I saw the tattoo was a picture in an e-mail,” Elmore said. “When I saw this picture, one side of me said, ‘Why in the world would this child do this?’
“The picture of that tractor, as odd as it seems, is permanently tattooed to her body. I wouldn’t suggest it for everybody. And I understand some of her friends give her a hard time about it, but it says, ‘This is me. Take me for who I am, or just go away.’
“That’s simple for her.”
The overhead doors groan shut at the tractor barn. Students return tools to metal shelves. And as the red west fades into lavender night, Kelsie rolls on to “Live her dreams.”