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A life: Tractor man ‘overcame a lot’

  • Merland LaFrancis drives a 1952 Farmall M in the Memorial Day parade in Tunbridge, Vt., in 2011. LaFrancis usually brought several tractors to the annual parade and the World's Fair. Upon his death in Oct. 2018, he had 28 tractors in his collection. (Family photograph)

  • Merland LaFrancis, of Tunbridge, Vt., poses with a deer he shot in the late 1950s. He hunted for more than 55 seasons. (Family photograph)

  • Merland LaFrancis, of Tunbridge, Vt., decorated a row of his tractors with his family at Thanksgiving to appear as Santa's reindeer in 2006. The first tractor in line, a 1941 Ford 9N, had belonged to his father and was LaFrancis's first. (Geoff Hansen photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, September 08, 2019

TUNBRIDGE — Each September, Merland LaFrancis would count down the days until the Tunbridge World’s Fair.

“He couldn’t wait,” said his widow, Barbara LaFrancis. “The fair was one of his big things.”

The fair was LaFrancis’s chance to showcase his most prized possessions: the 28 antique tractors that he painstakingly restored. There was the 1941 Ford 9N that started his collection, and the 1927 Farmall that he was especially proud of.

“He just loved to have his hands going,” Barbara LaFrancis said. “He liked to know how something worked, to take it apart and put it together.”

Although not all the machines made it to the fair, collectors and casual observers knew they could stop by LaFrancis’s home — about a mile from the fairgrounds — if they wanted a peek at more.

“Kids would say ‘There’s the tractor man’s house,’ ” said LaFrancis’s daughter, Monica Deberville of East Barre, Vt.

In his earlier years, LaFrancis participated in tractor pulling events at the fair, and later, he watched his sons and grandsons compete. LaFrancis, who died last October at 78, reminded them that they shouldn’t be focused on the prizes.

Don’t mind everyone else, he would say, you pull to beat yourself. And most importantly, have fun while you’re doing it.

In 2017, LaFrancis was in the hospital the week before the fair, dealing with complications of the heart disease that plagued his later years. The doctors had told Barbara that they weren’t sure he would ever go home, but LaFrancis insisted he would be discharged on Wednesday so that he could be at the fair’s opening the following afternoon.

“Lo and behold we were discharged at 8 p.m. and by 1 p.m. on Thursday he was at the fair, and there for all four days,” Barbara LaFrancis said. He was there the next year, too, just weeks before he died.

Although the fair was a highlight of the year, LaFrancis’s fellow tractor aficionados knew that they could stop by his house at any time to troubleshoot repairs or just chat.

“He was a good one to get information from, and get parts from,” said Leon Higgins, of Tunbridge, who was friends with LaFrancis for more than 50 years. “He would give you the shirt off his back. He was that kind of guy.”

At LaFrancis’s funeral most hands went up when the Rev. Tom Harty, who was leading the service, asked who had ever borrowed a tool from Merland. A few hands went down when Hardy asked who had returned those tools.

People also came by the LaFrancis property when they were interested in buying or selling a tractor.

“He would always get this twinkle in his eye if someone said ‘I have a tractor for sale,’ ” Barbara LaFrancis said.

LaFrancis knew what antique tractors were worth, but he still liked to play the sales game. He would go have a look and leave without the tractor, waiting for the seller to call and make a better offer.

In his later years, however, he was apt to scoop up a deal. The year before he died, LaFrancis went to look at a tractor right after the fair ended.

“He went to get one and came home with four,” Barbara LaFrancis said.

LaFrancis was known as the tractor man in the community, but at home he was seen as a quiet and hardworking family man. He married his first wife, Mary Ellen, in 1971 and the couple had three children, two daughters and a son.

When the kids were 12, 15 and 19, Mary Ellen died of a heart attack at age 38.

LaFrancis continued working as a mechanic at the granite sheds but also stepped into the role Mary Ellen had held, keeping the house in order and tending to the children’s day-to-day needs.

“It was definitely a learning curve,” Deberville said. “He had his struggles but he overcame them.”

Two years later, in 1991, LaFrancis married Barbara, who had three sons of her own.

“We were very fortunate when we blended our families,” Barbara LaFrancis said. “They fit quite well.”​​​​​​​

LaFrancis had a great singing voice but was a man of few words. However, when he spoke, those who loved him knew to pay attention.

“If he said something, it was worth listening to,” Barbara LaFrancis said. Sometimes, she said, she could see LaFrancis clicking through his mental catalog of information before responding to a question.

Deberville didn’t need her father to speak: she only ever had to look at his deep brown eyes to know what he was feeling.

“If he was happy, he had that sparkle in his eye,” she said. “If he thought he was pulling one over, he would get a crinkle in the corner of his eye. If he was upset or disappointed, his eyes got dark.”

During the last 20 years of his life, LaFrancis had many health challenges. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and later went into remission. His cardiovascular health was an ongoing concern. Then, in 2015 he was welding a tractor when his shirt caught fire, leaving LaFrancis with third-degree burns on much of his body. While he was in the intensive care unit in Burlington, he had a stroke.

“He overcame a lot,” Deberville said. “He went through more than any man should.”

Despite his health challenges, LaFrancis loved to be in the woods. He hunted for more than 55 seasons, and even when he wasn’t able to hike any more, he would drive his four wheeler into the woods just to sit in nature. During his last summer, he saw a buck and a doe mating and was thrilled to have a new nature experience after all those years.

The evening before LaFrancis died, his family was in town. They spent the evening setting their game menu, choosing what cuts of meat would go with the tomatoes that LaFrancis grew at the foot of his front porch.

“They were all here to go in the woods with him in the morning,” Barbara LaFrancis said.

LaFrancis spent the evening with his children and grandsons, but when he came to bed he couldn’t breathe. He looked at his wife and made a final request.

“He came to the door and said ‘I can’t do this anymore, please let me go,’ ” Barbara LaFrancis said. “What do you say to that? He had fought enough.”

LaFrancis lived for about 24 hours after that. He was unconscious, but in the hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center 10 of his grandchildren had the chance to say goodbye, in person or on the phone.

“Every time we put the phone to his year, (his) pulse would go up,” Barbara LaFrancis said. “He knew.”

Passersby continued to stop by the LaFrancis home along Route 110 last fall and ask after Merland. That hasn’t happened as much this year — word has spread that the Tractor Man is no longer home.

Now, Barbara is preparing to pass on his 28 tractors, one to each son, son-in-law, grandson and great-grandson.

“That was his legacy,” Barbara LaFrancis said.

This year at the Tunbridge fair, regular attendees will remember the man who was always ready to talk about tractors, head into the woods or help someone in need.

“He was a special guy,” Barbara LaFrancis said. “He was an old Vermonter.”

Kelly Burch can be reached at burchcreative@gmail.com.