Herman Fletcher has a love affair with a Model T

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Dragon flies hovered for a moment, looking inside the aging garage as retired farmer Herman Fletcher worked in the heat of the day on the engine of a 1928 Chevrolet four-cyclinder coup. There was the clanging of metal against metal as Fletcher, 91, wrestled with a stuck this, a stubborn that. He was helping a friend “break loose” the engine.

The vintage car is squeezed in a cluttered garage, where a lifetime of collected tools and stuff is within a few steps reach. A radio, purring with country music, dangled from a shelf that shared room with a big round clock suspended like a spider from a nail. There’s an electric saw, a battery charger, empty buckets, sand paper, and pieces galore of engines that once were or waiting to be someday. In the back, a old commercial-style sewing machine, used to make covers for his cars, waits for a new belt.

Someone how the man finds his way in and around the hundreds of items in the shop, confident he knows where everything is, or should be.

This is his Sharptown-style man cave, a room filled with the manly, heady fragrance of motor oil and grease, the intoxicating whiff of fresh gasoline and the spicy chemical cologne of engine cleaners.

Moments from his mechanical life are stored here, from the dusty car show trophies on the shelf to the remains of cars, trucks and tractors, gone but not forgotten, on the dark floor and oiled work bench.

Fletcher was trying to get the engine “unstuck.”

“The engine had been sittin’ up for years and was stuck. We took the spark plugs out and poured in oil and let it sit a while,” he explained.

The car, owned by Dick’s Body Shop in Seaford, had been sitting in the garage for almost four years, a slow but sure, kind of project. “I got tires on it so it could be moved, but I didn’t feel up to it, putting in a clutch,” he said.

Fletcher’s pride is his 1926 Model T Ford Roadster, a four-cylinder eye-catcher with a with a single seat.

“I tried to get if from a guy in Bacon Switch, but he wouldn’t sell it to me. Then Carroll Gravenor in Delmar, he dealt in used cars, got it. He had it advertised in a New York paper, tryin’ to sell it for big money.

“Then I got hold of a Model T engine out of Baltimore, but didn’t know what I was goin’ to do with it. I knew Carroll had a 1927 two-door sedan. I called him, told him I wanted to buy it. He told me he had a deal for me, to come and see him. So me and Homer Rider rode over there. Carroll said, “I’m gonna sell you that roadster and I’m gonna give you that two-door sedan. We made a deal on the Roadster, I gave him $650 for it in 1963.”

It was a cash deal as Fletcher wanted nothing to do with credit since he was about 18.

After pulling it to get it started, Rider drove the roadster, banging along on just three of its four cylinders, back to his Sharptown farm. “Didn’t even have a seat. Homer had to sit on chunks of piled foam rubber,” the mechanic recalled with laughter.

“I remember it,” said Peg Rider, 98, Homer’s widow. “It was bad outside and it was bad inside.”

“We brought it home that fall and after the beans were in, we took it a little ride in it, still with just three cylinders working. Then we completely disassembled it and redone it all over.”

The car was missing the iron frame for the roof. When walking in the woods looking for property line markers, Fletcher made an odd discovery.

“I came across a portion of a Model T top. Between what I had and what I found, I made the top,” he said, his eyes still sparkling with excitement about the unusual find in the woods.

By mid-summer 1965 the men had it finished, excited about the prospect of driving it to the Harrington Fair.

“Homer said to me, ‘You haven’t driven in nowhere, you don’t know if it’ll drive to Harrington and back.’ So we decided to put some boards on a boat trailer and take it up to the fair like that. So that Sunday morning I rode that damn roadster up on that trailer, put the brakes on and slid right to the front of the trailer and was heading off it. The trailer winch at the front went right through the radiator. I didn’t know whether to cuss or cry.”

The fair would have to wait another year.

“Since then that car has been everywhere. Christmas parades, car shows, festivals and nine Glidden Tours. It’s five days with about 100 miles of driving a day,” he said. “We really wore the old Model T out.

“Two years ago the main bearings were loose and rattlin’ around, so I tightened them up. I put a new cam shaft in, and had sleeves put in the cylinders. Runs great now.”

Local folks with Model T’s manage to find Fletcher, who advises them on repairs, where to find those special parts and even to lend a hand.

“A guy in his 40s (Peg referred to him as a ‘kid,’) come up here two weeks ago wantin’ me to repair somethin’ on his Model T, but I told him ‘If you’re gonna own a Model T you have to learn how to repair it yourself. I didn’t want to repair it. I have all I can do, all I want to do. I gave him a book and told him to take the car home and work on it.”

As for the 1928 sedan that the mechanic said he wished he had “left in the woods,” because of the future expense of restoring it, Homer and Fletcher would spend five winters completing it. He sold it two years ago after showing it more than 34 times a national events.

Fletcher has always had Model Ts in his life. His father used a Model T truck to saw firewood, and on Saturdays the young boy and father sawed wood. It was his job to adjust the throttle as the saw ate through cords of wood.

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When he came to work on the Rider Farm in 1943, he was soon dealing with Homer Rider’s Model T farm truck.

“For a long, long time I wanted my own Model T. That’s why I bought one in 1963,” he said.

“When he was growing up, he never had any toys,” Rider said. “Never had a bicycle, or skates or a sled.”

As for Homer, he was hooked on Model Ts when he was in high school. “Even when my husband was a young man, a Model T was sort of dated, but he loved them,” Peg recalled. “The first time I met him he was sitting in a Model T. Poor people had to have them. My husband’s family weren’t rich so they couldn’t afford modern things. They had to do with what they could afford.”

Because they were dependable and easy to repair, even an aging and well worn Model T had valuable, especially to farmers trying to “get by.”

“On the farm, Homer had a Model T truck he got for $15, so he didn’t have much in ’er. In those days people didn’t lock up things and the key was in ’er. The boys, some of whom had grown up here in this house, stole her one night.

“Then they raided Mr. Albert Owen’s watermelon patch down the road and had it loaded up with watermelons and it caught on fire,” Fletcher said, sharing the details between laughter.

As Model Ts became rarer and rarer, Rider and her husband and Fletcher enjoyed sporting their prized vintage automobiles at social events spotlighting cars of the past.

Both Fletcher and Rider are long-time members of the Antique Automobile Club of America, Eastern Shore Region. Fletcher has been a member of the Brandywine Region of the club for 60-years. When they exhibit their auto or take part in any parade, they both dress in vintage clothing for that authentic look. Rider has 10 outfits, with matching accessories, that she often changed into in a single day during special presentation shows.

Fletcher services the Bel-Air, too. Over the years he has rebuilt cars, trucks and tractors. He even built a 1954 “Jersey racing skiff,” a race boat constructed in the second floor of a potato house.

Where did all this expertise come from?

“When you live on a farm, you learn a lot,” he said with a broad smile.

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