SILER CITY — Earl Daniel Jr. is a natural problem solver.
Whether he’s on call for his loyal customers at Clapp Tractor – a farm equipment dealership in downtown Siler City – or waking up in the middle of the night because he’s finally found the answer to a nagging problem on an engine that has skilled mechanics a parallel commitment to his craft.
And amidst a rapidly changing era of agricultural advances and machinery, Daniel has managed to build a commendable career in the same place where he began as a teenager. The 70-year-old has been working as a technician for Clapp tractors for half a century.
Colleagues and customers are quick to confirm that Daniel is patient, precise and has a thorough knowledge of mechanics like no other. But most important of all: He has a golden touch.
And tractors are his forte.
Daniel started his career with Clapp Tractor in August 1972 at the age of 19. Sharing his memories from the company bench recently, he recalled how much the wartime building has changed since he was a boy. Windows that once functioned as skylights in the engineering room are now replaced with wooden beams. The tractor dealership at 202 North 2nd Ave. is a treasure trove of history, opened in 1937 and was once under the National Guard Armory at the end of World War II.
“He’s definitely our mentor, not just in terms of gear knowledge because he knows all that, but he knows all the quirks of this old building, the comings and goings,” said business owner Al Clapp of Daniel.
Daniel’s interest in tractors began at a young age. As a child, his grandparents would take him and his brother to the airport and to various tractor dealerships in Greensboro, where they would spend countless Sunday afternoons admiring airplanes and tractor equipment (he said his favorites had always been the red tractors). His father also worked as a mechanic for Dixie Sales, an independent repair shop that repaired various makes of cars in Greensboro.
And once, his grandfather traveled to Siler City from Summerfield, where the family lived, just to buy a tractor – from the same Clapp Tractor then called the Clapp Brothers Tractor & Implement.
“I think that [those trips] probably had an impact on why instead [focusing on] In the automotive field, I went to tractors,” said Daniel. “I just enjoyed working on them.”
Clapp and Daniel say that Clapp Tractor is now occasionally visited by the next generation of aspiring mechanics, children who are eager to accompany their parents or grandparents on trips to see the tractors lined up in the parking lot next door.
Daniel jokes that he was trained at the School of Hard Knocks and often finds out the hard way what kind of device works and what doesn’t. His advice, gleaned from years of frustration with failed attempts to fix a part, is to walk away and then turn back to the problem.
“The best thing is to walk away for a minute, regroup, go back and try again,” he said.
These days, Daniel is frequently asked questions by other mechanics in the shop when they stumble upon equipment issues, and serves as a reliable second opinion.
Customers will also specifically contact Clapp Tractor, knowing that Daniel has experience with older equipment.
“Imagine there are tractors that he developed maybe 45, 50 years ago that he’s still working on that are coming back and that he’s working on today,” Clapp said.
Joe Welborn, 58, is one of Daniel’s longtime clients and owns Welborn Farms in Randleman. He has purchased at least six tractors from Clapp Tractor, having bought his first from the company in 1996, and said he prefers Daniel to maintain all his equipment in the workshop.
“I mean, if Earl doesn’t know, nobody else does,” Welborn said.
Welborn appreciates Daniel for his technical skills, he said, but also because he is a good listener and goes out of his way to give his clients the opportunity to walk through and solve problems themselves.
“All those tractor dealers and stuff [have] I have a book to tell you what to look for, whatever, and Earl is good at finding things the book doesn’t tell you,” he said. “So it’s just part of his genetics, I’d say.”
Similarly, Clapp said being a good mechanic is something “like a gene,” noting the natural problem-solving instinct and constant persistence he sees in Daniel when tackling repairs.
“It’s just something you either have or you don’t have,” Clapp said.
Methodical and meticulous
Daniel is reserved. He answers questions methodically and earnestly, much like his peers describe how he approaches his craft.
He keeps notebooks that began compiling reference papers about eight years ago at a request from Clapp’s sister-in-law, who worked at the company.
Dressed in a gray mechanic’s shirt, his fingertips smeared with grease—a testament to his craft—he leafed through one of the legal pads he keeps. Rows of neat handwriting lined the page, tagging the day’s work with the model of a particular tractor and the time it took to fix a particular piece of equipment.
“Because it’s easier if they ask me something,” he said. “A lot of times I can go back and make notes, write wires, color-code a plug-in that I’m disassembling.”
His colleagues describe Daniel as meticulous, citing his meticulous note-taking and extensive knowledge base when repairing tractors.
Ivey Morgan, the company’s service manager and Al Clapp’s daughter, also called Daniel “humble” and said she only discovered this year was celebrating his 50th anniversary at the company because she wrote the words “43 years” next to Daniel’s name noticed – which were engraved in the pavement next to the building where concrete was poured seven years ago.
“He comes in, he’s so calm and he just sits there and works,” she said. “And sometimes it’s until lunchtime, I haven’t seen him — he’s just back there working.”
When asked if he decided to do anything to celebrate his 50 years with Clapp Tractor, Daniel laughed.
“Not really,” he said. “Only being able to go back to work the next day.”
Keep up with the changing times
Daniel, who grew up in Summerfield and Silk Hope and graduated from Jordan-Matthews High School, has lived in Siler City for several decades. From the corner of downtown Siler City where the dealership is located, he has watched as the city has changed and expanded, and as landmarks have come and gone.
He has held various leadership positions at Clapp Tractor, beginning when Al Clapp’s grandfather’s cousin, Sam Clapp, was the original owner.
John Winslow, who owned Clapp Tractor from 1994 to 2006 and worked as a former agent for farm equipment manufacturer New Holland, has worked closely with Daniel over the years.
Winslow, 79, said when Daniel retires a lot of knowledge will leave him. Daniel takes his time fixing a tractor, Winslow said, but once he’s touched a piece of equipment, customers know they don’t have to go back and fix it.
“He’s focused on what he’s doing … he wants to do it right and he’s in no rush,” Winslow said.
Aside from witnessing the changing face of Siler City and Clapp Tractor, Daniel noticed the incredible growth of the tractor industry, which he had to keep up with.
His tools of the trade have evolved from a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench to a laptop and more sophisticated technology, he said. Today, the tractor manufacturer John Deere even builds driverless vehicles.
At Clapp Tractor, all tractors sold now come from overseas markets. Clapp said the main lines the company carries are tractors from Mahindra, New Holland and Bad Boys, but the parts Daniel grew up with and knows best are from International Harvester — once a dominant farm equipment maker , which went bankrupt in the 1980s.
Well, most of the problems Daniel deals with on repairs are user error, often because a customer forgets to replace a filter, he said. In addition, mechanics in the workshop are increasingly experiencing delays in sourcing parts, increasing the amount of time farmers are unable to use their equipment.
As the agricultural sector has changed, so have the customers it serves, Daniel said.
“I think a lot of the farmers who were here when I started here are gone now,” he said. “And so the equipment was sold and then you’re like, ‘Well, I remember this tractor, but the original owner isn’t here.'”
Just two weeks ago, for example, Daniel began repairs on a 1984 International 5088 Harvester – a tractor he first worked on decades ago.
Clapp said the store is planning a small celebration for Daniel in December. After 50 years in the same job, Daniel said the best part is that he really likes what he does for a living.
Regarding retirement, Daniel said he expects it to slow down, but not for a few years. It’s a job that has kept him busy and one that he expects will continue to do so.
“Things have gotten a lot more complicated,” Daniel said. “And the thing that you might say, ‘Well, I’ve seen everything now’ — you never see everything, you never will see everything.”
Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @maydhadevarajan.