Sizing me up as a grandmother shopping for the sandbox set, the clerk in the antique shop spoke in a tone that suggested she’d had her fill of idiots for the day. “It doesn’t run,” she said as I traced a cleat with my finger, my mouth agape in wonder. “No,” I said. “I don’t suppose it does.”
Parked front and center on the shop’s main counter, the lovingly handcrafted model of a 20 hp Aultman-Taylor steam engine was dusty but otherwise in good shape. I have given longer consideration to a roast at the grocery. “Put that on our pile,” I said and went to find my husband.
Anyone who trolls antique shops knows the good stuff is increasingly hard to find. Much of it has migrated to online auction sites, leaving behind mountains of Smurf glasses and plastic decoys and “collectible” decanters. Pieces like the Aultman-Taylor model come along, for me anyway, once every 35 years.
The model is humble but true. Much of it is crafted from an old Power Service Diesel Fuel Additive can. Axles are hand-carved from wood; slender dowels form spokes. Notches have been cut for the reversing and clutch lever stops; what might once have been a necklace is now chain steering. A piston formed from wood slides in and out of the cylinder. The workmanship is more deliberate and serviceable than elegant; brush strokes and a misspelled word add a certain charm.
The piece is ag history, to be sure, but it is also a fine piece of American folk art. The builder — who was he? Why the Aultman-Taylor? Did he build others? — didn’t assemble this from a kit. The model is marked by ingenuity, resourcefulness and an engineer’s attention to detail. I don’t know how the piece ended up in a small town antique shop in east central Missouri and I’ll probably never know who built it, but I have a pretty good idea what he put into it, and that makes the piece a work of art in my book.
Update: When this piece ran in the February 2014 issue of Farm Collector, multiple readers replied to Leslie with a sneaking suspicion that they owned steam engine models crafted by the same maker. To find out what happened next, read Scale Model Steam Engine Builder Found in Missouri. FC