Straw-Burning Portable Steam Engines
(Page 2 of 3)
Putting the Heald to work
Heald’s straw-burner must have seemed custom-designed for William Butcher’s needs. Owner of 1,000 acres near Vacaville, Calif., Butcher was fast building a reputation as a progressive operator. In its July 23, 1880 issue, the Solano Republican identified Butcher as one of just two persons in Solano County to own a grain cleaner. Eager to find a faster, less expensive way to harvest his wheat, Butcher discovered a ready solution in Vallejo, roughly 20 miles southwest of Vacaville. There, in 1880, he purchased a 20 hp portable straw-burning engine manufactured by J.L. Heald.
For reasons unknown, Butcher left Vacaville in 1883; five years later, he sold his ranch. His Heald engine essentially disappeared from view – until 1948, when it resurfaced at Barrett’s Boiler & Welding Works in Modesto, Calif. The Heald was parked outside of Barrett’s for years, as a sort of advertisement. In 1948 the engine was completely refurbished, including installation of new boiler tubes, and made ready to be part of an upcoming California state centennial celebration of historic agricultural equipment.
The Heald engine subsequently became part of the Pierce E. Miller Transportation Museum collection near Modesto, where it was stored outside for years. In the 1960s, the engine was rediscovered by California agricultural historian F. Hal Higgins, who wrote several articles about the Heald. He was particularly concerned about preserving what he referred to as “the only one left.” The engine remained outside, unprotected. By 2000, three of its wooden wheels had rotted away, causing the engine to fall onto its side.
Back from the brink
In 2001, I purchased the Heald engine from the Miller museum and started researching its history, tracing it back to William Butcher, the engine’s original owner. In the process, I learned about one of the Heald’s interesting features.
The engine’s boiler safety valve is of a very early design. It uses a piston valve located in the top of the boiler’s steam dome, held down by a lever connected to an adjustable Chatillon spring balance. The spring balance also acts as a boiler pressure gauge, and is calibrated in boiler pressure with a scale of 0 to 240 PSI.
That safety valve’s design was flawed, according to one early steam engine engineer: “The one great objection to the use of piston (safety) valves, namely, that they are likely to become clogged by the accretion of matter around them (unless in constant operation), as to prevent them from operating until a large excess of pressure is attained ...”