A Hoosiev Town and Her Engines


With models by Don Irvin, Dr. Robert T. Rhode built this diorama, ''First Morning of a Hoosier Harvest,'' to accompany his article on the steam-power era in Pine Village, Indiana. Photographed by Terry L. Bond, Jr.

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Pine Village huddles on the prairie land of Warren County in the north-west corner of Indiana near the Illinois border. Author Jane Smiley could have been describing the terrain there: '... the earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed ... as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth..' The town of two-hundred citizens has changed little since the early twentieth century- State routes 26 and 55 now wear a coat of blacktop; the railroad has vanished, leaving only a hump in the road; bams once full of livestock stand empty; cars and trucks tear along the highways; otherwise, the hamlet could pass for an older version of itself. An indifferent person might conclude that Pine Village is merely another among hundreds of small towns in middle America the kind that slow one down to thirty-five miles-per-hour while one is on a fast trip the kind one barely notices. More discerning people, though, recognize that such towns as Pine Village have enviable legacies. These villages hosted the predominantly rural way of life during the era of steam power and merit acclaim for establishing on a strong agricultural foundation America's greatness.

To detect this honorable heritage requires slowing down. It requires concentration and imagination. It requires listening to those who remember.

Slowing down this means not moving so quickly in one's speedy car or in one's mind, incessantly hunting the pleasures of today; rather, this means stopping long enough to catch the faint fragrance of yesterday. One concentrates on a square foot of water in a ditch in spring and begins to notice a fascinating universe of life, including frogs' eggs and larvae. One next concentrates on the immensity of the black soil stretching like a table in all directions to a hazy line of treeless horizon. One concentrates on a barn, perhaps the only object above the level surface of the land. One imagines that, not so long ago in world history, near that bam, a steam engine and separator threshed wheat. Listening this means paying attention to that stray anecdote woven into the mundane conversation of a farmer who recalls that threshing rig. The past cannot resist such disciplined effort and will come out of hiding. Then the bleak landscape flashes into the brilliant color of yesteryear. The mind is peopled with an energetic community helping one another with the tremendous task of harvesting hundreds of acres.

Pine Village provided the center of life, hard work, and promise for its citizens in the early 1900s. Before television had robbed people of their hours spent talking together on a porch, before ease of travel had de-emphasized the importance of visiting with nearest neighbors, before the 'fast-food' mentality of 'I want and deserve everything now' had replaced the wisdom of patience, and before thoughts of self had vanquished concern for others, townspeople cooperated for mutual well being, especially at threshing time. In Wheels of Farm Progress, Marvin McKinley states, ''It was a period that demanded total involvement. . . help was exchanged throughout the neighborhood, as farmers worked together to keep the huge rig running at full capacity.'' While a plucky sense of self-reliance characterized the individual farmer, the harvest witnessed a committed inter-dependence a sharing, a giving greater than anyone had the right to expect. To dedicate one's labor to the grand gathering-in of the grain surpassed mere calculations of financial reward; the understated, homespun phrase 'to help out' speaks volumes about integrity, dignity, and respect for others. The magnificence of the threshing dinners, alone, is testimony sufficient to prove the point that collaboration united rural people.

Dr. Reynold M. Wik reports that, according to Department of Agriculture figures for 1910, '100,000 engineers were operating self-propelled steam engines for threshing, plowing, grading roads, grinding feed, hauling freight and moving buildings.'

Within the radius of a few farms from Pine Village, over a dozen steam engines and separators threshed wheat and oats. Most were owned by individuals who harvested for loose associations of farmers living within a narrow geographic area say, down the same road. A few engines and threshing machines, however, were owned by companies. People paid for stock in the company and bought the engine, separator, water, wagon, and other equipment, thereby jointly purchased and owned. The president of the company hosted such social events as the spring get-together to predict market prices, the number of 'sets' (placements of the engine and separator in different locations), the acreage to be harvested, the pay scales of everyone from the water boy to the engineer and the 'settle-up day' when the financial rewards of the threshing season were divvied up among the farmers and the crew.

At one time presided over by George Hess, one of these companies worked to the northwest of Pine Village and ran a medium-sized Huber engine. Joseph C. Rhode was a child in those years; he remembers how the water supply in the tank on the front of the Huber would run low and the tank's wooden framework would begin to smoke. More than once, the nearly-empty water tank scorched, scaring young Joe.

Straight north of the town, along the line dividing Warren and Benton counties, another company also threshed with a Huber. Perhaps a Huber representative adroitly convinced Warren County farmers to incorporate companies and buy no engine other than 'the New Huber. 'Wik lauds the owners and operators of such agricultural engines:

Since this nation emerged from a so-called howling wilderness into an industrialized society within the span of three centuries, it has long been customary to eulogize those contributing to this significant achievement. Natty steamboat captains and locomotive engineers with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks are glamorized; Casey Jones in his 'Cannonball' is immortal; but unnoticed are the steam engineers who brought power farming to rural America.

Perhaps it is the fate of these farm engineers that their names are not famous yet.

To sweep the dust of time from the names of owners of engines in and around Pine Village is still possible.

Southeast of town, Joe Williams privately owned a lean-contoured Reeves with gracefully-curved canopy (See July/August 1993 IMA, pages 18-20). Further south and east, Joe Warbritt on also steamed up a Reeves; a family connection linked these Reeves owners. Joe Warbrtt-ton's father-in-law, Rufus Day, was Joe William's great uncle. Rufus helped Mr. Warbritt on to finance the purchase of the Reeves equipment.

The ubiquitous Case Company did not overlook Pine Village. East of town, Leonard Mann bought his own Case (likely a 65-horsepower). Gus Gephart also obtained a Case rig. When he once farmed closer to Attica than to Pine Village, he enjoyed the distinction of being quoted in a 1909 Case catalog: 'The Case coal tender and tank are convenient, and you never need to wait for water. I would not be without a 2-wheel tender tank if I owned a dozen outfits.'

Fred Albright ran the general store in Pine Village. He had gained experience as a member of a threshing crew in Canada. He owned two staunch Rumely rigs, the second of them operated by his brother, Joe. The Albrights threshed here, there, and everywhere around town usually for farmers who had become dissatisfied with other threshing crews.

George L. Eberle's run extended from just south of Pine Village in acrescent through the town to the east. He owned a 25-horsepower Gaar-Scott which purred more like a contented kitten than a roaring tiger, the firm's trademark. South and east of Leonard Mann's run, Fletcher Morgan operated a Baker which 'bit 'em off nicely' with sharp cut-offs of steam in the cylinder. Southwest of Pine Village, Jacob St. John ran a single-cylinder Nichols-Shepard 'Engine of Economy From Boiler to Business,' as the Battle Creek, Michigan, corporation advertised. Farther southwest of the town, his brother, N. S. St. John (being called by his initials misled some people into thinking his name was 'Ennis') threshed with a Russell, the logo of a bull ('The Boss') belying its yipping while in the belt.

With models by Don Irvin, Dr. Robert T. Rhode built this diorama, 'First Morning of a Hoosier Harvest,' to accompany his article on the steam-power era in Pine Village, Indiana. Photographed by Terry L. Bond, Jr.

An extraordinarily exciting day in Pine Village brought a train bearing Zack Strickler's new Baker. Wik might be describing the scene in town: 'Folks turned out to watch the unloading of an engine at the railroad station, curious to get a better view of these metal beasts with muscles of steel.' When the flatcar loomed up with its proud burden, through the crowd a murmur of admiration passed like a breeze. Silhouetted against the expanse of sky stood the Baker with jet-black boiler and glistening-red wheels. Half-embarrassed to be the center of so much attention and half-daring to let himself bask in the villagers' combined awe and envy, Zack fired up his engine and eventually turned its front wheels toward its threshing destination northwest of Pine Village. Spectators marveling at the engine's heavy gearing, its Uniflow cylinder, and its sharp, percussive exhaust were sorry to see it go on down the road.

East of the Huber 'company run' along the Warren/Benton County line, the 'banner boy' trademark on the smoke box door of an Advance engine led the victorious charge from farm to farm on Jay Max's threshing run. In the same general area north and east of Pine Village, Travis Stewart Stingle, whose nickname Windy only Zephyrus could appreciate, belted up a rare cross-compound Canadian Special Reeves with eight-foot-diameter driver wheels. Although Windy had operated many engines, he owned this 'high-wheeler' Reeves. Every July, thin columns of smoke began to interrupt the monotony of the horizon around Pine Village; the momentous event of threshing with steam engines had started in earnest. The great communal heart of the farmers quickened its pulse.

Engines were not used exclusively for threshing wheat and oats. Clover-hulling also was a job for steam engines. According to Sam Noland (who resided in Pine Village), a crew was hulling clover near Monon, Indiana, one autumn, the season when the darkness descends a little earlier each evening. The grandfather of the family who owned the farm noticed sparks drifting from the smokestack of the engine. He grew terribly concerned and soon ordered the grandchildren to avert disaster. The youngsters scurried to fill buckets of water to soak gunny sacks in the buckets, to chase down all the sparks, and to slap them to smother them out. Of course, sparks had been present all day long, but the deepening gloom of evening made them visible to the worried grandfather. That venerable patriarch may have been overly solicitous, but sparks truly could present some danger. McKinley states: 'Despite all precautions, sparks discharged from the engine smokestack were a constant threat. Straw, a highly combustible material, was usually nearby and added to the danger.'' Wik notes that the Daily News of Aberdeen, South Dakota, reported that, in September of 1905, Aberdeen 'was nearly surrounded by four fires started by threshing engines' and that, the next week, fires near Leola, South Dakota, 'swept across a 12-mile front burning farm buildings and livestock.' Catastrophes happened around engines and separators.

Leigh Paris Builta of Pine Village had graduated from law school but never practiced law and, for a time in the late 1800s, lived in Kansas, where the following anecdote, as told in Marvin McKinley's Wheels of Farm Progress, took place. In those years (before the advent of automatic feeding and band-cutting devices on separators),

the man at the feeding table of the threshing machine was the most important figure in the threshing crew. Feeding was an art. The bundles [of wheat] were severed by the 'band cutter,' and passed on to the 'feeder,' who spread them out and fed them, heads first, into the machine. He did this in such a way that the stalks were fed gradually, from the top of the bundle downward. In this manner, the grain flowed into the cylinder in a steady, uniform stream. This was essential for doing a fast, clean job of threshing.

The band cutters often were mere lads who had to keep their eyes and minds on what they were doing, or else calamity might result. The feeder, an experienced adult, moved quickly not looking toward the cut bundles but rhythmically reaching for them and grabbing them while keeping his gaze on the feeding. According to Leigh Builta, there was a saying which every band-cutting boy was to impress on his memory 'Never make a second cut!' the risk of whacking the feeder's hands was too great; thus, if the band cutter had failed to sever the twine on the first try, he had to let the bundle go anyway.

On the day in question, one such boy forgot his lesson. He made a second cut and sliced open the feeder's hand. The gash was ugly. Enraged to the point of madness, the feeder turned toward the boy, snatched him with his spurting hand, and hurled the youth headfirst into the separator cylinder, which made short work of the lad. In horror at the murder they had just witnessed, the rest of the crew seized the feeder, tied a noose around his neck, and lynched him then and there. As Leigh put it, such was frontier justice.

Around Pine Village, grisly occurrences and macabre accidents were infrequent, although the occasional horse too near the belt on the pulley of the separator chose the wrong moment to switch its tail at a fly. Ordinarily, the threshing days combined pleasure and goodwill. For many a one who took part in the harvests of the past, the commingled scents of the engine's cylinder oil and coal smoke, the 'chuff-chuff-chuff' of a single-cylinder engine or the 'lickety-lickety' of a double-simple engine, and the sign of golden wheat cascading into the grain wagons spelled the utmost happiness, ample reward for the intensive labor.

The times when Mack's Boiler Compound, Braided Emerald Brand Agricultural Suction Hose, and Black Beauty Axle Grease were household names have faded from the recollections of most villages; however, certain qualities from yesteryear persist unto the present hour. As Wik observes, '... the significance of the farm steam engineer in American life goes beyond a visceral nostalgia for the good old days.' Inherited from the era of steam power is a spirit of community of helping out as alive today in Pine Village as it is in the myriad other American towns like it. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the years when engines ornamented the rural landscape is expressed most simply and elegantly in the word 'compassion.'