A LITTLE STEAM & A LITTLE GAS

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3196 MacArthur Road, Decatur, Illinois 62526.

Written by Mr. Ken Owings, 4 Golden Gate Avenue, Belvedere, California 94920 who has agreed to share his story with us. It appears here nearly word for word as Mr. Owings related it.

My name is Ken Owings. I was born on a 500 acre farm in Central Illinois 77 years ago. My dad lived on the same farm for over 50 years which was located one mile north and two miles west of Owaneco, Illinois.

As an average boy about 8 years old I recall seeing the threshing machine coming down the road to my father's farm. I was so excited I just had to go down the road to meet it. Just then my dad told me to watch his team of horses that were hitched to a wagon loaded with bundles of wheat hat was more than I could stand. I just had to think of a way to go down the road and meet it. So I decided to tie the horses to a tree about 75 feet away. Instead of leading the horses to the tree, I went into the machine shed and uncoiled 100' of one inch derrick rope used for stacking hay. I tied one end of the rope to the team and the other end to the tree. My father soon saw what I had done and I received a good tamping. I remember he made me put the rope back and by that time the machine was set and threshing. My day was spoiled!

The next year my older brother who was about 21 years old, bought a second-hand threshing rig from a Mr. Joe Tex and his son, Ed. They lived about 3 miles from us. I remember they arrived home about dark. It was a small looking engine single cylinder Star. It had no top and was a greasy looking thing. It had an American Separator tied on behind it.

The separator did not do very good work. At that, we got along with it fairly good. We had a good sized ring but the farmers were not too happy with it. They all liked my brother, so before the next season my father and brother traded it off on a new Reeves outfit. It was a 16 horsepower double cylinder engine along with a 36' 21 bar separator.

The Reeves salesman was from Decatur. His name was Welch and he made several trips down to close the deal. He came down on the train and we met him with a horse and buggy. He often stayed all night.

Mr. Welch took the old Star engine in on trade. He allowed some on the old separator, but never bothered to pick it up. It set out along side of the corn crib for a year or two but was never used again.

Well the new outfit came by train to Taylorville, which was six miles from our farm. My father, brother and the hired hand left early one morning with a water wagon to pick it up. They drove the rig home planking all bridges along the way. One bridge was over the South Fork of the Sangamon River and was new but they planked it to be safe.

They arrived home about 10:00 that night. Next morning I saw it out in a small pasture near the house. The engine, tender and separator were the most beautiful think I ever saw.

July 1st we were ready to thresh. Mr. Welch, the agent, was there and everything went smoothly. We finished our ring in about 30 days. My brother took the rig over by Pana and threshed for a ring there. We just about paid for it the first year.

They used the separator about four years. It was hard to keep in repair, as it had too many shakers and pans in it. One time, a neighbor boy and I made a sail out of an old pan. We put it in on the back end of an old buggy, and a March wind blew us for about a mile. They sold the separator for $100.00 to a Mr. Herdman over in May Township who wanted to do his own threshing. He came after it with a little I.H.C. hopper-cooled single engine Mogul. It pulled it on the road but I never heard how he got along threshing.

I was now about 12 years of age. Mr. Welch, the agent, came back and sold my dad and brother a 6-bottom Reeves plow with a water tank and coal bunker on the front. There were three long levers to lower and raise it out of the ground. We used it one year for spring plowing, but it was no good. It packed the ground too much. In the fall it was fine for wheat plowing. They soon sold it to a man in Morrisonville for what they paid for it or $400.00.

About 1914 dad bought a 12-25 Waterloo Boy and a 3-bottom self lift P.O. plow. It was a good little tractor in its day. We used it a lot and plowed a lot of ground with it. We sawed wood and ground corn for several hundred head of cattle with it. I will get back to this later.

My brother had bought a new 32' Case separator and it worked real good with the 16 HP Reeves steam engine. I was water jug boy with my ponies and buggy. I hung around the engine all I could. My brother ran the engine and hired a separator man. I also pitched bundles one season part time and ran a grain wagon to the elevator.

When I was about 16, Ralph, my brother, said I could run the steam engine next season. Boy did I feel big.!

My first day at running the engine turned out to be a hot July day. Of course I was green and worked hard at it. I soon broke out with the heat and was over a week getting rid of it. Otherwise everything worked out real good. I had no trouble lining up into the belt which my brother thought I would have. He still hired a separator man who was overseer and kind of public relations man. We were out six weeks that year and everything turned out all right.

As a young lad I had hauled water for the steam plow. We had a gas engine to pump water at the large stock well. So hauling water was no problem. The engineer filled his tanks with an ejector.

There was a lot of wheat raised during World War I and it was a bumper crop. We put out 250 acres of wheat in the fall of 1917 and I was sowin' on Thanksgiving Day. It was sleeting and raining and we were sowing on cut corn stalk ground. The drill would sometimes raise 2' off the ground. Yet that wheat made 40 bushel to the acre next year.

And now back to the Waterloo Boy which was now getting a little old. A nearby farmer owned an Emerson Brantinham gas tractor. He had only plowed 40 acres with it. It was almost new when he run it up under a grove of trees and left it there. He never used it anymore as he said he couldn't keep the large ring of bull gear in it. He had put in three, two were furnished by the company and he did not want to spend any more on it. He said he was going back to using horses. Anyway my dad gave him $150.00 for it. It had a large drive wheel and two large front wheels and a huge farm cylinder motor. I saw what the trouble was. The gear did not have enough braces on it. I ordered a new gear, installed it and had the blacksmith make braces out of ' x 2' flat steel about 2' long and drilled for ' bolts. They fit perfectly and I never broke another gear. I plowed over 500 acres with a 3-bottom plow but it would have pulled 4. I sold it to a man to run a hay baler for the same price I paid, so I wasn't out much.

I sold the Waterloo Boy in 1919. I had bought a new Case 15-27 HP crossmotor and a 10' tandem Rodick Lean disc. I thought I would save the new tractor and use the old one. I had put in an Atwater Kent ignition system on the Waterloo in place of the magneto. I went out to disc stalks with a horse disc weighted down. I got about half way across a 40 acre field when I heard a pounding noise. I took off the back cover and found a large counter weight bolt broken. There were two of them but only one was broken. I unscrewed the broken piece, lined up the holes and drove a broom stick in the hole and tightened up the other bolt. I thought this would get me to the end of the field where we could then replace the bolt. I gave the motor a twist and it started raining cast iron. Some of it went 25' high. It ranged in size from big as a quarter up to the size of your fist. I never got a scratch but I nearly cried on being so dumb.

A few days later a Mr. Denton came by and gave $50.00 for it. He had one of same model at Pana, Illinois. John Deere bought them out in 1918 but used the same type of motor for several years. Well I had the new Case, but I had a hard time paying for it.

Well 1919 was the last year we threshed with the Reeves steam engine and Case separator. I never did have any serious engine trouble. Once a lock nut came loose on the piston rod where it screws into the crosshead. I heard it clicking in time to catch it before it pushed the cylinder head out. Good thing I caught it or else my brother would have chased me off. There would have been no use for me to look back. We did have the usual bad water cases where the water boy would find an old well full of rabbits. That made things pretty tough even though you found it out quick. I had the usual run of broken water glasses. I have changed soft plugs but I never did blow one.

We sold the rig to the man whom my brother had bought the old Star from. I sure hated to see the Reeves go. It was easy to handle. I have run Aultman Taylor, Keck Gonnerman, and Advance engines, but none were like the Reeves. The only weak spot was the boiler but the Canadian type boiler did not have that trouble. I have filled silos for weeks at a time. I always liked to hull clover in the fall. The days were nice, sometimes Indian summer and you could sit on the box a long time between fires.

The 500 acre farm was sold in 1920. The new owner said my father could stay on, but he died of a heart attack in March of 1921. My mother and I, new wife and hired man farmed the rest of the year. When fall came the new owner said I was too young for that large farm, although we had everything to do it with and had a good crop.

We had a sale and sold off dad's things after the crops were out. I bought what I needed including five head of horses and in the spring moved to a poorer farm. I farmed and nearly starved to death with a new woman. I had a hay baler and I baled lots of straw for the paper mill. I got most of the straw for nothing. Sometimes you had to pay a dollar a ton for good dry straw. There wasn't much money in it. The mill would dock you so much even with one wet straw. But it kept groceries on the table.

The next spring I had planted corn; it was a wet year and the ground was hard and the weeds were coming thick. I was plowing corn when I decided this was no way to make a living. I unhitched the team, jumped into a Model T Ford and went to Taylorville to see about a job. This was in July. The manager of the Central Illinois Public Service Company said I could have a job. It was firing boilers at their heating plant. They had five 150 HP return flue boilers. They heated the business district in town and about 60 buildings.

I came home and had a sale as I had to go to work September 15, 1924. The sale was held the latter part of August. Creditors got most of the money, pasture rent etc. Things were pretty tough in those years.

September 15 rolled around and I went to work as planned. I worked two years for 55 an hour 7 days a week. I sold the Case tractor in 1924. In 1926 work was hard during the summer. We repaired steam mains, breaking pavement with a sledge hammer as no air compressors yet. The company gave me a 30 day leave of absence. A Mr. Ernest Hardin asked me to run a steam engine during threshing out north of town. I said I would at $6.00 a day.

He had a 16 HP Reeves Simple and a 32' Case separator and I was right at home. It was a good outfit. The boiler was getting a little thin and the crown sheet a little wavey. No farm boiler inspectors in those days.

I went to work on the boiler. I put in a new soft plug and used the hammer quite freely and decided it would be all right. Mr. Hardin hired a separator man who was getting the separator ready. He also hired a tank man.

The separator man was all separator man. He rode the top from job to job. Always before the separator man did the steering, but not this one. We had a right good run. Mr. Hardin was well pleased. He came out every Saturday afternoon and paid us off. He was a Conductor on the CIM Railroad. We got through threshing without any trouble. We ran the machine back in a grove of trees where we found it. I don't know what happened to it. This was my last threshing.

In November I went back to work for the company. They promoted me to superintendent of the heating and ice plant. The ice plant had numerous steam pumps and several steam engines. I had a good job until 1955 when they sold the heating and ice plant. I continued with them in the gas department until I retired in 1964 after nearly 40 years on the job with the same company. I am now almost 77 years old.