A Tribute To a Friend

HP Gaar-Scott double

Harry Woodmansee on a 25 HP Gaar-Scott double owned by Mike Altofh of Freeport, Illinois.

Content Tools

7411 Perrin Road Osseo, Michigan 49266

Many years ago I went to a steam show called Old Time Steam Threshers and Sawmill Operators Show, held on the Jim Whitby farm in Indiana. I was intrigued and awed by the feats of the engines and engineers.

There for the first time I saw Harry Woodmansee perform on the hill with his 40 HP Case engine. At the time little did I realize how much my life would become involved with his.

The next year through some very good friends of mine, the Lewallens family who also had steam engines, I got to meet Harry, and shortly thereafter got to run some of his engines.

Harry was a person who let many of us younger fellows run his engines and tried to teach us about them, as well as teaching us how to fire and operate them. Sometimes in order to help you remember better, he would let you get yourself caught short, then have a good laugh before pulling your fat out of the fire!

Harry was a man who spent nearly all of his life working around and with steam engines. He told me that he purchased his first engine, an old Nichols & Shepard, while he was in his teens. He said that John Nichols, I believe it was, used to come out to their place at Dowling, and Harry's father and he would go fishing.

Harry told me that when he was a young lad, to earn money, his father would let him have slab wood from the sawmill that they ran. He would haul the wood around Battle Creek and the surrounding area and sell it to people for heating, and in those days, also for cooking.

Harry worked for some time for the Advance-Rumely Company in Battle Creek, in what was called the put up shop. Here they would take the engines after they were assembled, and set the valve and check the engines for any tight places such as bearings, crosshead guides, gears or what have you. If any problems were found, such as a tight bearing, they would have to be shimmed. Also if the crosshead ways were not true they were honed and the crosshead adjusted to fit so it would move freely and not bind. After all this was taken care of, they would fill the engines with water, fire them up and take them out back where they would run them and buck them into a sand bank to see if they developed any leaks. When everything was found to be alright, they would then put them on the prony brake and test them. From there they would go to the paint shop to be painted and striped, then shipped out and sold.

Harry also worked on the Grand Trunk Railroad where he was a fireman. He told me that he fired on the road as well as some switch engines in the yards. His division was from Durand, Michigan, west to Chicago, Illinois. He said that many times on a run he would shovel 18 tons of coal into the engine to keep her hot.

As we travelled to steam shows across the country, he would tell me of many different things that took place on the runs. He related one incident where they lost the engineer. He said on this particular run they got an engine that had just been out shopped with a new set of brasses, and so they were watching them to see that they did not run hot. They were running along slow when the engineer asked Harry if he could see any hot boxes on his side of the engine because he could smell something.

This may seem funny to some of you younger folks, however when you become attuned to this old equipment your sense of smell and feel would tell you more than your eyes or ears would. Harry told him, after looking, that there was nothing wrong on his side. So the engineer, I think he told me his name was Bob Lacey, started to look on his side. All of a sudden Harry asked the front brakey where Bob was, as he was not in his seat. The brakey told him that Bob had gone out of the cab onto the catwalk on the side of the engine. Harry said he stepped over on the engineer's side and looked and there was no Bob! Then he looked back and saw Bob picking himself up from the ground! Well, Harry said he got the train stopped and they backed up and got Bob. When he was back on board he related what had happened. He said he was hanging onto the handrail along side the boiler and leaning over looking at the rods to see if anything wrong could be seen when they passed one of the target lights and it caught him on the side of his head and knocked him off the engine! Harry said if he had not had on one of those heavy wool caps such as engineers wore it probably would have killed him.

As Harry and I travelled through and around Michigan, he would show me places where he had threshed grain. He would explain how the buildings were situated and how hard it was to set the separator and engine. Many times I have detected a note of sadness, because many of these places no longer had barns or any out buildings, and at some places even the house was gone!

Harry also sawed lumber many places across the state of Michigan, and even had his mill and engine shipped into the upper peninsula once or twice. He would tell me of all the beautiful hard maple lumber that he had sawed, some boards and planks 24 and 30 inches wide, just as white as snow with no knots.

He also spoke of living in tents at these sawmill camps, and how hard it was trying to collect saw and threshing bills. He told of many tricks that the help played on each other and on him to relieve some of the drudgery of the hard work and long days.

Harry Woodmansee and John Schrock alongside of John's 22 HP Gaar-Scott, which used to belong to Harry. This was after the engine had been fitted with another boiler.

We spent many hours over at his shanty at the sawmill in Dowling, while I helped him hammer saws or fix engines. Sometimes we would discuss such things as valve gears, engines, and the merits of separators good and bad.

The first boiler tube I ever changed was in one of his engines, and I must say we did it the same way it was done years ago. He had me climb into the firebox after we had caved the flue in from the sheet on the smokebox end. I would take a sharp chisel and cut off most of the head around the tube, then what was left I would cave in towards the center. He would give me a bar about 20 inches long with a notch cut in the end which I would set on the caved in area and drive the tube out of the tube sheets out the front end.

Many of you will remember Harry as an expert at running engines which he was. He could go from one engine to another with a different valve gear yet never make a mistake on which way the engine would go when he moved the reverse lever and opened the throttle. I have seen him line up an engine to a separator when he was blindfolded. He could normally tell you what was wrong with a valve or engine or injector without touching it. He could look at the smoke coming from the stack and tell you if it was a good fire or if the grates were plugged and not getting any air. Many times at shows he would point these and many other things out to me.

Harry was one of the few across the country who climbed the wooden ramp like Case used in their advertising. However he did not always use a Case engine. He once climbed the ramp at Saskatoon with a 25 HP Case. He did it in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana using Aultman-Taylor, Keck-Gonnerman and Case engines. At Goshen, Indiana, the rear wheels of the engine broke through the ramp. Harry said when the engine hit on the back end, he was standing on the main shaft and had hold of the dome valve wheel waiting to see which way to jump. He said, 'I had no idea how I got there, but whichever way the engine fell, I was going the other way!'

In all the years I knew him I never did really figure out what engine he liked best, and I don't think anybody else did either. He would sit and talk to a person about an engine, maybe a Case, and he would tell all of the good points of that particular engine. Then he would talk to someone else and he would say, 'I can start right at the front axle and tell you all the things that are wrong with that engine.' I have heard him do this with nearly all makes of engines. I do know that he liked engines that you could fire from the ground when using them for belt work, and I also know he did more work with a 22 HP Gaar-Scott than with any other engine he ever owned. I guess probably his favorite valve gear was the Marsh because of its simplicity, although he only considered it one of the best.

Harry has left me and many others with some great knowledge of engines and boilers, which has been very helpful to me in my work. He has also left me with many fine memories experienced on our many trips to and from shows. I remember he used to tell me how much he missed Justin Hingten and Louie David whom he travelled many miles with. Now I too shall miss him no longer being here to travel with.

Through Harry and steam engines I feel I have gotten to know some of the finest people on earth. As long as I run engines, work on them or hear them run and work, he shall not be forgotten. Harry was a member of the Michigan Steam Engine and Threshers Club which he helped form in the 1950s.

We said farewell to Harry, on September 10, 1994. As a final tribute to his memory we moved his body into the cemetery and up to the gravesite on- a trailer pulled by a steam engine. After the service was over Dennis Jerome blew a final whistle which we shall never forget.

Harry (Pink) Woodmansse passed away at his home in Dowling, Michigan, On September 10, 1994. He was 91 years of age. He was preceded in death by his wife, two sons, four grandchildren, two sisters and a brother.

He is survived by five daughters, three sons, 27 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great grandchildren, one sister and one brother.