An Unforgettable Day

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15420 S.E. 20th Place Bellevue, Washington 98007-6333

It was a hot dry summer in 1934 in southwestern Idaho, no rain for months. In a reclaimed desert that is not very surprising. The grain threshing was about half over, all bundle wagon, everything by hand. This particular farmer had a lot of livestock and wanted his straw pile in the same corral as his barn. This made it a bit difficult, as the corral was large but not really large enough for all that had to be there with the straw pile.

We threshed from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in those days and were running about 2000 bushels of wheat a day. We had run two full days and had to move the rig several times, as even with the extension blower on the Red River Special, the straw pile was too big to blow the straw over. The corral was getting very crowded.

On the third day about 11:00 a.m. my father, who was tending the separator, noticed a small flame right under the blower hood with the wind blowing the sparks around. He immediately pulled the hood up and stopped the pitchers and told the water hauler to throw a five gallon bucket of water into the blower. Instead of throwing the water into the blower, he threw it into the grain pan. The fan blew a little water into the blower and we thought it was out, but a few little sparks were still burning.

By now the grain hauler had gotten so excited that he started to pull out, upset the grain box wagon and the horses were falling all over themselves trying to get away and that blocked the bundle wagons. The pitchers got excited and scared the horses. Confusion reigned!

It was obvious now that there was no way to put out the fire, and the separator was a wooden machine, so it was time to get it out. My father threw the belt and tried to back the engine up to the separator but still the wagons were bogged down. The fire, by now, was raging in the powder dry straw. My father had to help get the wagons out and finally got the separator out and the grain wagon. Someone called the fire department from town, about four and a half miles away.

By now we had a real fire storm. It had been a still day, but now the wind was blowing from all directions right at the fire. The fire and sparks of burning straw were flying high in the air. It could be seen for miles around!

When the fire truck arrived, they did manage to save the barn but the straw smoldered for several days.

Of course the fire was blamed on the steam engine. However, it is not likely that the steam engine would set a fire right under the blower hood. More likely someone threw a handful of matches or a cigarette into the machine. Besides that, we fired with coal and we never saw sparks fly out the stack. It was an exciting and spectacular fire that day. It was the only fire we had in all the years we ran that rig. Later, I had a few cigarette fires that we could prove, but we always got them out before any great damage was done.

My father bought that Case 45 four months before I was born. He seemed to be the only one who could properly set the valve on the engines, and competitors would have to come to him to get their engines running right. He never charged them and was always good natured about it, even though we heard some of their stories. He filled silos, chopped hay and pulled stumps and moved houses, all besides the grain threshing and farming.

I last fired that engine threshing in 1936. It was then retired to the pasture, not because it wasn't in good condition but because of the expense of an engineer and water hauler. It was replaced by an Allis Chalmers Model E. But it was always a disappointment threshing with a tractor; all that noise, and besides that the steam engine never kicked me trying to start it, and the tractor did, twice!

I have kept that engine and have it on loan for a display in a park. It is covered and lined up with the Red River Special thirty-two inch separator. This separator is a steel one that was built in 1921.

I miss the gentle rocking of the engine that I grew up on, and the smell of the steam cylinder oil and the smoke from the stack. I well remember when I was big enough to fill the boiler and haul water for it, how big I felt. It was such a shame to give up that quiet powerful engine for a noisy tractor.