Bill Lamb's Reminiscences: PART 2

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735 Riddle Road Cincinnati, Ohio 45220

Album readers may recall the first installment of Bill Lamb's reminiscences in the July/August, 1994 issue. Now for more of the story:

Lexington, Kentucky, holds the charms of horse farms, miles of board fence, trees as glorious as any at Tara, and velvety bluegrass. Lexington (or nearby Nicholasville) also boasts a steam-engine authority in the person of William M. Lamb. His is no passing acquaintance with the iron giants of the agricultural past and the history of railroading; Bill knows engines from firsthand experience in Kentucky and Missouri when he was a young man and from observation in numerous states after the advent of threshing reunions. Scarcely an old-time engineer can be named whom Bill does not know. He has met them, swapped stories with them, and tuned their engines' valve motions.

I first met Bill on a hazy August morning at the Ohio Valley Antique Machinery Show outside Georgetown, Ohio. On a point of rising ground above the valleys blanketed with fog, stood a 22 horsepower Farquhar owned by Todd Slone, a 23 HP Frick owned by the Murphy brothers, a 19 HP Keck-Gonnerman (the next-to-the-last one built) owned by David E. Dunn, and a 17 HP Sawyer-Massey portable owned by Thomas Buller. I thought how the Frick loomed larger than any Fricks I had seen before, when Bill sauntered over. In overalls and cap, Bill looked like the engineer he is. Had it not been a plastic gallon bottle of water, I would have guessed it was a jug of something stronger which Bill deftly swung along his forearm for a swig.

'You won't see Fricks any bigger than that,' he began, as though he were reading my mind. 'That's a powerful engine and a good one. It was built in Pennsylvania with that Dutch-made perfection.'

Bill motioned me over, gestured toward the steel engine-mounting, and explained, 'Almost all Fricks matched those tough Canadian standards. See, this engine is supported by wings and a frame. It's not bolted to the boiler anywhere.' He pointed to the girders running from the pedestal at the front of the boiler, to a platform at the back. 'Those channel beams hook on here 'another gesture' to the side plates, which strengthen the rear axle 'yet another gesture' and the countershaft. The engine and boiler may seem to be all one thing, but they're really two things resting separately on all this framework.'

I was learning from a true 'iron man,' and I had not even asked for the lesson. Bill had sensed my interest in steam engines, and that was sufficient introduction. 'This independent suspension,' he continued, 'means that there won't be stress on the boiler.' He strode toward the smokebox as if I should tag along, and I obediently followed. Hunkering down, he aimed a thumb at the top of the kingpost. 'See that? The boiler sits on a chair so it can slide back and forth with expansion and contraction. That way, there's no strain anywhere.'

Soon, as I began to ask questions, and Bill answered each one, usually with a demonstration on one of the available engines. Once, when engineer Jay Hanselman stepped down from the platform of the Keck-Gonnerman, Bill beckoned me to board the engine with him. 'Now, a Miller reverse,' he barked over the noise of nearby tractors, 'if it's set right, will rock the flywheel a little over and back when the reverse lever is on center of quadrant.' He showed me. 'That's because of lead-steam, which is admitted early on either end of the cylinder to start the stroke.' His hand grasping the reverse lever, Bill laughed in approval when the flywheel confirmed what he had told. Later, I learned he had set the valve on that engine.

I spent the rest of that day and many since benefiting from the fact that Bill is willing to share his knowledge of steam power. Although I have not been inclined to try to do so, I am certain that no one could fool Bill about any facet of the subject of steam. Several years ago, Bill was attending a meet where an exhibitor had pinned a 'for sale' sign to the bunker of his traction engine.

'I took one look at it,' Bill remarked, 'and could see it wasn't any good. He'd sandblasted the boiler and gotten sand in all the gearing. I knew why he wasn't running that engine and just had it steamed up and sitting there!'

Bill's eyes narrowed as he recalled, 'He saw me a 'looking at it and asked if I was interested in the engine. I said I was only seeing how nice and pretty he had it fixed up. When he finally went to move it, it sounded like he was dragging a string of tin cans.'

'That was the second engine I'd seen ruined by sandblasting the boiler without removing the gearing first,' Bill commented. 'The other was a big Geiser Peerless model ZZ that had come from the St. Louis Exposition. It had the plows that went with it and the whole works, but they cut out the gears with sand,' Bill chuckled at the carelessness shown in some 'restorations.'

With his sense of humor, Bill inspires an amiable atmosphere wherever he is. At a reunion, he overheard a man say, 'Today's my birthday.' Bill took out his driver's license, handed it to the fellow, and exclaimed, 'Mine, too!' A gentleman seated on a bench within earshot of this coincidence drawled, 'Reckon that makes three of us.'

'Sure enough,' Bill relates, 'all of us had been born on that same day. A woman had been listening to all this, and she up and said, 'Well, I'll have to bake a cake!' It turned out she had a camper on the grounds, and she cooked up a cake for us then and there.' Being in the right place at the right time is a talent many envy, but few possess.

Bill was in the right place to witness the heyday of the steam era. Growing up in Athens, Kentucky, in the teens, Bill took part in the bustling energy of the early twentieth century. He learned to fire locomotive boilers, he ran agricultural traction engines, and he met many a colorful character typifying that extraordinary era:

'J.B.' Hagin came from Turkey. His name was Ben Ali. He made his money on diamonds and gold in Africa. He moved to Lexington and kept buying up land until he had five or six thousand acres all told. Somebody convinced him he ought to have a 140 HP Gaar-Scott double-simple engine. That was a plowing engine, but his land was too rolling to plow. He got hold of a steam-driven rock crusher to build stone fences with. 'J. B.' owned as much land in California as he owned in Kentucky, and he customarily hired migrant workers from Mexico. So he brought Mexicans to Kentucky to build his stone fences. They quarried the rock and put in miles of walls, as well as roads all over his farm.'

Bill paused to reflect on the magnitude of Hagin's farming operation and shook his head in awe:

'He built a huge mansion with a copper roof, but he wouldn't live in it. Instead, he stayed most of the time in a big tent in the yard. He had fancy gatehouses put up along the road and employed gatemen to watch who came and went. Across the pike, he milked over a thousand cows. They were milked by hand. All the milkers had to wear white clothes, and he kept that dairy barn clean as a whistle. He built eighteen or twenty gun-barrel houses for the milkers.

'Hagin personally financed extending the interurban line out to his farm. He put up the biggest circular barn I ever did see. In town, he donated the money to build a movie theater called The Ben Ali' after himself. Whenever 'J.B.' was in town, he stopped at the Phoenix Hotel. A little old guy always waited around there. That old guy wasn't too smart, but he'd go up to Hagin and shake hands every time he saw Ben Ali. And, every time, Ben Ali would give him a dollar. I guess the little guy was pretty smart after all!'

Bill laughed as he remembered the beggar and the flashy Hagin. Bill continued:

'There was an old man who had a small farm across Paris Pike from Hagin's place, and this old man was always coming over to 'J. B.' and telling him what to do and exactly how to do it. The old man gave Hagin plenty of financial advice, whether or not 'J. B.' wanted it. One time, Hagin said to the old man, 'Hel! I'm not trying to make money; I'm trying to spend it!' Hagin told him, 'Here, I'll give you a good job for $350 a month.' The old man said, 'Yeah? What do you want me to do?' Hagin answered, 'Stay home!'

'So the old man earned that salary by staying away and not sticking his nose in Ben Ali's business. Eventually, Hagin made a deal with the old man to marry the old man's daughter. Ben Ali didn't want a wife, particularly; he just wanted an heir to leave his money to.

Bill looked down for a moment, his mustache bristling, then his glance sprang back up in a grin: 'I suppose, if I had that much money, I'd do whatever I wanted to do, too!'

Bill recollected another colorful, idiosyncratic personage:

''He had so much money he didn't know what to do with it. So he just bought old equipment and piled it in his yard. You'd break your neck trying to walk up to his house at night. He had just enough room on his front porch for you to sit. I was over there one day, and I asked him if he was planning to go to a sale they were having not too far away. 'Nope,' he said. 'All they've got is junk.' Of course, his junk wasn't junk. He'd bought a two-hundred-pound anvil. He'd had it all crated up and sent to him. When it came, he had them drop it in his yard. He never once used it. It sat there until the crate rotted away.'

Bill lifted his hand and let it drop as if to say, 'With some people, what can you do?' He continued:

'I was with him one time at a flea market, and I saw him looking at a big vise a fellow had for sale. After he left, I went over and talked to that fellow. 'What kind of a price you got on that vise?' I asked. 'Forty dollars,' the fellow said. 'He'll buy it,' I told the fellow. Why, he could buy anything he wanted, he had so much money! He came back, and he bought that vise, took it home, leaned it up against a fence, left it there and there it remained. He got himself a big Reeves engine. Now, it wasn't junk! It was a 16 HP double-simple on a Canadian boiler. It had ninety-inch drivers what they called a 'high wheeler.' He wanted me to re-flue it for him. So I went over there, and here he had a pile of old pipe lying beside the engine. He wanted me to weld that old pipe into flues!'

Bill stared at me, and his silence indicated precisely what he had thought about the millionaire's notion of substituting various lengths of rusty pipe for boiler tubes.

The nature of steam engines and human nature find an expert in Bill few living today wield a greater working knowledge of either subject.. Speaking of the behemoths of traction-engine history, Bill said, 'Case wasn't the only company to build a 150 HP engine. Nichols & Shepard made three of them. One went to South Dakota, another went to Kansas, and the third went to my uncle, Ed Gerhard, in Missouri.' (Album readers may see a 150 HP Nichols & Shepard in a photograph sent in by Lloyd M. Hinker of Woonsocket, South Dakota, and published on page 41 of the March/April 1965 issue.) 'On that Nichols & Shepard,' added Bill, 'it was real easy to check the condition of the tubes. There was a hand hole plate right on the back over the fire door. You could swing open that plate and get a good view of the flue sheet. You could clean the clinkers off the flues, if need be.'

Bill continued, 'My uncle showed me the papers on that engine. He'd bought it for about the cost of the materials Nichols & Shepard had in it. At that same time, those big gas-fired tractors were coming in, and companies like Nichols & Shepard were trying to unload their great big, experimental engines, which couldn't compete with the tractors that were generally cheaper.'

Recalling good-sized engines, Bill continued, 'Russell made a 150 HP engine. Several companies made big traction engines. Out at Cedar Falls, Iowa, I saw Ray and Ed Smolik's 140 HP Reeves. Justin Hingtgen of LaMotte, Iowa, owned a big Avery which Harry Woodman see rebuilt for him. Rumely made a 40-140 HP engine.' Bill lifted his cap, smoothed his hair, and went on:

'A big Geiser ZZ shown at Shenandoah, Virginia, came from a family named Boston in Midway, Kentucky. They sold it to Sam Osborne of New Oxford, Pennsylvania. Austin Monk in Montana had a ZZ. One of the engines Earl Marhanka sold was a 110 HP Case. He'd bought it in Canada and was fined a thousand dollars on his way back to Dowagiac, Michigan, because of excess weight. He sold it to somebody in Michigan, who sold it to a man in Ohio. That man had a new steel crankshaft made, but cut the crank-disc keyways wrong. When he'd go to put the reverse lever in center of quadrant, the engine would keep on turning over. The only way he could make it stop was to close the throttle. I said, 'Is that the way it's supposed to be?' He said it was. I knew another fellow there who had an 80 HP Case at the show, so I asked him to pull up alongside the 110 HP Case and put the reverse lever in center of quadrant. He did, and the engine stopped. The man with the 110 Case just shrugged it off. 'There ain't nothin' wrong with my engine,' he said. So I just let it go.'

Having known an employee of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company gave Bill insight into Case engines.

'In the threshing days, if you had the down payment, Case'd ship you the engine, thresher, water wagon, or whatever you wanted, without worrying too much about your credit. They were good engines, those Cases,' Bill reflected. 'Canada loved them. Cases were safer than some other makes. Some companies put the bottom of the water gauge right on the low-water line, but Case plated the water glass higher on the boiler. On the Case, if the water level accidentally got to be lower than the gauge, there was apt to be plenty of water over the crown sheet still.'

Bill told me how special 40 HP Case engines were made for shipment to Argentina. They had thicker boiler shells and two safety valves. 'The pop valves were set five pounds of pressure apart,' Bill learned from the Case employee. 'Jack Tucker in Georgetown Kentucky, owned one of those special Cases. Later on, he had a regular 50 HP Case. When Jack passed away, Mrs. Tucker had me take the 50 HP Case to Wauseon, Ohio, to sell for her, and Earl Marhanka bought it. Marhanka kept that engine after he sold all his others.' Bill smiled and nodded. 'That was a good engine!'

No stranger to The Iron-Men Album family, Bill has published letters, articles, and photographs in its pages. Usually, Bill's printed essays have been written in praise of excellent engineers, as when, in the January/February 1967 issue, he had this to say about William Waters:

'He sure has done one of the best jobs I have seen in restoring that engine. And he's a dyed-in-the-wool steam-engine man not a speck of dirt or grease on it. He's always with a rag in his hand wiping it off. Mr. Waters in my estimation is a credited young steam-engine gentleman' (42). Coming from Bill, that honor is high. For Bill understands the qualities of a good engineer! He is quick to point out the failings of lesser engineers the kind who foolishly delight in excessive pressure, who are reckless, or who do not know how to repair an engine.

'I heard a rattle in an Advance at a show,' Bill recalled, 'and I told the engineer that the piston was loose. At first, he didn't believe me. He thought it was a knock in the crosshead, but there's a difference between a knock and a rattle. Finally, he took my word for it.

'He'd just put in a new piston rod. The steam pressure on one side of the piston was trying to take the piston off the rod, but, right before it could do so, the pressure would switch to the other side and would keep the piston on the rod. That's what that rattle was all about. A similar thing happened to Percy Sherman's Russell at a show a number of years back, and Sherman had that cylinder head off, the piston tightened, and the whole thing put back together again in part of one afternoon!' Bill exclaimed in admiration.

The many steam enthusiasts who have made Bill's acquaintance respect him for his years of experience, his understanding that an engine is not an oversized toy but a powerful and potentially dangerous machine, his generosity in sharing his knowledge, and his infectious sense of humor. They regard him as a 'credited steam-engine gentleman.'