Can Steam Come Back?

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The following article is reprinted from the October 1931 edition of American Thresherman and Farm Equipment. It was submitted to I M A by W. E. Neal of 613 8th Avenue, Charles City, Iowa 50616.

Tis but human to cling to the old things. The old swimming hole, the long walk to school through the snow drifts of winter and the almost bottomless roads of spring and fall bring back boyhood recollections. Getting the mail once a week after perhaps a five or even a 10-mile drive, brings back pleasant memories.

Isolation had its keen compensations in that it brought in the news from the outside through the peddler, the salesman, the stock buyer and the casual call of a neighbor.

How we boys liked to see the pack peddler come for an overnight stay. The mysteries that pack contained will never be forgotten. It mattered not that the merchandise was soiled through much handling. In our eagerness to see every article which the canvas-wrapped pack contained, we crowded in to the point where our parents became annoyed and we were fortunate if we were not sent off to bed, much to our disappointment. That pack was a veritable 'Pandora's box,' and the peddler was a personage of considerable note in our estimation.

There was no telephone over which we could gossip or call the hands at threshing time, but how we boys enjoyed riding horseback from neighbor to neighbor, advising each of the fact that the thresher was coming and would they be on hand with as many empty grain sacks as they could possibly bring. The day or two of threshing was in the same class as the county fair, the Sunday School picnic or the circus an event which came but once a year.

There was no radio to give us the news of the day even before it appeared in the newspapers, and the present-day radio program to which we have now grown so accustomed, as a matter of course, would have satisfied our imagination beyond our wildest dreams.

Hard work was the order of the day, and even we boys made our play stunts as difficult as possible. It was the boy who could do the hardest thing who set the standard for the others, and it is those hard things which we now look back upon with fond memories rather than the easy idle hours we whiled away.

There is always a romantic halo about something old. Old paintings, old furniture, old roads, old gnarled and weather-beaten trees. We place them in our memory book to be referred to at fireside reveries or when mental palliatives are needed as a relief from the stress and hustle of modern times.

Grandma's day was a wonderful day, to hear her tell it, and we ourselves like to believe it and do, especially if we have passed middle age.

A considerable number of the readers of American Thresherman and Farm Equipment, if I am to judge from the correspondence which is received from them, view with regret, not unmixed with sorrow, the changes which are taking place in farm power equipment and the efficient adoption of modern methods in farming.

One reader says: 'I have been a continuous reader of your magazine since 1898, and I want to tell you how good it seemed to me to see a picture of a steam engine in one of your recent issues.

'Such pictures as the one referred to, look good to thousands of we older men who stood by your magazine in the good old days when threshing was a business lasting from 30 to 90 days, which now, thanks to the gas tractor and the 'toy' thresher, lasts only about 10 days.

'We threshermen don't care much about the combine in this section of the country (Minnesota). It isn't a success, and I doubt if it will ever become popular in our climate. I don't object to your giving space to the combine and tractor, but why is it that we threshermen who are 'still sticking to steam' can't have some consideration too? Every farm paper in the country boosts the combine. Even the Sunday School papers show pictures of this machine at work.

'The fact is plain. The builders of threshing machinery have us pretty well sold on threshers, and they must change the trend in some manner so it will be possible to sell us again. They want the older methods to be forgotten, so the farm papers of today 'soft pedal' on threshers and steam engines, and if they dare to show a steam engine cut at all, it is usually labeled as obsolete or out-of-date power.

'In Minnesota and Iowa alone, there are hundreds of the old reliable 'steam engines' threshing the golden grain, and their owners are going to stay with them just as long as those engines can be made to go. Many of them have been in use 20, 25 and even 30 years, and they are still going strong and steady.

'I am a steam man, and I am not ashamed of the fact. I have been called upon several times to step in with steam and take the place of a disabled gas tractor while it is being overhauled in harvest time, and the crew always took off their hats to steam when I did it.'

Here is another letter written at about the same time from a Kentucky subscriber, down in the country of fine horses and blue grass. He says:

'I believe you did the right thing by rebuilding our magazine and am especially glad that you incorporated the old name so well with the new. I am beginning to feel that within a few short years we will have a big and much wanted and needed farm machinery publication with as many pages as it contained around 20 years ago.

'By the way, I would like to state the fact that I began as a subscriber with the May, 1910 issue, and have preserved every copy from that time. So you see, I am especially interested in its welfare and you can count on me as permanent on your mailing list.

'I am a steam man 100 per cent, and it was the steamer days that made our journal but now as conditions have forced us to change, as I said at first, you did well by rebuilding, as you have greatly improved it and now I believe it will be more wanted than ever since the big steamer days.

'Now I feel you can truly advertise it as 'Here's what you are looking for,' and make this impression on farmers most especially.'

I am fully in sympathy with the feelings of the Minnesota subscriber. I operated a steam traction engine for a number of falls on threshers and corn shredders, and the thrill that one gets out of a steam throttle is one never to be forgotten. The odor of lubricating oil on a hot boiler is perfume and consciousness of power, as the steam is released into the cylinder, is one to make any man feel that it is good to be alive.

For the purpose for which it was intended, steam power on the farm will never have an equal, at least not until our engineers devise something about which we know nothing at present.

Farm power requirements in those old steam engine days were simple. There was no thought of using steam for anything but the heaviest belt jobs. As a matter of fact, many threshermen went broke before they realized that steam required a higher price per bushel for threshing than did the sweep horse power driven outfit. Interest and depreciation had to be figured on a much higher investment and repair bills were often-times a considerable item.

It was steam that taught the thresherman he must charge a reasonable rate per bushel and stick to it. I well remember when the first steam outfit pulled into our neighborhood. It charged one cent per bushel more than did the old horse power outfit which had been doing the jobs for years.

Some of the farmers accepted the new rig because it looked as if the work could be done more quickly and there would be some saving in horse feed, as the fuel used in the steam engine was wood of which there was an abundance picked up about the farm.

There was also the steam whistle to call the hands to work early in the morning, thus insuring an earlier start and a longer day's work, and as humanity in those days differed little from what it is today, there was the added glamour of being up-to-date.

The responsibility for the change which has taken place in the farm power situation is one that rests upon the shoulders of no one in particular. It is true that gas tractors were first manufactured without any real demand on the part of the farmer or thresherman. Manufacturers, however, are continually on the watch for something new, and the fact that those first tractors met with a ready sale, encouraged others to go into the business.

The development of the automobile perhaps did more than any other one thing to speed up the gas tractor industry by developing motors, bearings, lubrication, ignition, and lighter and stronger materials. The sales of gas tractors soon passed those of steam, and as quantity production always makes for lower costs, the price of steam engines per horse power soon became very high as compared with gas tractors.

Today there are only three concerns which make any pretense of building steam engines for threshing purposes, and their outputs are so small as to be negligible when compared with farm power requirements. It would take some stretch of the imagination to believe that steam traction engines for farm use would ever again be thought of.

I know it is hard for old-time threshermen to think of forsaking their old steam tractors, and I do not blame them for hanging on as long as possible, which will in many cases be for several years yet, because those old steam engines, used as they are for only a few days in a year, will last an incredibly long time.

But the change has come from steam to gas, and the introduction of the general purpose tractor is strengthening the position of the gas tractor more and more every day. There is no turning back, and it is quite safe to say that the thresherman of the near future will not be able to buy a new steam traction engine at anything like a reasonable price no matter how badly he wants one.

All honor to those old-time threshermen who pioneered the business through poor roads and bridges, cut-throat prices and with equipment that was not always the best insofar as construction was concerned. They are the ones who made the threshing industry possible. They are the ones who finished the grain crops in order that the world might be fed. May they rest in peace, secure in the thought of a work well done through difficulties and hardships, but with compensations by way of thrills that the present-day thresherman is not privileged to experience.