Decker Tractor

The Decker tractor. See Canadian Notes

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Goderich, Ontario, Can.

On a lovely autumn day early in October, 1876, an auction sale was in progress on the farm of James Macdonald five miles south of Clinton, Ontario. While the father's stock and implements went to the highest bidders a thirteen year old boy stood wistfully regarding the model threshing machine he had painstakingly constructed from a wooden box and odds and ends found around the farm. The little machine was complete to straw-carrier and was operated by a belt from the grindstone. Now, the family were moving and it had to be left behind. Realizing the situation, a neighbor boy, Michael Whitmore, came over and offered him fifteen cents.... Peter Macdonald had built and sold his first machine in a lifetime devoted to the manufacture of threshing machinery.

The year before, Alex. Macpherson, mechanic, and John P. Macdonald, book-keeper from the firm of Glasgow, Macpherson and Co., of Clinton, Ontario, decided to start a threshing machine business of their own and chose Stratford, a railway center fifty miles east, as the site of their business venture.

Running shy of capital to complete their factory they appealed to John P. Macdanald's brother James to sell his farm and go into partnership with them. The firm, known as Macdonald and Macpherson Co., built and sold without difficulty the thirty threshers they planned for 1877 and the success of their machines from the start assured increasing sales and prosperity for the company. These threshers were of the conventional apron or canvas type with side shake shoe. About 1880 an end shake shoe was adopted and four years later they placed on the market the first of their deck type separators. This machine was remarkably simple in design. The straw-deck was hung on arms below the cylinder and was attached to a revolving crank at the back end. The resulting motion tossed the straw upwards and backwards with each revolutions. In later years the deck was lengthened to replace the tail rakes but so efficient and easy running were the early models that the general design was never changed. Wind stackers, self feeders, baggers, weighers, and rear cutting attachments were added as they came into general use.

The canvas type machines were called the 'Standard' and were built as long as the demand for this type lasted. While the first deck type machine was being built a workman casually referred to it as the 'Decker.' The name caught on and was adopted for the new type separator. The use of the name grew and before many years the firm' output was advertised as the 'Decker' Line of Threshing Machinery.

Alex. Macpherson did not live many years and after his death the two Macdonald brothers carried on the business as the Macdonald Manufacturing Company. Young Peter attended school in Stratford for two years then entered the Grand Trunk Railway Shops as an apprentice machinist. In addition to learning his trade, Peter's work on locomotives developed a deep and lasting interest in steam engines. A few years later he and his brother John K. Macdonald joined their father and uncle in the threshing machine business where Peter's training and interest was directed towards the mechanical end while his brother just as naturally favored working with wood.

In the early 1890's John P. Macdonald's health and other interest resulted in his withdrawal leaving James and his two sons to carry on the business. James Macdonald died in December 1911. Born in Scotland, he was only a few months old when his family crossed the ocean to Nova Scotia in 1831. John P. was the first child born during the fourteen years the Macdonald family remained in Nova Scotia before moving on to the vicinity of Bruce field in what is now the Province of Ontario. Following the death of James Macdonald the firm was reorganized as The Macdonald Thresher Company Limited and a modern factory was built at the eastern outskirts of Stratford to take care of their increasing output.

No engines were built by the Macdonald firm in the early years but horse-powers of the Pitts type, both down and mounted, up to the 12 H. P. size were built and the company sold John Abell and C. Norsworthy portable engines to customers who wanted complete outfits. The demand for traction engines finally persuaded the firm to begin their manufacture and in 1905 arrangements were made with the A. D. Boker Company of Swanton, Ohio, to build the well known 'Baker' traction engines in Canada. The first of these engines in the 18 H. P. size were built the next year. The 20 and 22 H. P. sizes followed and in 1914 a special 25 H. P. engine was developed to meet the demand for heavier engines from Western Canada.

Early 'Decker' engines were built the same as the 1906 models of A. D. Baker engines. Later ones had minor changes including a longer connecting rod and Devker valve gear. In this reverse gear the eccentric rod was lengthened and the valve motion taken from the extreme end through the angle rocker arm placed ahead towards the steam chest, an arrangement requiring only a short valve stem rod. In 1913 the first piston valve engines were built making the 'Decker' one of the few if not the only, piston valve traction engine built in Canada.

All 'Decker' engines were rear mounted, without springs, on round closed bottom boilers with the exception of the 25 H. P. ploughing engine which had an open bottom type boiler and a full width intermediate gear shaft above the boiler. An old employee tells with amusement about the time the first big ploughing engine was completed and ready to be taken out into the yard for testing under steam only to find it was an inch and a half too wide to go through the door. The Macdonald firm had no boiler shop. Their first boilers were built by the Clinton Thresher Co., and after the Clinton foundry burned in 1907 the majority of their boilers were built by the John Inglis Co., of Toronto, Ont.

During World War I the firm used much of its equipment for the manufacture of artillery shells. After the war they dropped the manufacture of steam engines and concentrated on gasoline tractors. The unfortunate choice of a variable speed friction drive that was excellent in theory but would not stand up to hard usage proved a serious financial hardship and in 1923 the firm sold out to the Brooks Steam Car Company who considered the plant and location ideal for their requirements.

Peter Macdonald lived until Nov. 22nd 1950 and remained one of the old school of steam lovers who never could reconcile himself to the gas age. He was a great admirer of the Walschart valve gear as used on locomotives and in his spare time in later years constructed a reverse gear of this type for use on traction engines. Unfortunately, the fate of the farm steamer had been sealed and his valve gear never had a trial.