Steam Threshing in the 1880s and 1890s

Firsthand account of working threshing rigs in Iowa

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After being at the scene of the bridge accident in 1882 and told about the boiler explosion in 1884, what indescribable thing was there about a steam engine which caused me to have a desire to operate or go near one? Those accidents seemed not to dampen my enthusiasm.

10 hp Gaar-Scott traction engine

In 1884, two years after the bridge accident, I walked two miles to see Jas. Bruce thresh with his 10 hp Gaar-Scott traction engine. That was a homely little brute with drive wheels about 8 inches wide, large stack and short smoke box. The only attractive things about it were the copper latch on the reverse lever and the throttle lever which was trimmed in copper. Mr. Bruce traded that engine within a few days from the time I was there for a portable engine. It proved a bad trade but he lived to return to Illinois.

The day I saw Mr. Bruce thresh, I did not even dream, five or six years later, I would be firing, operating and riding that engine over bridges which Mr. Bruce feared to drive, and the part that the engine was to play in my life.

That engine put me into the field 14 seasons with 11 engines of six different makes and into the employ of Advance Thresher Co. in 1902. It caused me to wade through wet weeds to fire a boiler at 4 in the morning, squeeze through the fire-box door opening, into the fire-box of a 10 hp Nichols & Shepard engine at 3 in the morning, expand and bead flues, using kerosene lantern, wash a boiler at that early hour, drive engines over bridges across the Big Rock and operate them in both torrid and frigid temperatures.

10 hp Advance engine

Crops were good in O’Brien County, Iowa, in 1891. Threshing was not finished until a few days before Christmas and cold weather was encountered in December. I operated a 10 hp Advance engine, No. 1676. It was without a jacket and cab.

We threshed flax one extremely cold day. The sun shone brightly but it was so cold the air was blue and a brisk wind blew from the northwest. The flax stacks were partly covered with ice and snow. The water tank was covered with ice, and every time the injector was shut off, it was necessary to drain the hose to prevent its freezing. The drive wheels screeched loudly, as the engine traveled through the snow. Heat could be felt in no place around the engine but in front of the smoke-box, and under-clothes and three pairs of trousers did not prevent my getting cold.

12 hp A.W. Stevens & Sons engine

In 1892 I operated a 12 hp A.W. Stevens & Sons engine, No. 1552, in Lyon County, Iowa. Water was hard there and the engine was belted to an 1892 Minneapolis separator – a heavy draft machine. The boiler was the open bottom fire-box type, with wagon top, dome over the crown sheet, short water legs and grates low. The heat was intense, where the mud settled, giving the boiler a tendency to foam easily.

Mud began showing in the bottom of the glass the evening of the third day generally, not later than the fourth, and it was time to clean the boiler. Nothing else would do, and if not promptly done, the engine primed and mud moved from the bottom to the top of the glass. Lubrication was washed from the cylinder and valve, and trouble was experienced with injectors and lubricators. The engine was well balanced and with a clean boiler; no other engine operated more smoothly, and the operator forgot the rising and falling of the mud in the glass.

A close friend, Leonard Lewis, with whom I grew up at Aurelia, came to Lyon County in 1892 to get work with a threshing crew and came to see me. His training taught him to drive and take care of horses. He was not large but active enough to play short-stop on a small town baseball team. The owner of the Stevens engine hired him to haul water.

During the time he had been with the machine, he learned something about firing and watching the engine. It was near quitting time of a fine day. The machine was throwing the straw east, and the water tank was standing south of the engine and a little ahead of the drive wheel. The water was getting bad. I threw in a fire and told the water hauler that I was going to the separator and not to let the steam blow off.

I heard the valve begin to sizzle and ran to the engine on the north side but the valve released before I made the footboard. The engine primed badly and was choking before I could close the throttle and open the cylinder cocks, but I returned just in time to see the water hauler, with his head down, shoot head first from the footboard of the engine under the water tank. It is safe to assume, at no time in his baseball career, did he move faster. Mud and water poured from the safety valve. The engine was covered with white mud and its appearance could not have been much worse had a flock of geese roosted on it. A sickly smile spread over Leonard’s face as he came from under the tank.

That engine was at work on the last job of the 1894 season on the farm adjoining my father’s on the north. The rig with which I had worked had finished its run. The neighbor for whom they were threshing had lived near us at Aurelia, and his son and I played together when we were boys. The crew was short and he asked me to pitch to the machine. The weather was fine. I had pitched bundles, could do it and went to pitch for a good neighbor.

The engine was about 80 rods from home when I walked to it early in the morning. A man about 20 was operating it. He had worked in the Rock Rapids steam water plant three or four years and was employed by that city in its power plants nearly his entire life.

He had had the crank brasses out and filed them and was putting them back when I went there. They were worn and many shims were required because of the key adjustment.

The operator did not fully drive the key when he assembled the brasses, cut the engine and backed to couple it to the separator. I stood on the right side of the engine and heard a heavy pound. He stopped went back to the separator, drove the key, pulled the separator between the stacks, backed into the belt, the separator attained threshing speed and we began pitching bundles, but had pitched only a few when the separator suddenly stopped. The crank end of the connecting rod had pulled out and let the piston loose, which cracked the cylinder head and broke a large piece out of the cylinder. The cylinder, lower guides and pillow blocks were cast in one, which necessitated buying nearly a new engine. The owner picked up the crank brasses and felt them. They were not hot.

It was a bad smashup; the work was nearly done and too late to repair the engine. The owner wished to finish his work. I told him I thought that if he would go and see the owner of the Nichols & Shepard engine, he could hire it to finish his two days’ work. The owner accommodated him but told him that he would like to have me operate the engine. We steamed the engine, drove it to his rig, pulled the Stevens to one side, backed into the belt and went to threshing. We finished the work, coupled the separator behind the Stevens engine, hitched to the Stevens and pulled the full rig home.

I did not think then, and now do not think, that was any fault or defect in that engine. I may have arrived at the wrong conclusion but one thing is certain: That operator made mistakes when he did not drive that key, before operating the engine and driving the engine with that pound in it. All of us make mistakes. I made one, when I walked from the same engine to the separator, knowing the boiler was bad. The piston rod on that engine had no adjustment, as it was held in the cross-head by a tapered key. The length of the rod could have been shortened by the shims until the piston bumped the back head. The clearance could and should have been equalized with the shims.

In the spring of 1895, the owner of the engine ordered the parts that were broken and hired Tom Holman, a highly rated engine man, and me to do the work. The crank shaft bearings were babbitted and, after the saddle was set, the other parts were easily installed. After the engine was tested, the owner said, “I would like to have you operate it this fall.” Crops were good and we threshed until the middle of November. That engine cut its steam and few engines were as nearly noiseless in operation.

Close call while crossing the Little Rock River on a 16 hp Gaar-Scott engine

The Little Rock River flowed west across the road four miles south of our former home in Lyon County, Iowa. A steel bridge, high above the water, spanned the river at that point, in 1897. That fall I operated a new 16 hp Gaar-Scott engine, belted to a new Gaar-Scott fully equipped separator.

The day we finished the season’s run, we were south of the river and it was necessary to cross that bridge to move the machine home. The bridge was more than twice as long as the rig. We drove onto the bridge about 3 o’clock, with the complete rig. The owner, a short man, was guiding the engine.

The engine was moving slowly and all went well, until it was about two-thirds of the way across the bridge, when the bridge began swinging sideways, violently, and it seemed every second the bridge would drop into the river. I all but stopped the engine, glanced at the owner, the bridge stopped swinging, I gently opened the throttle, the old Gaar-Scott crept across the bridge and we went home.

It just did not happen but no other two men came more nearly going into a river than Frank P. Fetzer and I did into that Little Rock, and his face was never more ashen, when laid in his casket than when I glanced at him that day. IMA