Engine Down in Centerville

A Bridge Breaks, a Frick Falls and a Lawsuit Ensues

Harvy Turner's Frick

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Harvy Turner's Frick lies on its side after going through the Higgens Bridge outside of Centerville, N.Y., sometime around 1920. The thresher is a 34-inch Williams. Harv's son, Milton, was running the engine that fateful day. He was badly injured in the accident, but he eventually recovered.

Merle Post's article about the Birmingham Bridge wreck in the November/December 2001 issue of the Iron-Men Album prompted me to send a picture of a similar incident that took place about three miles from my home in Centerville, N.Y., about 1920.

Growing up around my father's engine, I became interested in anything pertaining to steam and I would ride my bicycle up to my grandfather Bert's house and listen to his threshing stories. I was in my early teens and he was over 80, but the generation gap hadn't been invented yet and we got along fine. One of his favorite stories was about the wreck and the lawsuit that followed.

The picture shows Harvy Turner's threshing rig after breaking through the Higgens Bridge that crossed Five Town Creek. The engine was a Frick (I think a 9 x 10), and the thresher was a 34-inch Williams made in St. Johnsonville, M.Y. Harv's son, Milton, was running the engine and was seriously injured.

Allegany County, which owned the bridge, claimed the outfit was over-weight and sued for damages. Turner counter-sued. Interest in this case must have been high, for on the day of the proceedings the courthouse was packed, with Bert among the crowd as he, having a threshing rig himself, was hoping for a favorable ruling for a brother thresher.

Richard Morris, a farmer who lived beside the bridge, had seen the accident and was subpoenaed by the county to testify. Morris wasn't too thrilled at having to go several extra miles just to get to the other side of the creek, so county officials thought he would be a good witness for them and they brought him to the trial as he had no car. On the stand he told all about what he had seen and done. Upon being asked if other steam engines crossed the bridge Dick, who was somewhat of a character in his own right, said, 'Why no - everybody knows that bridge ain't been fit for a dog to trot across in years.' After the laughter had stopped the county lawyer had no more questions.

Turner removed the wrecked engine from the creek bed and sent it back to the Frick Company to be rebuilt. Turner had the weigh bill from the railroad showing what it weighed, and Turner's lawyer also had pieces of the bridge showing that it was indeed rotten. In the end, the county had to pay for the damage to the engine as well as build a new bridge. Perhaps disappointed at Dick's performance on the stand the county officials left, leaving poor Dick to find his own way home.

Harve traded the Frick in on a second-hand Peerless, which he used until he quit threshing. Bert then bought the Williams for parts as he had one just like it. The steer chains are on my 45 Case now; they were removed to get the engine out and Harve gave them to my dad.

Another story about Harve involved an unpaid threshing bill. It seems the Turners were threshing for a farmer in a nearby town and in the neighborhood crew was a man who never paid his bills unless he had too. As they were all sitting around the table eating dinner this man said, 'When are you going to thresh for me, Harvy?' Now, everyone in the room knew that he hadn't paid his bills from the previous year, and they waited for the answer. They said Harve stopped chewing, looked at the man sternly and said, 'John - don't you think it's a little early for Christmas presents?' His reply became a local classic and was repeated into my time.

Contact steam enthusiast Brad Vosburg at: Box 10871 Vosburg road, Farmersville Station, NY 14060.