3501 Bristol Highway, Kingsport, Tennessee
After we sold our farm in Washington County at Gray, we purchased another in Sullivan County, ten or fifteen miles away. Other experiences amused. Once when crossing a field in which was a pond to reach the barn, the threshermen were helpless when the thirsty oxen, sighting the water, rushed headlong, pulling the separator in with them. A like experience occurred with Harrison Wexler, mentioned before, when his ox team pulled his 'tub' engine into Holston River. Charlie Slaughter of Fordtown, related to me his experience in bringing his N & S traction engine home one night when during a hard electric storm he had to ford this same river.
Not too long ago, one of the largest locomotives pounding the rails of America exploded on the C. C. & O. near Erwin, Tennessee, blowing the boiler clear of its trucks and another, more recently, exploding on the N & W tracks near Bristol, and as I think of these, I wonder how, with all these traction engines climbing and descending our long steep grades with the water first in the fire-box end, then in the smoke-box end of the boiler, we did not more often meet tragedy.
A gentleman told me recently of such misfortune at Church Hill near Kingsport. The fireman had just expressed delight at the easy firing of his engine when almost immediately the boiler was blown to smithereens when parts of the crown sheet proved to be very thin.
The nearest I have ever been to a steam fan's heaven was when driving, years ago, from Shreveport, La., to Crowley. The latter is known as the rice center of the world. I saw them threshing rice. Nearing the town I pulled my car to the roadside and as I stood on the running-board of my car I counted ten steam threshers all going at the same time. If the war scrap drive did not get them, there should be many fine engines there to this day. Besides, in that soft level country their machinery is not subjected to the brutal punishment we accord it in our hill country.
Thank God that there are fine men and women, young and old, who have set themselves to locating, buying, taking care of and preserving these mechanical treasures of what may be called the 'farm steam age.' The most active of these years, about 40, would run, say, from about 1880 to about 1920. Of course, before this there was the gradual beginning, even as there is to this day, a gradual tapering off. There are now thousands of steam sawmills and other steam operated machinery in use. In our vicinity there are three such sawmills in operation, perhaps more.
One is made to think of 'The Slaughter of the Innocent' when he sees what is happening to our railway locomotives and farm engines. Who has not lain in his Pullman to listen, when awake, to the rapid exhaust of some faithful locomotive far ahead up the tracks pulling us, gliding over silvery ribbons of steel, or to hear the solemn lonesome wail of the whistle vibrating the dark night air. How different now with these diesel rattletraps and imitation whistles
No, I am not an enemy of progress, so please, please, do not try to inhibit my sentimentality. Do you say, 'Amen?'
Many of these old engines are receiving better care today than ever before. Many brazen instruments, pop and other valves, governors, lubricators, try cocks, steam gauges and whistles show marks of some 'pipe-wrench artist,' brasses that should have had the same care a man gives a fine watch or your wife accords her bracelet.
Just as no man is a real horseman unless he loves horses, likes to personally assist in his care, to clean his feet, curry, brush and saddle him, so the real honest-to-goodness engineer is seen caring for his engine, when not otherwise engaged, wiping -with his oily waste every part of this marvelous servant of man.
We talk about 'live steam', so it seems that one reason for our attachment from boyhood to the steam engine lies in the fact that, when fired up, it becomes, it seems, a living thing, throbbing with energy, breathing, pulsating, trembling, eager for the master to touch the throttle, then to respond in consonance with the nature of that touch maybe, gently as when a mother lifts her babe from its cradle, or with the vigor and alertness of a Minute Man, who with loaded musket blasts forth with pent up power.
These old engines are monuments to a race of men. The men who operated those mills and separators and engines were no kid glove, white collar, swivel chair, cake eating, street corner loafers. They were he-men, tall men, strong men,, sun-crowned, brawny pioneers who settled on the land, cleared the forests, laid out and tended their farms, erected homes, and sired and reared their families, men who laughed at their calamities, whistled as they planned and sang as they worked, and now we have come upon this rich American inheritance of culture, discovery, invention, scientific technology, with abundance for all and an almost universal longing for peace.
As I bring this inadequate article to a close, let me pause, before I do so, for we have finished the threshing job at my boyhood home. The crew has departed. The neighbors have gone their several ways. With the belt thrown, the engine moves down the road with an apparent new freedom. The horse drawn 'thresh box' lumbers along and at each depression in the road I see dust dislodged and shaken into the air. Everything seems quiet and lonely about the barn-lot. Father is cleaning up the screenings off the barn floor, assisted by mother's ducks which after taking to the water, each have a passport to duck-heaven, for some of the screenings were oats!
I am bare-footed and as I walk along the wide tracks, digging my toes into the grooves made by the diagonal cleats, and wondering how long we could keep those pictured intaglio sculptures or that pile of ashes, to me sacred, as if from the altar fires of some deity. Happy Days were those to me, but they are gone, save in memory. The Tide of Time moves on and those of you who helped to make the poetic history to which I refer, and those who read 'THE IRON-MEN ALBUM' and edit and write the thrilling record of its pages, are all poets who cherish the beautiful, the true and the good, as you plan for the future and preserve the past.