Pioneers in Rural America

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Since this nation emerged from a so-called howling wilderness into an industrialized society within the span of three centuries, it has long been customary to eulogize those contributing to this significant achievement. Natty steamboat captains and locomotive engineers with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks are glamorized; Casey Jones in his 'Cannonball' is immortal; but unnoticed are the steam engineers who brought power farming to rural America.

Here were ingenious men, tough and resourceful, who in greasy overalls coaxed their rusty engines around straw piles or sighted their puffing dreadnoughts down the long furrows of the plains. They were engaged in one of the most dramatic enterprises of frontier life. As mechanical pioneers they were often ahead of the times. Long before the appearance of tractors or automobiles, these farm engineers had already demonstrated their independence. They brought self-propelled steam engines which could climb hills, reverse themselves, crawl out of mud holes and after a long day's work in the field could carry their master home for supper.

When the wealthy aristocrat in the city was still confined to the horse and buggy, the common farmer was chuffing across the fields and roads of the countryside in a private, self-propelled machine.

Who were these barnyard mechanics? Why is their work worthy of recollection?

Historically, the early farm engineers predate the railroad engineers. In England, George Stephenson's first locomotive ran in 1813; in America, the 'Stourbridge Lion' made the first successful run in 1829. The following year Peter Cooper's 'Tom Thumb' gained fame on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. But meanwhile, steam engines had been installed on several Southern plantations as early as 1807, the year in which Robert Fulton made his historic trip up the Hudson River in the 'Claremont.' While Stephenson, Cooper and Fulton received world renown for bringing steam power to transportation and commerce, apparently no one noticed that rural Americans had already started a revolution of their own by applying steam power to agriculture. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, issued a report in 1838 revealing that prior to 1830 it had become rather common place for planters to purchase stationary steam engines for threshing rice, sawing wood, ginning cotton and grinding cane in the sugar mills. Niles Weekly Register in 1836 predicted that 'in a few years, steam power will be applied to such a variety of purposes that the horse, or the ox will be no longer required.'

The first farm steam engineers worked in the South where the rapidly expanding rural economy encouraged planters to purchase the most modern machinery on the market. Frederick Law Olmsted once described these plantation owners as 'the most intelligent, enterprising and wealthy men of business in the United States.' When water, wind and mule power proved inadequate, these men imported 16-horsepower Fawcett engines from Liverpool which cost $7000 each. Bolted down to solid foundations and belted to line shafts, they drove the various plantation machines. Chimneys as high as 50 feet provided draft for the fireboxes where wood, coal or dried bagasse were used for fuel. Overseers and negro slaves supervised the engines.

In spite of the traditional reliance upon manual labor, the use of steam power gained in popularity. By 1850 most of the larger plantation owners depended upon engines for ginning cotton, threshing, and other belt work. Thus the notion that all Southern planters sat in the shade of white mansions reading Walter Scott and drinking mint julips while all the slaves in the image of Uncle Tom's Cabin bent under the lash in the cotton fields needs revision. Planters favored slave labor, it is true, but it should be remembered that they were among the most mechanically-minded people in the country. Eager to learn more about machinery, they introduced power farming to America, a move destined eventually to remove the back-breaking work for laborers in both North and South.

Following the Civil War, farm steam engineers helped develop large-scale farming in the Midwest. Immigrants succumbed to clever newspaper advertising such as 'Come West to a land flowing with wine and honey,' and 'In Paradise Regained the corn grows 14 feet tall with 5 ears to the stalk.' However, life on a homestead could be dull and the work insufferably tedious. Steel plows broke up the virgin prairie sod, but the slow ox teams guided by the conventional !'Gee' and 'Haw' left much to be desired. Horses provided more speed although they suffered under the strain until many farmers longed for the invention of iron steeds which could defy this arduous work in the heat, dust and flies. Horse power for threshing grain likewise revealed a power shortage because they could not thresh out more than 900 bushels a day.

Determined to secure a better source of power, farmers encouraged the manufacture of portable steam engines mounted on wheels which could be moved about with horses. A. L. Archambault of Philadelphia built the first of these in 1849. Scores of other companies soon sold engines of similar design. These developed 10 to 20 horsepower, cost about $1000 and were used for power on the belt. To pay for them, owners did custom work, often threshing the grain for 20 to 30 neighbors. Thus threshermen became more than ordinary farmers.

These engineers took pride in their ability for they were usually the only men in a rural community capable of operating an engine. Farm families depended upon them to thresh their grain before inclement weather ruined the shocks in the field.

The novelty of steam engines cast special attention upon the engineers. Folks frequently turned out to watch the unloading of an engine at the railroad station, curious to get a better view of these metal beasts with muscles of steel. As the engines were not self-propelled prior to 1875, the owner hitched a team of horses to the trucks and moved through the streets in triumphal fashion. On the seat bolted to the boiler, the engineer sat enthroned.

A successful engineer exhibited a variety of skills. He was boss. He gave orders to threshing crews, hired and fired men, set threshing rates, repaired machinery, looked after the safety of all concerned, and directed one of the largest group activities in farm life. On the job he acted with authority in lining up the engine to the threshing machine, getting up steam, cleaning the boiler, dropping sperm oil into the bearings or applying beef tallow to the cylinder valves. With a firm hand on the throttle, he let the engine settle down to a steady motion coughing along to a rhythmic 'tuck-a-tuck' from the exhaust.

Naturally children idolized the engineer, seeing in his work the fullfillment of their own desires. Many youngsters skipped school to see a thresherman in action and to dream of the day when they would become one of the elite. Adults too, were impressed by the spectacle, traveling miles to watch the early engines at work. These iron horses loaded with a bellyful of fire and belching forth smoke, steam and sparks commanded respect. An engineer living near Hell Gate, Montana Territory in 1870 reported that since railroads had not reached that section of the country, 'your engine is a rare sight in these mountains. Some of the old mountaineers have come down the valley and camped for two or three days to see the engine and to hear the steam whistle.'

An element of bigness featured the development of the American Westa sense of grandeur which comes in doing things on a vast, unprecedented scale. The giganticism in railroading, ranching and mining affected agriculture as well. Agrarian engineers encouraged this expansion by purchasing large 16-horsepower engines to drive the threshing machines on the bonanza farms in the major wheat growing states. Here the magnitude of operations reveals some of the Paul Bunyan traits in the men of steam. It was not child's play. Oliver Dalrymple in 1884 used 30 engines to thresh 30,000 acres of wheat on his farm in the Red River Valley of Dakota. A storekeeper near Casselton counted 53 engines in nearby fields threshing hard spring wheat. The steam rigs scattered among the congested grain shocks made an impressive sight. In the early morning a burst of white steam sounded the whistle and a few minutes later the hum of threshing floated across the prairies on the billows of golden wheat. As a thresher devoured the bundles in its rapacious maw, the grain poured out at the rate of 1,200 bushels a day.

The wheat ranches in the Sacramento valley of California provided scenes even more spectacular. Dr. Hugh J. Glenn used six steam engines to thresh a million bushels of wheat from his 66,000 acre farm in Calousa County. Regarding Eastern threshing outfits as toys, he ordered his blacksmith, George Hoag, to build a mammoth separator 35 feet long. This machine belted to an Enright engine, threshed 5,779 bushels of wheat on August 8, 1874. Five years later, the Glenn set a world record by threshing over 6,000 bushels in one day. The Willows Journal reported:

'At sunrise Wednesday morning the whistle from the ponderous engine sounded the signal for the grand onslaught upon the sea of yellow grain. Ten headers and 36 header-wagons and an abundance of willing hands moved simultaneously with the machinery and nought could be heard but the hum of the massive separator and the rattle and noise necessary among so many men, mules and headers. Four spouts poured out a continuous stream of golden grain. Four men attended to the sacks and four did the sewing .... At sunset the official count of the sacks was made, the total being 6,183 bushels of wheat cut, threshed and garnered from sun to sun. This showing we believe is unprecedented in the annals of farming in the civilized world.'

Farm engineers had their heyday during the steam engine boom from 1880 to 1914. Since steam remained the only practical source of mechanical power available for general farm use during the 19th century, the farmer's demands for it increased. In 1880 a total of 1,200,000 steam horsepower served agricultural purposes; in 1910 the figure reached 3,600,000 horsepower, an amount equal to the strength of 7,000,000 horses. At this time the Department of Agriculture estimated that 100,000 engineers were operating self-propelled steam engines for threshing, plowing, grading roads, grinding feed, hauling freight and moving buildings.

The 'old timers' who singed their whiskers around steam threshing rigs 50 years ago will never forget these days of great responsibility. With thousands of dollars invested in machinery, mismanagement, break downs or bad weather might turn profits into staggering losses. Every hour's work counted. Enterprising firemen blew the morning whistle at four o'clock to rouse workmen for the day. One thresherman insisted he worked a nine-hour day: nine hours in the forenoon and nine in the afternoon. An engineer who broke his arm in the drive belt refused to leave his post saying that threshing was no time to be laid up. Another whose wife died was said to have announced that he was too busy to attend the funeral because 'threshing comes but once a year, but a wife can be secured at any time.'

Farm engineers staged colorful performances with new engines glistening in bright paintred wheels, black boilers, green trimmings and shining brass. The leviathans weighed up to 20 tons, developed 100 horsepower, consumed 70 barrels of water daily and cost as much as $6,000. The Best and Holt engines on the Pacific coast had driving wheels 12 feet in diameter which could outpull 40 mules. With a grain combine on the draw-bar, they could harvest 100 acres of wheat daily. Here were undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring machines used in agriculture.

After 1900, steam traction engines pulling 10 to 14 breaker bottoms ripped up much of the virgin sod lying from the Canadian provinces to Texas. Grasslands once the home of Indians, jack-rabbits and bison, were rolled over and planted to flax and other cereal crops. Edwin Haselhorst on a June morning in 1909 counted the smoke columns of 10 plowing engines breaking the prairie sod near Millard, South Dakota. The Dakota Farmer reported these juggernauts plowing up whole townships each week.

The men behind the throttle added zest to farm life by steaming into farmer's yards scattering children, barking dogs and chickens. Farm families flew into action in preparation for the invasion of threshing crews which often numbered 25 men. Eligible women looked over the hired hands. Missouri 'Pete', Texas 'Slim' and Oklahoma 'Bill' intending to follow the thresher each year often ended their nomadic life by marrying the farmer's daughter and becoming a permanent part of the rural community. Each fall, the farmer's wives vied with one another to set the best table. The speed with which a thresher could finish off a drumstick was a sight to cheer the heart of any cook. The chewing of corn off the cob and the gulping of coffee resounded from the dining table as a rhapsody of almost orchestral quality.

In contrast to the romantic, the steam engine crowd faced the serious aspects of threshing, such as the personal risks involved on the job. A glove caught in the flywheel could jerk an arm from the socket. Steam at 300 degrees inflicted painful burns. Exposed gears, pulleys, belts and shafts permitted about as much safety as a buzz saw. Wooden bridges at times collapsed, plunging the driver into the river below to be crushed or drowned. Boiler explosions snuffed out lives with as many as six men killed in a single blast. One thresherman cynically fumed that an engineer slaughtered in an explosion was regarded with about as much sympathy as a dead dog. Sparks from the stack created serious fire hazards. For instance, the Daily News of Aberdeen, South Dakota on September 30, 1905, reported that the city was nearly surrounded by four fires started by threshing engines. The following week a prairie fire of similar origin near Leola, South Dakota, swept across a 12-mile front burning farm buildings and livestock.

Personal discomfort added to the engineer's woes. On torrid summer days the heat from the firebox, hot as hades, made working conditions almost intolerable. In addition, repair jobs necessitated working far into the night in the dim glow of a kerosene lantern. Irregular hours meant irregular meals; at times only cold leftovers greeted them. A dejected engineer writing to the Thresherman's Review in 1898 complained:

'Allow me to say that the most dreadful days of my life have been spent in connection with threshing machinery.... I have arose at three o'clock in the morning, tore out the side of a sod house for kindling, walked three miles and started a fire in the dearest engine this side of the Mississippi. The boys would bring me my breakfast of soda biscuit and sow belly. I have walked majestic and solemn at midnight and drank water that would make an engine foam in fifteen minutes. I have burned Leavenworth coal . . . and have shouted 'Come on boys, help us tighten the belt,' until I have about lost faith in mankind and fell in love with the hired girl because she had on a clean apron.'

In late autumn, these horny-handed sons shared the hardships of the threshing crews, sleeping in straw piles, barns and hen coops and wrapped in horse blankets or buffalo robes to ward off the cold. Franz Wood of Des Moines recalled operating a rig in sub-zero weather with snow on the ground. 'We didn't have time to stop for anything. My boots were all worn out. My toes protruded through the ends of them into the snow playing peek-a-boo with each other . . .'

To be successful, the steam fraternity needed managerial skill as well as technical knowledge. It required sound judgment to go into town and hire reliable bundle haulers from the gangs of migratory workers, hoboes and I.W.W.'s who rode westward on the railroad blink baggage. Many of the floaters, exposed to card sharks, bootleggers, hijackers, tramps and prostitutes, were as tough as the engineers themselves. To forge this motley crowd into a hard-working, cooperative threshing crew demanded some insight into the psychology of human nature. Encouragement must be provided to keep men on the job who were expected to heave bundles all day in 100-degree weather till their shirts dripped black with sweat and their eyes reddened from the windblown dust of the stubble field.

Besides, financial worries harassed the threshermen. How could mortgages on his machinery be lifted with threshing rates at four cents a bushel for feed grains and nine cents for wheat? When rains stopped work, or farmers defaulted on payment of thresh bills, life became grim. In this stiff competition many went bankrupt, some broke even and a few escaped with whole hides.

However, it is a misconception to assume that all 'iron men' radiated virtue, humility and love for neighbor and the Almighty. Among the less angelic were indolent barnyard blacksmiths disguised as threshing experts and the bob tail and rag tail who were one jump ahead of the sheriff. Some bought engines with no intention of paying for them, others put their property in their wive's name to avoid collection, many signed promissory notes which were no more binding than if they had been written on straw stacks and a few drove off collecting agents with black snake whips and bull dogs. One collector lamented, 'He refused to pay and told me to go to a place reputed to be warmer than this one.' In rare instances sabatoge occurred, when unscruplous engineers tried to ruin competitors by placing dynamite in the boiler flues of a rival thresherman.

These loquacious loafers rolled off some of the most mellifluous profanity and bald-faced lies ever to echo across the bleak prairies. Occasionally one of these big-mouth roisters tried to subdue the earth. He would steam on to a farmer's place as if he owned it, fill the barn with horses, let his men smoke in the hay, raid the garden, the hen coop and feed bin without permission, keep a card game going each night, blow dirt into the water tank and grain into the straw stack, cuss everything and everybody and finally pull out, much to the relief of the farmer and his family.

Yet, steam engineers enjoyed their work and most of them stopped threshing with reluctance. Facetiously, a retired thresherman had to be blindfolded whenever a new rig passed his house to prevent him from dashing to town to mortgage his home to buy another outfit. This temptation kept others tossing awake at night until in the morning the bed looked like the scene of a recent dog fight. The men admitted they were victims of the 'threshing fever,' or that they had 'thrashin' in their blood, a disease which defied the Keeley cure. Evidently steam men were influenced by many sensations such as the smell of live steam passing over an oily boiler, the sizzle of the injector, the curt barks from the smokestack, the gyrating governor balls, the sight of the feeder hogging through bundles until the thresher blower spouted black dust against the horizon, the farmer dipping his hands into the grain like a miser enjoying his gold, the final whistle and the driving belt flopping to a standstill as the last plume of smoke drifted into the clouds. All this conveyed a sense of accomplishment and well being to the men who pioneered to bring the iron horse to the farm.

This wistful spirit is revealed in the report of an American Thresherman correspondent who approached an old steam operator to inquire why he remained on the job year after year. The wiry codger was squinting his eye along the edge of the flywheel to line up the engine with the separator. He cut the throttle, wiped his hands on his greasy overalls, shifted his cud of tobacco, expectorated copiously and replied:

'Well, sir, I recon I have sworn off this durn thrashin business a hundred times. Every year I say, 'Well, this is my last,' but it ain't. It ain't money. Lordy knows you don't get rich running a threshing outfit. Hustles me to break even lots of times. I recon I just naturally have a hankering to be oily and greasy and covered with dust and be jawed at and work all day and half the night. That must be it. I swear off and durn if I ain't crazy as a kid just as the threshing season starts.'

Eventually the gasoline tractor killed off the steam engine but not until these rugged monsters had provided power for farmers for over a century. Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr in 1901 built their first successful tractor in Charles City, Iowa. There had been experimental tractors before this time, but the early Hart-Parr engines were the first tractors to run successfully and to be manufactured in quantity. During the First World War, the growing popularity of the small tractor curtailed the demand for steam engines. In 1920 only 1700 of them were sold and 1925 marks the end of this type of manufacture.

In retrospect, however, the significance of the farm steam engineer in American life goes beyond a visceral nostalgia for the good old days. Awake to new ideas, these foresighted men encouraged others to reject the horse and accept the new era of mechanical agriculture. Believing that you can't fix a dead horse with a monkey wrench, they gained first-hand knowledge of high speed engines, lubricants, gear systems, crankshafts, flywheels, and reciprocating cylinders.

North Dakota State College trained 7,000 farm boys to operate steam traction engines. Later they applied their mechanical abilities to running tractors and over-hauling the Model T Ford. These skills served the armed forces in two World Wars suggesting that rural lads had received a home training which was based upon a long tradition of farmers who had loved to tinker with machinery.

Frederick Jackson Turner saw the frontiersmen as 'people with a practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, and a masterful grasp of material things.' J. B. Davidson of Iowa State College in 1913 observed that farming had become more technical so that a good farmer must 'become a skilled engineer.' John Koewenhowen in Made in America concludes that 'the American's affection for machinery has always been an outstanding characteristic.'

Any careful estimate of the rural engineers will destroy the easy generalizations of some who look upon farmers of yesterday as ignorant lunkheads, strong of vertebrae but so weak in mind that they didn't know whether they were the backbones or boneheads of the nation. These sons of the sod with their red necks, pitch forks and corn cob pipes might appear to be plodders far behind the times, yet among them were those of mechanical ingenuity, self-reliant and progressive.

Today the steam engine brigade view the passing of their fabulous era with regret. To recapture a bit of the atmosphere of bygone days, these men exchange collections of steam engine catalogues or attend threshing bees where the relics of the past are demonstrated. Here the veterans thrill to the sight, sound and smell of the engines once sold by such well known companies as Case, Reeves, Huber, Frick, Geiser, Russell, Minneapolis, Avery, Rumely, Gaar-Scott, Aultman-Taylor and Nichols and Shepard. Perhaps it is the fate of these farm engineers that their names are not famous yet, life for them was full of rich experiences in an out door job they liked and in an enterprise of inestimatable value.