Farm Steam Engines and Works of Art

Cover of the issue

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33 Linda Avenue, Apt 1301 Oakland, California 94611

Reynold M. Wik of 33 Linda Avenue, Apt. 1301, Oakland, California 94611 provided the illustration for the cover of this issue. Dr. Wik writes about 'Farm Steam Engines and Works of Art,' A well known name in the field of American agricultural history, Dr. Wik is the author of Steam Power and the American Farm.

The Andrew Hill painting shown on this month's front cover is one example illustrating an artist's fascination with a dramatic steam threshing scene. This San Francisco artist produced this painting in 1875 after observing the spectacular operations on the Dr. Hugh J. Glenn bonanza wheat ranch near Willows, California. At the time, Californians usually referred to Glenn as the greatest wheat farmer in the world.

Born in Virginia in 1824, Dr. Glenn served in the Mexican war, received his M.D. from Missouri University, engaged in the freighting business, and then began buying land along the Sacramento River in California. He continued to expand his farm until by 1880 he owned 66,000 acres. In fact one of his fields was 17 miles long. Meanwhile, he invested $125,000 in farm machinery, $185,000 in horses and mules and $100,000 in buildings. His ranch included 32 houses and 27 barns, while his blacksmith shop had equipment enough to enable mechanics to build their own wagons, headers and various farm implements. One of his mechanics, George Hoag, constructed the mammoth separator shown in this painting. It was 35 feet long with a 48 inch cylinder and was driven by a 25 horsepower Enright steam engine manufactured by Joseph Enright in San Jose, California. On August 8, 1874, this outfit consisting of 84 men and 130 horses and mules, threshed 5,779 bushels of wheat in one day a remarkable feat in a day when threshermen in the Ohio Valley thought 900 bushels daily was an exceptional performance.

On July 26, 1879, the Glenn ranch established a new world's record by threshing 6,183 bushels of wheat. This time George Hoag used a 25 horsepower Gaar Scott steam engine and a separator of the same name. The Willows Journal, on July 26, 1879 described the event by stating:

At sunrise Wednesday morning the whistle of the ponderous engine sounded the signal for the grand onslaught upon the sea of yellow grain. The headers and 36 header-wagons and an abundance of willing hands moved simultaneously with the machinery and naught 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 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.'

According to F. Hal Higgins, the well-known farm machinery historian of the Pacific Coast states, Andrew Hill had been commissioned by owners of the Marcus C. Hawley & Company, located on the corner of Market and Beale Streets in San Francisco. This farm implement agency was one of the largest in California. The firm sold hardware, a variety of farm machines, and Gaar Scott portable steam engines built in Richmond, Indiana, as well as the Rice straw burners manufactured by H. W. Rice in Hayward, California. Aware that colorful advertising can increase sales, the Marcus C. Hawley people evidently concluded, 'Why not hire an artist?'.

Hal Higgins had this painting reduced to 5 x 7 inch cards, all in color, which he often mailed to friends at Christmas time. He also featured the Dr. Glenn activities in his own writings.

In October 1946, his article entitled, 'Dr. Glenn's Million Dollar Wheat Crop' appeared in the Pacific Rural Press. Were he described how Glenn in 1880 hauled his wheat crop to San Francisco and then shipped it directly to Liverpool. Higgins loved a good story. For example, in writing about the Glenn enterprises he described the threshing crews as veterans of the Mexican, Civil and Indian Wars who were crack shots, skilled horsemen and rugged as the country in which they found themselves. On Saturday nights this motley bunch rode in header-wagons to the town of Willows, where they celebrated in the 25 saloons located on one side of Main Street, and 75 women housed on the other side. When the drivers of the header-wagons returned on Sunday night they usually found the field hands lying in the streets and vacant lots. The ranch foremen picked up these thresher men and stacked them into the wagons, but as they did so they checked each man against their list of names such as Missouri 'Pete,' Texas 'Slim' and Tennessee' 'Jack'' to make sure that they were all back on the job by Monday morning.

In addition, bunkhouse poker games flourished with an occasional cardsharp showing up to make off with the thresher mens' wages. Guns lay beside the chips. On one occasion a misdeal resulted in the murder of the stranger. As the killer awaited the gallows, he received a timely pardon from the governor based on the argument that the defendant had rid the state of a crooked gambler.

In addition, Higgins described another colorful activity on the Glenn farm. This was the work of 40 men on horseback who patrolled the wheat fields on a 24 hour basis. During this 'Charge of the Light Brigade,' the riders fired their shotguns to ward off the wild geese which threatened to destroy the crops.

On many occasions, Hal Higgins talked about his own career. He grew up in Iowa, graduated from the state university in Ames, did public relations work for the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, then moved to Oakland, California, where he spent years doing research and freelance writing.

He finally sold his huge collection to the University of California at Davis. Today the main library features the F. Hal Higgins Agricultural & Industrial Research Library. This wonderful archival collection contains thousands of items, newspaper clippings, farm machinery catalogs, photographs, and materials describing the evolution of farm machinery both in the United States and foreign countries. Lawyers in patent cases often use this collection in court cases.

In talking with Hal Higgins, he frequently mentioned that, as a Midwesterner, he never really got over his fascination with the giganticism revealed in the history of California agriculture. He pointed out that on the Dr. Glenn farm the fields were so large that grain headers were used to cut out a circle in the middle of the field, then the threshing outfit was placed in this circle. The headers and barges (wagons) then expanded the circle as revealed in the Andrew Hill painting. Higgins also referred to wheat ranches in the San Joaquin Valley which were 20 miles in length. At times plowmen drove their teams to the far end of the field, then camped out overnight and finished the round the following day.

Other marvels included a Holt Manufacturing Company's combined harvester in 1892 which had a 52 foot cutting bar. Photographs showed Holt steam engines pulling gang plows with 36 bottoms. The Daniel Best steam traction engines manufactured in San Leandro, California, were described as giants, leviathans, behemoths and 'Monarchs of the Field.'

Such descriptions often caused out of state people to think that most Californians were classic, bald faced liars, or horny handed sons of the sod who were very frugal because they used the truth so infrequently in other words, lovers of hyperbole and afflicted with braggadocio. However, Hal Higgins would insist that people must come to California to see these wonders with their own naked eyes before making conclusions.

Dr. Wik is the author of Steam Power on the American Farm (1953), Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (1972), and Benjamin Holt & Caterpillar Tracks & Combines (1984).