How Steam Boosted Farming

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The role of steam in the building of America's agricultural might should never be forgotten, even though the giant traction engines have been relegated to the status of beloved restored antiques.

The idea of providing power by steam to any purpose was brand new and looked upon with strong skepticism 200 years ago. Thomas Jefferson saw steam applied to operation of grist mills in 1786 in England, and seemed to have recognized what it might someday do, but most people looked on steam with suspicion.

Reynold M. Wik, in his classic book, Steam Power on the American Farm, notes that Oliver Evans, of Delaware, figured that steam could drive a road vehicle. Wik comments:

'He applied to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1786 for exclusive rights to build such a carriage, but the committee receiving the proposal considered Evans insane in this regard and rejected his petition. They did, however, grant him patent rights to build stationary steam engines to drive flour mills, an enterprise to which he successfully devoted his energies for many years.'

Evans was not insane. A man ahead of his times, he built an engine he called 'Oruktor Amphibolos', a combination road engine, steamboat and dredging machine, which he drove through the streets of Philadelphia. He then built successful stationary engines and gristmills.

First general application of steam to agriculture was not for threshing; instead, steam facilitated many other kinds of operations on farms and mills connected with farms. Steam threshing seems to have started in the first third of the 19th century, and from that time on it grew tremendously.

As steam power became better understood and more attractive, production of engines grew apace. George W. Cutter, of Covington, Kentucky, was so enthused he wrote a poem called 'Song of Steam.' Dr. Wik quotes one stanza:

'I've no muscle to weary, no heart to decay
No bones to be laid 'on the shelf
And soon I intend you may 'go and play'
While I manage the world myself.
But harness me down with your iron bands
Be sure of your curb and rein,
For I scorn the strength of your puny hands,
As a tempest scorns a chain.'

As the portable traction engine grew available, and the numbers and sizes of farms grew with national expansion, steam power typified the driving progress of the times. With the self-propelled engine a reality, steampower on the farm entered boom times. That boom lasted well into this century.

American inventiveness fostered the boom. Innovations in the machines, and in manufacturing and servicing them, sparked a national agriculture that towered over any shown by any nation in world history. Individual skill remained a strong factor, but giant corporations were formed also to make the engines and send them throughout the nation and abroad.

Giving steam its due, Dr. Wik says:

'Since steam was the only successful and practical power available for agricultural purposes during the nineteenth century, its utilization laid the basic foundation for the present-day era of power farming. In extolling the advantages of today's fanner with his automobile, truck, and all-purpose tractor, it is well to recall that the mechanization of the twentieth century emerged from the steam age of the preceding century.'

So let everyone remember. . .when you look at a steam traction engine, you are seeing more than just a powerful piece of mechanism. You are reviewing a glorious set of chapters in American farm history, and the lives of millions of farmers who used those engines not only for their individual purposes, but as a strong devoted group that helped make American farming what it is today.