Jim Gerow

Steam engine

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10845 E. Adams Road Beaverton, Michigan 48612

Mose Gerow lived three miles north of Clare, Michigan, at what is now the junction of old US-27 and Beaverton Road. A large pine tree stump in front of the log house was said to have been the largest tree in this area. It was over seven feet across the stump. Mose was a foreman at a lumber camp. Jim, Moses son, was a young barefoot boy in the summer of about 1891. Three miles east of where they lived, at what is now the corner of Rogers and Beaverton Road, Jim saw a 16 horse hitch hauling a little four-wheel drive Brooks steam locomotive on a large steel wheeled wagon. They were coming from the south. The turn east was too sharp. So they tore down the rail fence on the southeast corner, made the turn, and put the fence back in place. The little logging engine was on its way to Section 35, Arthur Township, where I now live. A track was laid from the east side of Section 34 across 35 and 36 to the backwater of a logging dam at the Clare/Gladwin County line on the middle branch of the Tobacco. This little rail track was only around two miles long. Very little grading was done for the track. With all of these crooks and turns on up and down grades, probably no more than two or three log cars were pulled at any time. It was used for around three years, then hauled back to Clare the way it was hauled in. The fact that it was considered worthwhile to build this little railroad to move logs seemed unrealistic for such a small area. It can only stagger a person's imagination as to the amount of good timber that was logged off. We still occasionally find one of the little handmade rail spikes in the fields.

This picture is Jim Gerow sawing lumber with the last steam engine he owned in the fall of 1955 north of Loomis, Michigan. Jim saw the engine out back of the Ford Sales at Houghton Lake on his way home from deer hunting in the fall of 1953.

He told me about seeing the engine and we went to look at it and I bought it. This old Port Huron has the same size boiler as a 24 except it is shorter. The boiler had been used for hot water heat in Ford Sales and Service until the fall of 1953. Before that, the engine was used to run a stone crusher somewhere north of Houghton Lake. There was stone damage to the front of the engine to prove it. The engine number plate on the smoke box door was broken off and gone. A brass plate on the smoke box indicated the engine had gone back to Port Huron for a factory rebuild. I sold the engine to Jim after buying it. Jim sawed lumber with it for several years, then sold the engine. The new owner from Saginaw bought the steam engine to heat his greenhouse. The engine back in the left side of the picture is a Port Huron-19 7594.

One of Jim Gerow's lifelong friends was Joe McFarlane. Joe's father owned a sawmill and Joe learned to fire the boiler when he was a young boy. In the 1890s it was not easy to find someone who knew how to operate a steam engine. Joe was hired when he was a teenager, around 16 years old, to run an Advance steam traction engine used for the threshing run in the Dover and Eagle area.

Joe got a patent on a sawmill carriage block. He did a lot of traveling around to mills, selling and installing his mill block. He always took his anvil and hammer with him to hammer mill saws, and he was still hammering saws when he was over eighty years old at Falmouth, where he lived in later years.

One of Jim's early experiences of running a steam engine came when he was hired to run a return flue 12 horsepower Huber. At a farm near Clare, where they pulled in to thresh, a crib of corn had been shelled. Jim was asked if he could fire with the pile of corncobs. The cobs were damp from being rained on. When Jim got the firebox packed full of cobs, the fire took off. He said, 'It was a good thing I had lot of water! That return flue boiler was making steam as fast as it could take on water.' During the Great Depression Jim bought the old 12 horsepower Huber and a rotted down sawmill that had been sitting idle for years, for $12, to scrap out.

A man near Clare, by the name of Joe Stevens, owned a Port Huron 32. It was the largest steam engine in this area. Jim ran it for him sometimes, sawing lumber and threshing. It was a good sawmill engine, but Jim did not like it for the threshing. It was too big and heavy. A 32 inch grain thresher was a big machine for this area.

At the end of Dover Road, at the Gladwin County line, there was a swamp. A narrow one-way corduroy road was built through the swamp. Jim was driving the big Port Huron on this road, but it was just too big and heavy for the corduroy in the swamp. The roadway settled down in the soft ground on the south side. The engine slid sideways. The drive wheel went off the edge into the mud. The engine tipped over on its side in the swamp. Jim was a very resourceful man. It took him three and a half days with jacks, timbers and a half dozen men helping, to set the engine upright again.

At this time of Jim's life, he was living about four miles north of Loomis. There was a steam engine in that area with a wildcat whistle on it that gave out a terrifying screech. One day the owner of this engine blew this whistle when he was very close to a house where an old man lived alone. About three days later he was found dead in the house. He died the day the whistle blew. Many people thought the wildcat whistle scared him to death.

Jim was threshing in an area where he had never threshed before. One of the men asked him to stop at his place and do his threshing. Where the set was to be made, there was a clothesline full of clothes downwind from the engine. Jim took a little extra time getting ready to thresh, hoping the lady would come out and take the clothes off the line, but she did not. He knew that those clothes were in for trouble when the engine started laboring. Keeping one eye on the clothesline, it was not long before he saw smoke coming up from the back line. He dipped a bucket of water from the water barrel on the engine and went to the clothesline, stepping behind the front line to where the fire was on the back line. A spark lit right in the middle of the lady's underpants, burning like a smoldering ember. By now there was a large round hole burned out in the center. The other thing that about floored Jim was the size of the underpants. Just as he was ready to douse the fire, he saw the face of the lady of the house look at him through the burning hole. She stepped out of the way. Jim doused the fire with a bucket of water. Then she told him what she thought of his old steam engine, using language that is very unbecoming of a lady. Jim said, 'I think she was the largest woman that I ever saw in my life!'

The 20 Horsepower Buffalo Pitts Engine

This engine was behind the barn where the Isabella County Fairgrounds is now. This engine was equipped with an exhaust water heater. Water was leaking into the exhaust. When the engine was running, water was blowing out of the smokestack. The owner of the engine cut the price down, allowing for what he thought would be a big repair job on the water heater. Jim bought the Buffalo Pitts engine. It was bigger, newer and in better condition than any engine he had owned before. One of Jim's sons went with him to help drive the engine home. While getting up steam, Jim fixed the water heater. As they were going out of the driveway by the house onto old US-27, the man who sold the engine was watching. He could not understand why no water was blowing out of the smokestack.

On the way home, Jim's son was steering the engine. Three women in a touring car were passing and the driver cut back in too quickly and the back bumper caught on the front wheel of the engine. This swung the car around crosswise in the road. Jim stopped the engine. The front wheels of the engine were against the running board of the car.

Three years later, it was late in the fall and the weather was shaping up for a cold spell. Jim went out and took all of the plugs out to drain the boiler. It turned extremely cold that night, freezing up hard. This cold spell lasted for a week. Then it turned nice and warm again. Walking by the engine, he noticed water dripping from the plug hole in the bottom of the water leg on the boiler. He knew the boiler had not completely drained. Jim promptly looked to see what happened. A piece of scale covered the drain hole. He then took all of the remaining plugs and hand hole plates in the firebox area out. A good inspection of the boiler showed that the water level was even with the grates when it froze up.

Jim was a good engine man. He could put in new flues and staybolts, doing any other repair work necessary to make an engine safe and working right. When spring came, he would check for broken stay-bolts and replace them.

He was also a wheeler-dealer and would sell anything if the price was right. In January a man from Marion, Michigan, came along looking for an engine he could buy to run his sawmill. He said his sawmill was set up and ready to go and logs were piling up. As he was looking the engine over, Jim told him about the boiler leg freezing up and that the boiler should be considered unsafe until checked for broken staybolts and replaced if any broken staybolts were found. He liked the looks of the Buffalo Pitts engine, saying it was a fine looking engine and could see nothing wrong with it. Jim was asked to put a price on the engine and it was sold. The engine was fired up as-is with no checking for possible boiler damage. It was driven forty-some miles on frozen roads to the sawmill near Marion. Some two or three years later, Jim heard that this man had gone to the house for dinner. Returning to the engine, he jerked the firebox door open to put more wood in. When he did, the firebox below the grates blew out. The grates came out the door, hitting him in the chest. He probably never told anyone in his area that the boiler had frozen up before he got it. This would leave it a mystery to other steam men around his area as to why the boiler blew out. Anyone who would use a boiler that may be unsafe would probably be careless in other ways too. For instance, blowing the mud off the bottom of the boiler probably was not done. In this case, a mud buildup in the boiler that had frozen up is a good way to add up to a disaster.

Now let's go back and take a good look at what happened here. How many of us are guilty of waiting until the last day, in the afternoon, to do something that should have already been done? In this case, a steam engine boiler should be drained before it starts to freeze up. If Jim had not seen water dripping from the boiler of the Buffalo Pitts, he probably would not have known that the boiler had frozen up. If it happened once, could it have happened to other boilers? What was thought to be a good engine blows up and no one knew of a reason why.

During the late '20s and early '30s, Jim was using an old Rumely engine to saw lumber with. One day he saw a wet spot on a staybolt down on the water leg of the boiler. The boiler shell had rusted from the inside out around the staybolt. A good inspection of the old boiler showed all of the short stay-bolts in the fire box area to be the same way, with no more than one thread left holding on the outside of the boiler shell. Jim said, 'This old engine could have blown up on me!'

When work began to pick up in the 1930s, Jim went to work at the Wilson Foundry at Pontiac, Michigan, until he retired. Then he came back to the place that he called home, north of Loomis.

In January of 1953 I bought a Port Huron steam engine, No. 7594, south of Sturgis, Michigan, then another engine in November of '53 that Jim saw at Houghton Lake when he was deer hunting. This was an old short boiler Port Huron engine. Jim bought a sawmill and set it up at his home, using my steam engine after being away from sawing lumber for 35 years. When Jim was old enough to work in the lumber woods, he worked at a camp near Temple. At heart he was always a lumberjack. In the 1950s Jim Gerow could be seen on Main Street in Clare as a neat, well dressed lumberjack and proud of it.

Ed. Note: Leo Fitzpatrick has been a long-time IMA subscriber. He introduced his story by saying, 'After a 44-year subscription to the Album, it is high time to send a story in.' We agree, and hope you enjoyed his contribution. He says there is more to come!