Making Baskets With Steam

Steam engine

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108 Garfield Avenue Madison, New Jersey 07940.

A fellow that I know told me, much to my surprise, that there was a little plant in Califon, New Jersey, making wood products from local logs with an old steam engine. Now, that is enough to excite any steam man's curiosity, especially since Califon is not a hundred miles from New York City, a most unlikely place to find a steam engine at work today.

I'd been through Califon several times a few years ago before Conrail tore up the High Bridge branch of the old Jersey Central Railroad. Right after its abandonment, the track made a good place to run the home made track car that my son had modeled after the Buda track car that I had ridden as a boy on the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway. But, I still didn't know where the plant was located which turned out to be the califon Basket Company. It seems that not too many of the local people knew where it was either for when I asked an elderly gentleman over by the grocery store, 'Where can I find the local factory that does wood working with steam?' (at that time I didn't know that they made baskets), he replied, 'I've lived here 36 years and I don't know of any such place.'

Not satisfied, I walked around the town of maybe a thousand population and down back of the field stone depot there were some logs outside a group of low wooden buildings that hadn't seen paint since Wilson's administration. There it was quite evident that wood was being used as a raw material.

The A. B. Farquhar & Company steam engine is here shown powering the line shaft serving the veneering lathes. The engine carries shop number 16249. It also has a Good Roads Machinery Company nameplate.

The first person that I saw was a luxuriously bearded individual laboriously dipping, one at a time, lead fishing lures in a sort of pseudo mass production operation. In the Florida Keys we call them 'Millie's Buck-tails' and they do a good job catching mackerel. 'Well', he said, when I told of my first encounter in the search, 'I think that the tourists know this place better than the local people,' as he spoke of the steam powered operation in the buildings next door.

As it turned out, the plant was down while a crack was being welded in the boiler, and the owner, Robert J. Ferguson, was away too, so most of the seven or eight total employees were not too busy. That proved to be fortunate because Elmer Sliker, the plant's certificated engineer, could take the time to give me some background on not only the operation, its product and machinery, but some insight into the steam plant.

The factory makes a line of peach baskets in the 16, 8, 4 and 2 quart sizes. There are two veneering lathes driven from line shafts that cut the staves for the baskets. The larger of the two units can handle a 42' long poplar log. These are held between two live centers that rotate the log against the trim knives and the stave drum. It cuts ' thick tapered pieces that form the basket sides.

The power for the line shafts comes from a 25 horsepower (nominal) A. B. Farquhar Company of York, Pennsylvania, center crank engine. The nameplate declared that it was shop number 16249. However, there was another nameplate as well and it read, 'Good Roads Machinery Company, Kennet Square, Pa.' It too had the #16249 with the notation, 'Refer to this number when ordering parts.' Although the plant has been operating for nearly a hundred years it is not known if the engine has been there all that time though it is most likely.

This is the heart of the operation: the veneering lathe driven by the Farquhar steam engine on the right gets its steam from the Titusville boiler, center rear, to cut staves from the logs that can be seen through the doorway, left rear.

This manufacturing operation started in nearby Pottersville but was moved to the present Califon location six years later. The plant was owned, originally, by Boyd Hoffman. He sold it to John Federowiecz who ran it for about seven years until Bob Ferguson took over four years ago.

The boiler is not original. It is a 1930 construction of the Titusville Iron Works of Titusville, Pennsylvania. It is a return tubular boiler of somewhat unusual design in that it is internally fired instead of the usual externally fired type. That is, the return tubes are above the crown sheet of what otherwise would be a locomotive type boiler. In fact, at first look it appears to be just another traction engine boiler until one sees that the smoke stack riser is coming out of a smoke box with clean out doors just above the fire doors. There is no brick setting for all surfaces are water cooled.

Cast into the smoke box doors is 'No. 40 100# W P Series R.' At one time it was in a wood working plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and was brought in about five years ago after several years in retirement. It was retubed and rebuilt so that it would pass inspection. At the moment, it has been derated from its original 100 pounds to have the safeties set at 85 psi. It is operated at 60 pounds and that is enough for the Farquhar steam engine to power the veneer lathes. It is fired with scrap wood in a bare bones operation. No feed water equipment injector or pump is needed since the 'city water' pressure is 140 pounds. Just open the feed valve on a low glass no problem.

The prestidigitating philosophers from Foggy Bottom on the Potomac have coined a word for this thermo-dynamic cycle, 'cogeneration'. To we ordinary folk it's just simply good Yankee ingenuity at work making do with what you've got and don't throw anything away.

Steam power doesn't supply all of the power for the plant. The round wooden bottoms of the baskets are cut out by electric powered machines as is the wire stitching in the assembly operation. These do not require heavy horsepower as does the veneering operation. That turning is an intermittent load that would result in a high peak demand charge if electric motors were used. Such a charge would add greatly to operating cost. Thus, by using steam power generated from wood scrap, this small plant can remain very competitive. Steam power in a reciprocating engine still has its place in the scheme of things.

Basket assembly and stitching operation. Staves, hoops and bottoms are within easy reach of the operator who fits the parts over a mandrel of proper size for the basket being assembled.