Memories from the Area of the Steam Engine

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Exerpted from Iron-Men Album, July/August 1975.

My first memory of steam was riding on the 10 HP Peerless 'T' ['Q'] engine, built by Guiser [Geiser] Company of Waynesboro, Pa. The old engine was always known in our family as 'Old Bet.' It was bought brand new by one of my great uncles, Chapman Jones, along with a friction-feed Guiser [Geiser] sawmill. My dad, Ernest M. Bailey, used it for custom lumber sawing and sawing firewood for the neighbors, with a cutoff saw mounted on a large sled that he had built on runners sawed from a crooked oak log. The sled was hooked to the steam engine by means of a heavy log chain.

The neighbors would cut and haul large piles of wood close to their wood houses. Several neighbors would help each other, as it took two carrying long wood to the saw, one sawing, one pitching it in the wood house, one firing the engine and at some places, one carrying water to the engine. The engine was fired on the knotty pieces of wood that would have been difficult to split.

My father bought one of the first ensilage cutters in our part of the county, in company with some relatives and neighbors. He furnished the power with the little steam engine. The cutter was a 'Blizzard,' and on certain days when conditions were just right, you could hear that cutter roar for 3 miles.

We installed a good-size steel burry crusher, and ground ear corn and small grain for the neighbors. This was usually a full day's grinding. We had the engine set in the field and took a wide board off the side of the building to run the belt through. I fired and took care of the engine on this job, as we only ground feed on Saturdays. We picked up our water from the spring branch nearby, with a steam jet and a large hose.

Another vivid memory of mine is the time we left Old Bet and the boiler parked close to the Gamands department store the evening of Halloween. The next morning they were both parked on the concrete store porch with the water drained out of the boiler. It took us almost a full day to bail up the boiler with water, carried in buckets, and get up steam to move them. The porch had a metal roof with wood sheathing, and the smoke stack was so close to the roof that the steam had to be brought up with a very low fire to keep from burning the porch. The porch was just wide enough to pull the machinery onto, and the other end had a set of steps, so that the machinery had to be backed off the way it was brought on. We always thought that some of the young men that helped carry water to fill the boiler were in the group that drained it out, but we never knew.

Dad bought a portable baler for custom work. We were baling straw direct from a threshing machine. The machine was being pulled by a large Frick and the baler by Old Bet. The Frick was leaking so much water from a couple of flues in the firebox that the engineer couldn't keep the steam up. He fought it until noon, and while the crew ate dinner we pulled the fire. We then watered down the firebox, lined it with wet sacks, and Dad crawled in and rolled those flues. I never saw anyone wetter than he was when he crawled out. We finished the baling. The threshing rig left, and we pulled Old Bet across the barnyard and set up the ensilage cutter. Dad left the job in charge of a neighbor with me to help him.

We were about two more days filling the big silo, walking home nights and back in the morning. Dad told me the day we were supposed to finish,' You and Steve bring the engine home if you get through in time, and when you top the hill above the Neff Mill, give me two long blasts on the whistle, and I will walk down and meet you.' I filled the coal hopper, piled on all the big lumps I could, filled the water tanks and we headed for home, topped the hill, sent the whistle signal and rolled on up the road.

Well, we hadn't gone far until we met another neighbor on horseback with a pair of saddlebags. Steve stopped to talk. He told me to keep an eye on the engine, and he would go down the road and talk to George a little. They went over a little bank out of sight, and I climbed up on top of the engine and watched Steve turn up a half-gallon jug and try to empty it. They came back, and we headed on up the road. Steve forgot about the fire, and I was just going along for the ride. We did just fine, with me opening and closing the gates, letting him through, then running and jumping back on the engine, until we came to a little steep bank and didn't quite get to the top. Old Bet just stopped. Steve couldn't figure what was wrong. We backed down and tried again and didn't do quite as good the second time.

Dad came over the hill about that time, and Steve started telling him that she just quit. Well, Dad took over, shook up the fire, turned on the blower, hooked up the valve a couple of notches, and up the bank we went. I looked back and Steve was headed for home, trying to make up his mind which one of the ditches he would rather walk in. Dad looked over at me and said, 'Steve is feeling pretty good, isn't he?'

Old Bet was replaced by a Fordson tractor. The tractor never could quite equal her in the belt, but was more practical for a larger variety of jobs. So, Old Bet spent a few years resting at the sawmill.

Then the letter came that broke my heart. The first I ever heard of Henry Ford's Museum in Dearborn, Mich., was through the R. P. Johnson Machinery Co. in Wythesville, Va. Ford wanted a 10 HP Peerless engine for his museum. Johnson offered a new 12 HP engine in trade. Dad said he didn't need the new engine, but I thought he did. Anyway, Dad knew best. They agreed on a cash price. So, us boys fired Old Bet for the last time. We drove her to Rural Retreat and onto a special flat car of the Norfolk & Western Railway for Mr. Johnson's shop in Wythesville, Va. There she was reworked to factory conditions and shipped to Dearborn. I copied down the serial number '5588' off the brass cylinder plate and committed it to memory.

Then in 1967 I stopped at the museum. I asked the guard if it could be arranged for me to have my picture made on the old engine. He referred me to the head of the security office, and they were very cooperative. Could I identify the engine? I said, number 5588, the only one that ever carried that serial number. They removed all the signs and obstructions possible, and I had a real field day, snapping slide pictures from every angle, having my picture made, standing at the throttle, etc. She has a beautiful place to stay, but 'I would like to give Ford his money back and bring her home.'