Men & Machines I Once Knew

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P.O. Box 476 Jamestown, North Dakota 58402

I don't know much about the writing business, but I needed something to do while recovering from a broken leg, so I put pen to paper to tell these stories about the men and machines I once knew.

Bill Neal

At an early date Bill Neal came to Sarles, North Dakota, looking for a job running a steam engine. The machine dealer said, 'You are a little early. Can you set up binders?' Bill said, 'I sure can.' He went to work the next morning, tore crates open and scattered parts around. The boss wondered if he knew what he was doing.

Bill started putting the binder together. About four in the afternoon he came to the office and asked if they could let him have a man to help put on the head as it was a little heavy. Bill set the binder up in one day. Before that the two men had taken two days to do the same job. When the binders were all set up, Hazlitt and Naismith sent him to the company farm, where he shocked until he could get another job.

One Sunday Paul Higgins came to town looking for good engineer, said the man he had had worked on the engine before starting to thresh, and ever since that date the engine would run but had little power. The dealers said, 'We have a man on the company farm who says he is an engineer. If he can run an engine like he puts up binders he should be a good one.'

Paul got Bill and took him to his Nichols & Shepard double cylinder engine.

Bill climbed on top, then asked for wrenches. On coming off the engine, Bill said, 'She will run.' Paul said, 'We are going to see if she will run.' There were loads of bundles already loaded. Paul sent to the barn for teams. They started up. Before they were through they had six men pitching into the Yellow Fellow Avery, and the engine seemed to play with the job.

Bill asked Higgins if he would take him back to his job. Paul said, 'You are staying right here.'

Bill said, 'She will run. I don't want to run another man out of a job.' Paul said, 'Nobody has the job; you are staying.' I don't know how many falls he ran for Higgins.

He ran a steam engine for Herman Gibbens, breaking. The land being broken was near Haakon Halver-son's. John was a boy. He said he used to break coal all day so he could ride on the engine.

At a later date Gibbens bought a large tractor for the job. John said one morning Bill wasn't getting started at the usual time. John went over and asked, 'Is there something wrong?' Bill answered, 'There is nothing wrong. The sun will have to shine on her a while.' After she started they had no more trouble. When he was around Sarles and not working, he stayed at a rooming house run by a widow who had two grown up girls. Bill finally married the widow. They moved to Union, North Dakota.

I heard no more of Bill 'til many years later. I went to Union one Sunday, and asked a man if he knew Bill Neal. He said, 'Sure do. There is his old shop over there. He was a blacksmith. Whenever we were coming from school we liked to look in the door.' He continued, 'Bill had a name for each of us. He called me 'Pig Whiskers.'


At one time I supposed the Avery to be a Norwegian machine. There were three return flue engines and Yellow Fellow separators in our area, all owned and operated by Norwegians.

Knute Hanzen came from Minnesota. Don't know whether he brought his threshing rig or bought it later. Arthur, the oldest boy, was the engineer. Leonard, next boy, was the separator man. Besides their own crop they did much custom threshing. My grandfather said he liked Hanzen's threshing the best of any he had before. Arthur never forgot his steam threshing days. Art later got a John Deere combine. He had been having trouble with it plugging up all fall. One day Leonard, who had been separator man, came to see how Art was getting along. Leonard said, 'Tighten the drive belt.' Art thought it would be too hard on the belt. Leonard got wrenches and did the job. Art had no more trouble.

The other two were owned by Christ Estenson and Alfred Holm.

I believe Estenson was last to quit. Christ farmed. He once went to Montana to homestead, but came back and took the old farm over. His grandson now has it.

Alfred Holm was a single man. He looked after a steam heating plant in what was, at that time, the Agricultural College at Fargo, North Dakota, now the North Dakota State University. Alfred used to take time off for the threshing run. All were considered good threshers.

Old Friends

The first I knew of Henry Henrick-son was told by my father. They were stack threshing. One afternoon a quick rain came up, it was pouring rain. A man was put to holding a bundle against the belt, another was dropping ashes. The belt jumped off in spite of them. The boss was bound to finish the two stacks they were on, and he called to Henry, 'If we put that belt on, will it stay?' Henry answered, 'Yes.' Rain poured all the time the belt was put on. Henry tightened the belt and was fiddling with something. The boss called, 'Henry, why don't you start that engine?' Henry replied, 'If we start the engine, the belt will come off.' The boss was so mad he threw his hat on ground and jumped on it. He told the boys to roll up the belt and get into camp. Henry said to Dad, 'That big fool! To think he could keep a belt on in a rain like that!'

Henry had a marine steam operator's license from Norway. Once I asked him why he came to this country having a trade like that. Henry said, at the time he came, he could make more money at common labor than he could running engines on a ship in Norway which paid $35.00 per month.

Henry said the best job he ever had was running an engine in a quarry on compressed air. No water or coal to bother with. He was once running an engine when it rained so much he knew he couldn't thresh for several days, so he went home. One morning they started steaming the engine as it was dry enough to thresh. The pressure went to a certain point on the gauge and refused to go any higher in spite of everything they did. Henry came walking across the field. He was told of the trouble and he stepped to the side of the engine. He opened a valve and could see there was lots of pressure. He said, 'I would quit firing, boys.' He took the fireman's fork and tapped the pop valve, which opened. Then he tapped the steam gauge. It flew to an awful pressure. It's so long ago, I do not remember the number of pounds. Anyway, the men started to run. Henry said, 'No need to run now. The danger is all over.'

Henry got to farming. Had a steam outfit and later a 30 x 60 Hart Parr.

Bill Windfield had a Buffalo Pitts engine and an old separator. Jack Murchie was running the engine. Bill had a new separator ordered but was trying to finish his run with the old one. He worked a good part of the night on her. Finally he finished. Bill stood to one side, and waved for more speed. Before he was satisfied, the straw racks were coming out of the blower. He ran her 'til she was pretty well shaken to pieces. He said, ' That one will not spoil anyone else's sleep. Eh, Johnny?'

Bob Conn had quite a name as a thresher. He ran his own engine. When moving he would run the engine ahead and hook on the front of the separator. Then he would move backwards. It wasn't long until they were threshing again.

Bert Marlette ran his own engine. At noon Bert stayed and checked over the machine. When the crew came from the cook car they brought Bert's dinner in a lunch box. Bert missed his pie for a couple of days. Next day I watched after the meal was brought. One of the crew ran up, opened the box and grabbed the pie. The next day when the lunch box came, Bert lifted the crust of the pie, ate the filling, then filled the crust with steam cylinder oil. The same man came for Bert's pie, and ate it before noticing anything. Before night he pretty nearly died.

Ben Keyes returned from the first World War, and took over his stepfather Jack Brooks' farm. He had a 45-90 Aultman-Taylor. He thought he would be better off with a smaller tractor. The Aultman-Taylor was slow and hard to handle. Later on he said, 'That was the biggest mistake I ever made. Although the big tractor was slow, you were turning fourteen furrows. She would plow on a gallon of kerosene per acre.' He said, 'Never had another tractor that would do that.'

Bill Crockett had a Russell. At the time I knew him he hadn't used it to thresh for many years. He had it standing in a pasture. He started it up every summer to hear it run. He said he didn't know how good the boiler was so he didn't carry much steam pressure.

Jim Morgan had a 30-60 Hart Parr, and I believe a 36' Aultman Taylor separator, one of those which showed a rooster standing in an Aultman-Taylor straw pile. It was a good thresher. He always kept his machine in good repair so far as he knew. While running the Hart Parr one day a valve spring broke. Jim got a knife with which he could hold tension on the spring. Then he called one of the spike-pitchers to hold the knife. Took his car to find another spring. When he got back, they were still threshing but the spike-pitcher was pretty mad.

Jim seemed to get as much or more through the 36' Aultman-Taylor separator as many with 40' machines did.

John Swanson rented Fred Leppert's place. Fred had a steam outfit. I was not near enough to' tell much about it. John's nephew Richard had been sent to John's from Minneapolis. His folks had fitted him with new clothes. He came in one day from playing on the steamer, and he had taken handfuls of grease and dirt and had rubbed it all over his clothes. On coming to the house he said, 'I should look more like a farmer now.'

Monassa Myers had an under-mounted Avery. I don't know much about it except that he moved it to Turtle Mountains west of St. John, North Dakota. East of Hansboro was a shallow but quite wide lake. The bridge was built on pilings. Myers attempted to cross the bridge. He drove some of the pilings deeper, then had to back off. The east end of the bridge resembled a camel's back. Shortly after this, the bridge was taken out and a grade built through the lake.

Tom Colvin was a boiler and engine mechanic. One spring he was getting his model T Ford ready for the summer. He came over to McCallum's blacksmith shop with a piston he wanted expanded. John said he knew nothing of expanding pistons, but if Calvin could, he was free to use anything in the shop. Calvin heated the piston in the forge, then let it cool, after which he measured the diameter. He did this several times until getting the desired size. I mentioned this to a good mechanic and he said that if cast iron was heated and let cool it would not shrink to original size. Calvin pretty well put in the summer getting engines ready for fall. He was once working on Jim McLean's Nichols & Shepard. Jim had asked his son Bob to help. One day Calvin asked Bob what was the bolt to watch on an engine. Bob answered that he didn't know. Calvin said, 'The loose one!'

The hardest day I ever put in threshing was for Herman Gibbens. There had been wet weather, so he had let his crew go. He thought he could finish in one day. When the grain was fit, he tried to pick up a crew in the neighborhood. He usually had twelve bundle teams but could get men for only eight. When a man came in with a load he didn't have much more time than for a drink of water. I think I was fifteen at the time. About the middle of the afternoon, I was starting to think I wouldn't make it to night. I pulled in with a load. Herman asked if I had had lunch. He said it was in a box near the engine. He said he would put off the load. There was lots of lunch. There was quite a bit less when I got through! That lunch straightened me out. We finished about 10 p.m. As it was getting dark, Gibbens set two straw piles afire. We were threshing on a third pile. Things were well lit up.

Alex Schmier said the fall he was eighteen he ran for a farmer near Langdon. I don't remember the farmer's name. The flues were leaking badly. They called Mr. Thon, a boiler man, in Langdon. Thon said to try and keep her running until noon and he would be out. He said when you shut down, rake the fire out of the engine.

When Thon got there he had sacks with him. He wet the sacks and wrapped them around himself. Then he went in and rolled the flues. When he came out he said, ''Don't you ever try that!' Alex asked, 'Why did you do it?' Thon said, 'I am an old man. If one of those flues had been broken I wouldn't have come out alive. There is that much steam left in the boiler.' Alex said they lost very little time, not much more than their noon hour.

Julius was a son of the boiler man. When he grew up, his father sent him to Wyndmere, the school of science in North Dakota. He took up machine work and welding. After graduation, he stayed and taught for a while. He came back to Langdon and built a shop in which he had good equipment. In his spare time he built an arc welder which he mounted on an auto running gear and it was powered with a Chevrolet engine. If a man broke down a piece of machinery and called Julius, the welder would be hitched behind the car and the welding would be done on the job, which saved taking the broken machine to a shop. One winter he worked a good part of the season welding on a bridge. The last time I went to see Julius the shop was open but no one was there. I went to his house. His wife told me the gas in the shop was affecting Julius so he had to quit, and he was now farming near Langdon. I don't remember seeing Julius again. I think he is still living.

First time I saw Claude Skinner he was walking down the street carrying two pails of paint. He said he painted the straw racks in his separator. He said it took twenty days of threshing to wear off the paint before wearing the wood.

Claude was a well known and respected thresher. He was a good mechanic. He ran the first crawler Cavalier County had, a ten ton Holt. He built a propeller driven snow traveler, powered with an aircraft engine. In the winter months he drove Doctor Stromberg; he had a big practice. He stayed in Bear Hotel with my father. Heard his snow traveler go by more than once that night. At the time of an epidemic they went most night and day. Claude later got an airplane, one of the first, if not the first, in our area. He gave some flying lessons and I believe dealt some in planes. Dr. Stromberg called Claude one cold morning. They got in the plane. Claude would leave the engine just past firing dead center. On turning the switch it usually started. This morning it didn't start. Claude went to start it by hand. He didn't much more than touch the propeller when it started, drawing him toward the machine. The propeller split his head. Claude was well and widely known.

Charlie Simpson was a well driller from Bisbee, North Dakota. Both his boys were drillers. In 1935 he bought two Bucyrus Armstrong drills mounted on Ford trucks. The Bucyrus Armstrong Company hired one of the boys as troubleshooter for people owning their machines. Guess the boy was pretty good, but it was said once in a while he would run into a problem where he had to call in his father. It must have been in the early Thirties when there was not much work. Simpson bought a new set of La Plante house-moving trucks. At the time I knew him I think he must have sold most everything but the trucks. Guess he found house-moving was a tougher way of making a living than well drilling.

One night I was talking to Charlie in his shop. I saw a pair of blacksmith-made blocks. It was so long ago I can't be sure, but I believe there were five or six sheaves in each.

Simpson said he was drilling a well for the government in Montana. He had to bid on drilling to a certain depth. If he hadn't hit suitable water he would have had to put in another bid. I don't remember how deep he went before he got suitable water. He had to put in at least two, if not more, bids. He said he started with a twelve inch hole went as deep as he could drive the twelve inch casing. Then he put in eight inch casing. He said it was tough lifting the twelve inch casing. He put up a tripod and had blocks built in which he could use a 5/8' cable. He also bought hydraulic jacks. They had the most lift of any jack I ever saw. Between the jacks and the block and tackle, he got the pipe out. I don't remember how deep he went before he got water they were satisfied with. He said, 'It was all for a damn swimming pool.'

One son has a drilling business in Miles City, Montana. The other has his father's business in Bisbee, North Dakota. I didn't know the boys more than to see them. I was telling Charlie of a well the City of Langdon was having put down. Had an outfit from Texas. They went down 1500 feet and hit something they couldn't drill so they gave it up. Langdon has reservoirs and a water treatment plant. Simpson said, 'He hit iron pyrite. I could have drilled it.'

I didn't know of Simpson doing much drilling to the east of Bisbee. He did a lot on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. I think he would go anywhere there were wells to drill. On pulling in to a spot he would bring his casing and would be done before some others would be well started. He supplied pumps and what went with them, and also Aermotor windmills. Charlie will be long remembered.

J. F. Ramage was quite an operator. I don't know how much land he had. He sold twine and did custom threshing. He and his oldest boy built a two story brick building in Langdon. They took the Ford Agency. Walter ran the business. J.F. was busy otherwise.

His father came from Ontario to pay him a visit. The old man thought J.F. was careless about how he kept things. One day he was cleaning out the pump house and found a bag of oats. He fed it to the pigs. It turned out to be gopher poison. I once asked Walter how many steam outfits his father had run at one time. Walter said four.

I knew two men who had been engineers for Ramage, one was Pat Lajimodiere, the other Jack Clover. One fall the straw got wet and it would not burn. Ramage didn't know how to finish the run. Pat and Jack came from Olga to the east. That land was originally covered with hard wood timber. Pat said they should go to Olga and get stumps which were plentiful as they had been clearing land. Pat said he knew it would work. Next morning there was a string of teams reaching for nearly one half mile. They brought enough stumps in one trip to finish threshing. Ramage put a man at each engine working the stumps down to a size that would go in the firebox. Pat said there were stumps around Ramage's farm, yet.

Finally the Ramages let their Ford agency go and took on Chevrolet and Buick. J.F. kept several model T Ford cars. If one went wrong, he took another, and let the boys fix the other one.

Since they were selling Chevrolet cars, the boys thought their dad should drive a Chevrolet. J.F. finally told the boys to bring one out, and he would try it. The old man took the Chevrolet in the pasture. He nearly ran over a cow. Had the boys take the Chevrolet back to town.

J.F. Ramage once left word that he wanted to see me. He had a house to move. When we pulled to his job he had two barns and a granary to be moved on his farm. The house was to go to Langdon. Ramage was to furnish the traction. He sent out the county tractor, a model L Allis Chalmers. Under ordinary conditions it would have been sufficient power, but there was quite a bit of snow. We weren't making much headway. We had a 22 Cat we used for handling timbers and as needed. I said, 'It looks foolish putting the small tractor ahead of that big one.' We tried it. It gave enough extra power so we never stopped for want of power all the way into Langdon.

The John Deere dealers said they figured Ramage to be good for $10,000 worth of machinery a year. That was in 1929 when things were not good but a lot better than later. Murie said he didn't know where Ramage got the money but when his notes came due he took care of them. When buying a new piece of machinery he didn't trade the old but put it in the yard he had for unused machinery. It was said it was almost like going to a fair to go into that yard. At the time of the second World War, when iron and steel was needed, the yard was cleaned out. I don't have any idea what all was there, but Walter and his brother Charlie each kept a steam engine.

While trying to load a 60-80 Cletrac on a tandem truck in winter, I didn't have the best place to load. The tractor started to go sideways on the frosty deck. It broke the idler shaft in front of the track. A new shaft would cost $60.00, so I took the pieces to Walter Ramage to see if they could be welded. Walter said it would be pretty hard to weld but, 'I can make you one.' At a later date I was in the garage and Walter said, 'I have that shaft made.' I asked what I owed him. He said, 'I did that in my spare time. I kind of like that kind of work. About $4.00.'

Walter's bookkeeper told me when trucks were hard to get, Walter had a man in some other state buying used trucks for him. He said Walter would be on the phone for an hour at times. The man would bring up to fifty trucks at a time. Walter gave him his check as agreed, but if any of the trucks proved not as represented the buyer heard about it in the next deal.

Walter Ramage bought a rotary snow plow mounted on a Walter truck. It had what looked like a large engine mounted behind the cab on the deck to run the rotary.

We had a bad winter. The state hired Walter to plow snow. He couldn't keep up to the snow. Walter saw a snow plow, the same as the one he had, advertised for sale. The man wanted $5000.00 for the machine. Walter said, 'If you will bring it to Langdon, there are two new Chevrolet cars in the show room. You can have your choice. I will have a check for $1200.00.' The man agreed. He phoned from Grand Forks that he would be in Langdon the next forenoon. On arriving in Langdon he wanted to see Walter. The bookkeeper drove him to where Walter was plowing. The man from Minnesota asked, 'Don't you want to see the machine?' Walter replied, 'If it will run that far for you, it will run for me.' The bookkeeper paid the next spring and the state sent a check for $27,000.

A man from the Case Company came to see Jim McLean after Jim had used his new Case separator the first fall. He wanted Jim to give a testimonial stating how well satisfied he was with the new separator. Jim answered, 'There should be hand oilers on the trucks. The feeder is only fit for the junk heap. Otherwise the separator seemed to be pretty good.'

The agent said he wished Jim would not mention trucks and feeders, but just state that he was well satisfied with the machine. Jim replied, 'Any man who is going to thresh is going to have trouble enough without me telling him lies.'

William Brumwell farmed in Red River Valley. His son Harry and daughter Elizabeth homesteaded near Sarles, North Dakota. William sold his land in the valley and moved to Sarles. He bought a house and four lots, and put the balance of his money in the bank. I met Mr. Brumwell one day. He said he had gone to see Sam Mowery who ran the bank. He wanted to get some money. The bank had closed. Sam said there was no money there.

Hector Perrin bought a new threshing machine, an Aultman-Taylor both ends. I believe the separator was alright, but the tractor gave trouble from the start. It was hard to start, and after starting it didn't have the desired power. Aultman-Taylor experts were sent. No one could find the trouble. Finally he bought a 20 Holt combine which gave satisfaction. The use of the tractor was discontinued.

Hector sent his son Bennie to automotive electric school. On return he said, 'I am going to find what is wrong with that big tractor. It should have more power.' Bennie tore the tractor down to the ground, then started to rebuild it. He found that the timing marks put on at the factory were wrong. He timed it as he knew to be right. The tractor started easily. It would have shaken the separator to pieces if still in use.

Bennie was at Rolla Implement. He said to Bill Halone, the manager, 'You should put cabs on the tractors for us farmers. We see truck drivers, salesmen, and others going on the road with nice warm cabs. We farmers are on a tractor all day in all kinds of weather.' Bill answered, 'What good would there be in a cab? If you hit a rock so that plow unhooked it would take too long to get off and hook up.' Bennie replied, 'All they would have to do is make an automatic plow hitch.' Bill said, 'You make the hitch, we'll put the cab on the tractors.' I think about 1940, a year later, the Minneapolis sent a demonstrator from dealer to dealer which was equipped with a cab, road gear, and rubber tires. Bill said, 'There is your cab.' Bennie said, 'I have the plow hitch.' He patented a hitch very similar to ones now in use. It lifted the plow out of the ground on hitting a rock and dropped it back to the proper depth without stopping. David Bradley Plow Company offered $30,000 for the patent rights. Bennie wanted them to start manufacturing and give him a royalty on those made. Neither would change his offer or accept the other's. Bennie's uncle told me the patent papers were in the vault of the Catholic church in St. John, North Dakota, and were doing nobody any good.

On his return from the school, Bennie started repairing magnetos. He had a sign beside the road. One day I saw his sign in the hay loft. Bennie said he didn't mind fixing magnetos for neighbors, but others were bothering him all the time.

Emil Caro came to our neighborhood at quite an early date. He had come from northern Minnesota, where he had operated steam shovels and pile drivers. He said one winter before #6 Highway was in, the Minnesota and Ontario Company (or M&O) depended on their logging railroad (got a company line) to get their timber to International Falls. The flues on their locomotives leaked so badly they feared they wouldn't get their timber in before break up.

Emil said if they would put him in the roundhouse he would see they got their timber in. Don't know how many locomotives they had. Emil said when an engine came in it was left until going out again. When Emil had charge he kept a fire going. He said when the crown sheet and flues cooled off, the metal contracted, allowing the flues to leak. He said he soon had the flues dried up so they finished the season.

When Emil came to our neighborhood he was always saying he was going to have a steam threshing outfit. 'I want to see a stream of straw coming out like saw log.' He built a shack which he had well insulated so it didn't take much fuel. He ran steamers and separators some. He didn't like these little 'coffee grinders' as he called the 28' separators which became quite common as they could be run by most farm tractors.

He worked among the farmers. It was in the hard times of the Thirties and before; when it came to settling up, Emil was liable to say, 'You haven't much money. Maybe you can swap me something.' He had an assortment of things in his yard.

He bought an old wooden frame separator and a Minneapolis steamer. The engine hadn't been used much but, for some reason, it blew out the cylinder heads. Emil thought he could fix it. When World War II came along, the government said they needed the metal and cleaned out pretty much of what he had. It nearly broke Emil's heart.

He invented an automatic car lift, made to be installed in your garage. When a car came in, the axles were caught, the arms were counterbalanced so that between the momentum of the car and the weight of the counterweights, the car was lifted off the floor. When ready to lower the car there was a lever which could be reached from the driver's seat to lower the car. Emil made a model. He couldn't get anyone to try it. Bill Winfield came along and said he would try it. The first try wasn't successful. Emil said, 'You didn't hit hard enough.'

Bill backed up and took a good run at it. When the Ford hit the lift it came off the ground, the wheels still turning. Emil didn't have money for the patent. Dave Elves, the customs officer, and Ed Garvic, a brakeman on the railroad, put up money for a third share each in the earnings. They had an offer of $3000.00. Emil wanted to sell, but the others thought they would get rich and would not. People found they didn't have to take the weight off tires when not in use. The invention didn't come to anything. Emil said if they had sold, he had some other things in mind and he needn't go to others for financing.

Emil stayed up to his old tricks, and he soon had more piled around his shack. He had a good looking model A Ford coupe which I never saw him drive. He raised a good garden, but as he got older he couldn't do as much work. He at last agreed to take county help, but only if they would take the money back if at anytime he could pay. He was told they would be glad to do that. The border patrol men were watching, as he was getting in bad shape. One day no smoke was coming from his house. Emil had left us. His personal effects were sold. He had good tools, some of which most wouldn't know how to use. The proceeds of the sale paid what he had received from the county, and his burial expenses. There were several hundred dollars left, which I think went to relatives in Minnesota.