Curator of Collections Ontario Agricultural Museum P. O. Box 38 Milton, Ontario, Canada L9T 2Y3
Every donation a museum receives is greeted with excitement and enthusiasm by the museum's curator, but occasionally a donation comes along which creates a tremendous sense of awe and admiration among everyone associated with the institution.
Such an occasion arose in the summer of 1991 when Mrs. Lois Stapley of Stirling, Ontario, donated a 1906 10 H.P. Robert Bell steam tractor engine to the Ontario Agricultural Museum in Milton. Purchased new for $1,550.00, on February 7, 1907 by Frank Stapley of Campbell ford in east central Ontario, this unique engine remained in the Stapley family for over 84 years, working for over half a century powering sawmills and threshing machines, before being 'reborn' as a hobby engine, travelling to steam shows and ploughing matches 'til the mid-1980s.
Frank Stapley was a custom thresherman in his home county of Hastings, eventually having 65 clients and running three steam threshing rigs. The Bell engine was immediately put to work serving these clients upon receipt in 1907. The engine was shipped by rail from the factory of the Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company in Sea forth, Ontario, to Belleville, Ontario, where Stapley met it. He drove the engine home, some 30 miles to the northwest, stopping at a number of clients enroute to do some threshing. Travel became a way of life for the Stapleys with this engine; in addition to their threshing circuit, they ran a sawmill near the community of Bancroft, over 75 miles to the north. The engine was driven to the sawmill each fall, and back to Campbell ford every spring until the 1940s, for a total distance travelled in excess of 5,000 miles, not to mention the travelling required to serve their many threshing customers!
By the 1960s, steam threshing had become a thing of the past in Ontario and 'steam reunions' were beginning to spring up in various areas of the province. Frank Stapley's son Wallace took over the old Bell, restored it and began to take it to some of these shows, including the Steam-Era event held every Labour Day in Milton, Ontario. Wallace would sleep in his truck, and many can remember him getting steam up early in the morning, and shaving at the side of the engine with a mug full of hot water in hand taken from the boiler. Unfortunately, ill health caused Wallace to stop attending most shows, and the Bell was operated only occasionally and in their local area during its last few years in the Stapley family.
The Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company was founded in 1899 and incorporated in 1903 with a large factory in Seaforth. Very early, Bell reached an agreement with the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company of Port Huron, Michigan, to build their engines in Canada. These well-proportioned side mounted engines with long smoke box and corrugated rear wheels were built in various sizes, but the original design was little altered. Both tandem compounds and simple engines were built.
A distinctive option which both Port Huron and Bell offered was the 'Loco-Cab,' a locomotive-type cab offering a great deal of protection to the operation. Stapley's Bell featured this cab, along with optional canopy roof, and remains the only known engine in Ontario today with a full cab.
One of the unusual features on the Bell traction engine is a dual steering system, useful for the many road miles this engine travelled.
The Bell factory remains active today, as the home for 'Boiler Smith,' a manufacturer of package boilers. They still work on traction engines as well, building new welded boilers for those hobbyists with the wherewithal to save engines condemned due to weak boilers.
In 1991, Wallace's wife and two sons, Ed and Rob, chose to donate the 'Old 20,' as they affectionately called it, to the Ontario Agricultural Museum. With full respect for its history of one-family ownership and its rebirth as a hobby engine, the Museum chose to restore the engine not to 'when new' condition, but rather to its appearance immediately after the family restored it as a parade and show engine in the 1960s. Now completed, the Bell will join the museum's 15 other restored portable and traction engines in their 'Steam On the Farm' exhibit, a must for any steam enthusiast travelling in southern Ontario. The museum, a branch of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, is situated on an 80 acre site just west of Toronto, and will be open seven days a week from June 5 to September 26, 1993. For more information, contact the museum's Public Relations Department, P.O. Box 38, Milton, Ontario L9T 2Y3, (416) 878-8151.