OHIO BOILER EXPLOSION

Gerry Lestz
November/December 1976
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Boiler explosions left deep and lasting memories in the families of those who were killed or injured, in the days when threshing was so much a part of the American farm scene.

This graphic account of an explosion in 1918 was written by Mrs. Atlee Hershberger, R. 2, Box 110, Oakland, Maryland 21550. The disaster claimed the life of her step grand father, Dan T. Miller, and his son Albert.

Mrs. Hershberger wrote it down because the older generation is passing and 'there may soon be no one here to recall the things that happened long ago.' She plans to have a booklet printed.

She was helped by Mr. & Mrs. Eli D. Hershberger, Holmesburg, Ohio who wrote their recollections. Hershberger obtained information from Mrs. Jacob P. Weaver, Jacob J. Swartzenruber, Joe E. Kline and Dan P. Weaver, who has since died. Others aided, including Mrs. Emanual Slabaugh, Dalton, Ohio.

The account was published in The Diary, monthly publication of the Old Order Amish Church of America. We reprint it with permission of Joseph F. Beiler, R. D. 1, Gordonville, Pennsylvania, the editor.

It was August 27, the year was 1918. The Dan T. Miller family was up early for it was threshing day. Dan T. and his son Albert were the operators of an old steam engine threshing rig.

The engine had been in need of repairs so it had been overhauled. The inspector was there the day before and okayed the engine. This morning they would start threshing on their own farm which was located one mile east of Maysville, Ohio. This is the farm which was later bought by my parents, Joni Millers, and my mother is still living in the small house. My brother Uriah now owns the farm.

Dan T. who was 54 years old, seemed extra happy that morning as he went about his work of firing up the engine. His wife, Mary, was busy helping with the chores around the barn. She went by close to the engine to feed a cluck with little chicks, and stopped to talk to her husband. The steam engine was an old one and Mary had some misgivings about it. 'Do you think it is safe?' she asked her husband.

'Yes, it should be safe. The inspector said it was all right,' he assured her. She finished tending the chicks and then started for the house.

Fannie A. Yoder (now Mrs. Jacob P. Weaver), the hired girl, was at the barn with a tea kettle of hot water to wash the cream separator. She was walking towards the water trough and Jacob Swartzentruber was walking with her. Jacob was hired hand for Peter E. Miller and had arrived already to help thresh. He was early, for most of the other neighbors had something else to do that morning at home and had not yet arrived.

Albert was helping his father with the engine, and a younger son, Andy, was standing outside the milkhouse by the barnyard fence.

It was decided to connect some water pipes and hose to the water trough in order to save hauling water with the water tank. Albert and Jacob Swartzentruber had been working with the hose. Jacob had been on the engine with Dan T. when Dan told him, 'You go over to the water trough and let Albert come here to help me with the injectors.'

Jacob walked towards the trough and Albert came and worked on the engine to get the water started into the boiler.

By this time the fire in the engine was burning hot and, unknown to the men, the water in the boiler had evaporated into steam. The boiler was soon very hot.

Dan was standing on the front wheel fixing something on the governor, and Albert was on the step on the side of the engine trying to get the water pumps working.

Suddenly the pumps began to work. There was a terrible explosion that was heard for miles around.

Several miles to the west, Ben Sausers, another experienced thresherman, who was firing up his engine on a farm near Applecreek, heard the explosion and exclaimed, 'There goes Dan T.'s old pot!'

Among the early arrivals at the Miller farm that morning had been Godfred Master and Bob Haunstein, two laborers who had been hired to help with the threshing. These two men were sitting on some feed bags on the den floor in the barn waiting for the wagons to come. Terrified by the explosion, they hurried down the hayhole, raced through the barnyard, and left the farm as fast as they could go.

At that time there were Mennonite people living on the farm where Yost Yoders lived later, by the name of Dan Nussbaums, and there was a woods between their farm and the Miller farm. They claimed later that they saw Dan T. up in the air over the woods. They ran to see what had happened.

Dan's wife, Mary, had not yet arrived at the house when the explosion came. She turned and ran towards the bam but met the hired girl, Fannie, who told her she had better not go to the barn, so she turned, again and went into the house.

When Dan came down he came through a small roof that had been built over the barn bridge. He landed on the den floor. His right leg was torn off above the knee. His foot with part of the leg flew over the barn and got caught in the fence on the east side of the barn. The other part of his leg was never found.

Dan P. Weaver was the first one of the neighbors to arrive after the explosion, but he said he could not do anything. He was in a state of shock. Next came Eli D. Hershberger, who lived three-fourth mile east of the Miller farm. When he heard the explosion he jumped on a horse and rode as fast as he could. When Eli found Dan he was still living. 'Oh, my leg hurts so much,' he said.

Eli told him that his leg was off and Dan asked what had happened. When Eli told him there had been an explosion he asked, 'Where's Albert?'

'Albert is dead,' Eli told him.

'Send word for all the children to come,' were the last words he said. Several of the married children lived in Geauga County.

When the neighbors arrived they told Fannie to start ringing the bell. But she did not respond as she was in a state of shock. Then Andy was asked to ring the bell, but he did not understand either. But in a short time many bells were ringing in the neighborhood.

A blanket was brought for Dan to lay his head on and a doctor was sent for, but before the doctor arrived he was dead. He lived about forty-five minutes after the explosion.

Dan had a gash above his right ear, about a four inch triangle with one corner hanging down over his ear. He was scalded over his chest so that the skin came off.

W. M. Hostetler, who lived on the D. M. Kauffman farm at that time, said he saw Dan's foot come over the barn with the shoe and sock still on.

Albert was found north of the barn in three pieces. His body had been torn off at the waist and the legs torn apart. One leg was seventy-five yards from where the engine stood and parts of his body were found elsewhere.

When the Nussbaums arrived their daughter said to Fannie Yoder, 'Come, let us go see where Albert is.'

When they got to the peach tree, Fannie could go no further and turned around to go back, but the other girl went on and soon she called, 'Here he is.'

When more people had arrived a close search was made and both of their watches were found. They were still running at the time.

The boiler was under an apple tree seventy-five feet away and the firebox was turned end for end. The boiler had been ripped open lengthwise in line with the men's feet where Dan and Albert had been standing.

A long shaft with a big heavy wheel on one end came down just outside the door where Fannie and Jacob Swartzentruber had gone in only a few moments before. The shaft went into the driveway so that it stood on end with the heavy wheel on top. They also narrowly missed being hit by the water and steam from the boiler.

At Dave K. Troyers, two miles to the south, the house shook so that the windows rattled and the dishes in the cupboard moved.

The bodies were gathered up and cleaned as best as could be done. Albert's body was laid out in the little orchard close by the chicken house. The undertaker accidentally got his legs on wrong. But since it would be quite a job to change them they were left that way.

The bodies were put on boards and carried to the house. Because of the heat and the condition the bodies were in, they were kept on ice until they were taken to the cemetery.

Mary, Dan's wife, was in bed most of the time until after the funeral. Her son, Mahlon, had died that spring on May 9th. When her husband died she said, 'I have not forgotten Mahlon yet as he was always so good to me. Now it's Dan and Albert.'

The funeral services were held at the Dan P. Weaver home. Bishop Noah Bontrager of Howard County, Indiana and Samuel Yoder preached in the barn while Daniel D. Yoder and Daniel M. Wengerd preached in the house.

Noah Bontrager, who helped preach the funeral sermon, is still living. He resides in Holmes County, near Sugarcreek, Ohio.

The bodies were left at the Miller home and the people walked from the Weaver home to view them. Fifteen hundred people walked past the coffins. Burial was in the Hershberger Cemetery west of Mt. Eaton, Ohio.

Dan T. was my step-grandfather and this was the home where I was born two years later. I can well recall the fear I always had when I was a little girl and a steam engine would go by our place or come in to thresh for us. I had heard about the accident so often that I was afraid any engine would explode.


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