Reminiscing with Steam

Nichols and Shepard Engine

This is a Nichols and Shepard rear mounted 20-75 hp. engine, No. 13267, pulling Ben Foster's saw mill near Newton, Illinois, November 18, 1970. This engine is owned by Dale E. Robinson of Newton, Illinois 62448. Courtesy of Dale E. Robinson, R. R. 2, Box

Dale E. Robinson

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R. R. 2. Box 82, Newton, Illinois 62448

Many old timers have written to the Iron-Men Album telling of their interests and experiences with steam. I have enjoyed reading these articles very much. However, I feel quilt that I have never contributed any articles for others to read.

I shall try to give a brief history of my experiences with steam. My first experience began when I was a lad of eight, and lived on an old clay, hilly farm in Jasper County, Illinois, near Newton.

I constructed, from an old Karo syrup gallon can, a contraption, which I called a steam engine. Ah yes! I made an engine with a cylinder made from a solid brass 12 gauge shotgun shell. A cylinder piston was made from a piece of round brass. The gallon can, used as a boiler, was placed on a clay base. Oh, how wonderful it looked to me. I fired it up under an apple tree in the old family orchard. I thought I needed more water for my boiler, so I went to the house about fifty yards away, then to the old well for water. While filling my pail with water, a terrible 'boom' took place out under the apple tree. My mother rushed out to the house to see what had happened. As my mother and I arrived at the spot, we found the engine and boiler gone. The parts had ascended upward through the apple tree, leaving a two-foot diameter hole in the tree branches. Only a few particles were ever found. The cause of the explosion was the dire need of a safety valve and a steam gauge. I was too inexperienced to know about these things. Thus ended my steam experience until the age of eleven.

An old friend, Mr. Henry Tharp, from Hunt City, Illinois (Burl Ives' old home town. I knew Burl well. We went to school together.) always threshed our neighborhood, near this little village.

He had a 1915 model Case 65. I can't recall the serial number. One day in the summer of 1919, Mr. Tharp pulled into my father's farm to thresh. Mr. Tharp knew of the disaster of my first steam engine. He knew I was interested in steam engines, and thus took me under his experienced wing. This particular summer, he taught me to fire his engine, how to start and stop it and how, to use the injector to take water into the boiler. Oh! The dawning of a new era arose before me, as I followed Mr. Tharp all through the neighborhood, threshing that summer.

The summer of 1920 found me proudly pulling Mr. Tharp's Case engine and Case separator from place to place. Of course, Mr. Tharp was at my side if anything develop beyond my control.

The summer of 1921, I operated the engine all alone, but could not yet make a separator or barn set. This situation continued on through the summer of 1922. The summer of 1923, I was now the ripe old age of fifteen years. Mr. Tharp said, 'You have now passed your apprenticeship training, so it's up to you, from now on.' I ran his threshing outfit until the finish of the run, the summer of 1932.

Three years of spare time has been put in this engine to date. It was last steamed up, March 20,1971. This picture was taken on this same date.

Courtesy of Dale E. Robinson, R. R. 2, Box 82, Newton, Illinois 62448.

Mr. Tharp's health failed him and he sold his threshing rig. The loss of this rig to me was almost as bad as losing my best friend. I would have loved to have had the outfit myself, but of course I had no money to buy it.

I believe the experience I recall best, when working with Mr. Tharp, was during the summer of 1926. We finished threshing at 11:00 one morning. The bundle wagons had gone to the next job, about a mile down the road. As soon as the last bundle went out the wind stacker, Mr. Tharp told me to pull to the next job and set the machine. I did just that. To do this, I had to wind around the barn yard, past the barn and wind in again into an old unused hog lot to set the machine. After doing this, I banked the fire in the engine and started toward the farmer's house. The owner of the farm suddenly called out to me, 'Where in the h are you goin'?' I told him I was going to the house to get something to eat. (I had had breakfast that morning around three o'clock, and it was already past noon.) He cursed and said, 'You should have eaten on the last job. You'll get nothing to eat here.' 'O.K.' I said. I returned to the machine and proceeded to unbelt the engine, roll up the belt, turn around and couple up. The farmer said, 'Where in the h are you goin'?' I said, 'to the next job.' At this, I pulled through the gate from the hog lot into the barnyard and headed for the roadway gate. At this, the farmer cursed again and said, 'You're not goin' out.' 'Yes, I am,' I shouted. 'Open that gate or I'll go through it.' This was an old oak slat gate (1' by 4'). He didn't open the gate, so I put the Case 65 with the separator, a pair of mules with the water wagon on behind, right through his gate. The result was a nice pile of oak kindling wood. That farmer was quite upset.

When Mr. Tharp heard my story, he said, 'You-did him right. He will be the last man whose crops will be threshed this year.' He was the last. From then on, he never hesitated to give a hungry laboring man his dinner. After leaving this particular job, I pulled to the next job, about a mile or so down the road.

I pulled in and set the machine ready to thresh. I banked the fire, closed the draft, picked up my water jug and started for the farmer's house, which was about a hundred yards away.

I knocked at the door of an old fashioned log house, very old, but neat and humble looking. I was met at the door by an old lady wearing glasses, an old-fashioned sunbonnet and a kitchen apron over her dress. I asked for a fresh jug of water. She said, 'Sure, young man, help yourself.' She showed me the well. It was an old-fashioned well with rope and pulley. On each end of the rope was an old-fashioned oaken bucket.

Oh, how good this fresh well water tasted, but it didn't take the place of food.

It was now about 1:30 in the afternoon and I still hadn't had anything to eat since 3 A.M. I asked the woman if she would please give me something to eat, after explaining my situation. Her reply was, 'You sure can, young man. You can't run a threshing engine without plenty of grub. We ain't much but I'll scrape up something for you. Come on in and set yourself down, while I scrape up something.' I went in and sat down in an old-fashioned hickory split bottom chair. Oh, how comfortable! The lady headed for the kitchen. I could see an old-fashioned Copper Clad range cook stove. She proceeded to stoke the stove with dry seasoned hickory and oak wood. I knew from the crackling of the fire, that it would not be long until the lady would have up steam ready to go. About twenty minutes later, the lady said, 'Come on in and eat.'

She sat me down to two pieces of country hickory smoked ham, six inches in diameter and about half an inch thick. Also placed before me were three fresh, fried country eggs, a loaf of home made bread, a bowl of ham flour gravy, a big cake of country made butter, a bowl filled with blackberry jelly and a pot of good black coffee made in an old fashioned coffee pot. My, oh my! Did I ever do justice to this good meal. About all that was left was half loaf of bread, some jelly, butter, coffee and dirty dishes. I looked more like a cat, who had just finished a fish banquet. In all my years on the threshing ring, I never had a meal that tasted as good as this one.

This fine old lady passed on to her eternal reward, many years ago. God bless her, and may her soul rest in peace.

I was again lost without a steam engine until 1938. In May, 1938, I married a young woman, who is a wonderful person and a teacher of music and art. During the fall of 1938, I found a nice 15 hp. Advance engine. She helped me buy the engine at the unbelievable price of fifty dollars. It needed some new flues, but otherwise it was a good engine. I gathered up parts here and there and built myself a sawmill. I ran this engine and mill, part time in summer and part time in winter, until 1941. Then came World War II. I did my bit for Uncle Sam in the Navy Air Corps and was discharged honorably in September of 1945. My mill by now needed repair. I rebuilt it and increased its size. It was too much for my 16 hp. Advance. I sold this engine in 1946 and bought a 20-75 double cylinder rear mounted Nichols and Shepard Engine No. 13267, which I now own and have on a sawmill near Newton. This mill belongs to a good friend of mine, Mr. Ben Foster of Wheeler, Illinois. He also has a stationary boiler and a stationary horizontal engine in good running order.

Last summer and fall, with some help from Mr. Foster, I overhauled my N & S engine. I put in a complete set of new flues, new main crankshaft bearings, new crosshead pins, all new reverse linkage pins, and cleaned and painted it, which cost me a total of 350 dollars in cash and two months work.

I have built a one-fourth scale, free lance engine in my shop. It is complete except for road gears, which I hope to put in soon. It is a good little steamer with an 8 inch by 22 inch boiler shell, an 8 by 12 by 7 inch firebox fired on coal. It has been cold water tested to 160 pounds pressure and operates on one hundred pounds steam working pressure. It has a 1' by 1' piston and stroke. It sure is a nice little engine.

I am enclosing a picture of my Nichols and Shepard engine, pulling Mr. Foster's saw mill. Nov. 18, 1970. I am also enclosing a picture of my little engine that I am building. It was last steamed up, March 20, 1971.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank three nice Iron-Men Album readers, who answered my letter in regard to the original colors for re-painting my Nichols and Shepard engine. They are as follows:

Mr. Forrest V. Cunningham - R. D. 2 Harrodsburg, Kentucky 40330.

Mr. Alvin I. Smith - R. R. 2, Galveston, Indiana 46932.

Mr. William H. Brown - R. R. 2, Granby, Missouri 64844.

I have had several nice letters from these fine gentlemen. Thanks again.

Maybe you haven't guessed it. But, I am a retired school teacher. I began teaching in 1928. Both my wife and I retired in 1967.

The old steam engine, a hound dog and a fiddle helped me earn money to get my education. Both my wife and I worked our way through school.

We have a string quartet, two fiddles and two guitars, of which Mrs. Robinson and I are members. We get together each week during the fall and winter months for practice sessions. We play for churches, reunions and many other public occasions.

I will be 63 years old, April 21, 1971, and have found out that the only cure for steam fever is to become the proud owner of a steam engine of your choice.

Well, I think this is enough rambling for this time, with best wishes to all steam friends and the Iron-Men Album. Keep up the good work.

My latch string is always out for any and all of you good friends and readers that might be in Newton, Illinois, some time. Come and see us.