Testing the Sawyer-Massey Steam Traction Engine

Moving forward and back, plowing and working with ease: the Sawyer-Massey is pretty cool.

Sawyer-Massey steam traction engine

The Sawyer-Massey steam traction engine delivered outstanding performance whether it was reaping, plowing, or sawing wood.

Photo: icholakov/Fotolia

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It was five thirty when the alarm clock went off. It was also very dark. As I cautiously felt for the floor with my left little toe, I was thinking of the Sawyer-Massey steam traction engine standing outside. My toe hit and brought me back to reality in a hurry. Making a big effort, I threw back the comforter and blankets and lit the lantern. After shaving and dressing, I went down to the big warm kitchen, with its long table to one side. Two lanterns hung over it and in the glow of their light, one could see eggs, ham, flapjacks, potatoes, toast, and a steaming coffee pot.

Well fortified in the breakfast department, I went out to inspect the Sawyer-Massey engine. It was well made; the riveting done neatly. The smoke box door was rounded on the edge and slightly convex, which set it apart from the angular appearance found on most units. Before continuing my inspection, I stirred up the fire a bit and threw in more fuel. The builders are getting away from low pressure. This one is good to one hundred fifty pounds. I don't mind that fire this morning, I thought, with the frost on the punk in'. I was also glad to see a three ball governor, as I continued my inspection. The firm decided to run it with an extra wide belt. All too often, the narrower thin ones have a habit of breaking. The rear wheels were wide and the deep cleats gave the engineer the feeling the engine would go through anything. The front wheels were assembled in two halves with a raised ridge running around the center. This handy feature is a great help in plowing a straight furrow. The firebox, of course, was radically stayed to the boiler and was deep.

The water glass is full and one forty or so was showing on the pressure gauge, so I took the engineer's position on the right side of the back-head. Engaging the clutch in the flywheel, I moved the reverse forward and slowly opened the throttle. With no hesitation and very smoothly, the machine started forward. To my surprise, the jackshaft and chain steering wasn't as difficult to manage as I thought it would be. It couldn't be turned with a pinkie, but it wasn't difficult by any means. There was a slight rise in the ground ahead, but the engine retained the same speed it had on the level as it started up the grade. It showed the constant pulling power for which steam is noted. From the way this one was moving, it seemed to be a high speed unit. It might even be able to reach a speed of six miles an hour, if one could imagine that.

Reaching for the whistle cord, I pulled a long and a short. The brazen voice which pealed forth was a bellow, which could be heard a mile away. One of the boys picked up the drawbar of the reaper and dropped it over the hitch on the tractor. Dropping the pin in place, I again stepped to the platform and opened the throttle. The field had a more or less up and down characteristic, but the rate of speed remained constant. After going around a couple of times, we all inspected the sheaves of buckwheat and the field and found no stems standing. It was a good showing.

The next test was plowing. Even though the sun was now up, the ground was hard, as we were well into the month of October. Connecting the plow, I started off and dropped the shares when I reached the inside of the fence. As they bit into the soil, I found it necessary to advance the throttle a couple of notches. Deliberately, I chose the headland for this test. It seemed to me that the ground would be more solidly packed from running on it, and the fact that it had not been plowed. As the engine buckled down to work, the black smoke curled from the stack; steam issued from the cylinder; the smell of valve oil and wood smoke was like a heady perfume on the cool morning air. No trouble was encountered as I traveled toward the far end of the headland, and when I returned I could see that the furrows were straight and smooth; the pull being constant, not jerky. I was pleased to see what had been done.

Dropping the plow, we all moved onto the woodlot and belted up to do a little sawing. The twenty four-inch flywheel on the tractor was working to a ten-inch pulley on the saw shaft, which gave us a little better than a two to one ratio.

Disengaging the clutch and moving the reverse a couple of notches forward, I advanced the throttle and we went to work. Even though a small amount of power was being used, it was clear that this would do the job quickly and efficiently. Green wood, dry wood, branches, tree trunks (small size), were no problem. The steady soft chuff, chuff, chuff of the cylinder seemed a strange accompaniment to the harsh rasping of the saw teeth biting into the wood.

The general consensus is that a steam engine has a great deal of pulling power (attractive effort). It is also acknowledged that it requires periodic maintenance, such as boiler and smoke box cleaning, flue inspection, firebox attention and regular lubrication. It was also agreed that when it wasn't in use, it wasn't necessary to feed it, as is the case with animal power. In addition, it was not subject to sickness as were animals, although parts breakage could occasion delay. Its great merit is in its constant power output which, after all, is a fundamental characteristic of steam. FC


Contact Joseph H. Graves at 10 Darien Place, Buffalo, New York 14216-1101.