Past and Present:

Steam traction engine

Yaeger Photo # 4: A steam traction engine digging sewer or water line ditches in Lewistown, Mont.

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Traction Engines and Threshing Machines

American Abell and Port Huron

John. F. Spalding,112 Carriage Place, Hendersonville, TM 37035, sends along two photos, including one of an American Abell taken in Winnepeg in 1912, possibly by a Joe Ritchie (his name is written in pencil on the back). John writes:

'The photo shows American Abell steam tractor s/n 2117 freshly unloaded at the Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada CP Railway yard. The engine is there for the plowing contest at the 1912 Royal Agricultural Fair in Winnepeg. The American Abell & Thresher Co. was purchased in 1912 (that same year) and became part of the Advance Thresher Co. (later Advance-Rumley). 'Cock of the North Line' was their motto and can be seen on the tractor. Winnepeg is hand-written on the bottom of the photo.

'This tractor is thought to have inspired several of the design changes later made by Advance-Rumley. This may be the first American Abell & Advance Thresher Co. engine built, but there is no data to support that theory. The 11 gentlemen probably represent the driving team, mechanic, operator and factory 'big wigs.' I thought it was kind of neat.

Spalding Photo # 1: American Abell traction engine, serial number 2117, freshly unloaded at the Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada CP Railway yard, 1912.

'I have also included a humorous old photo of a Port Huron tractor, threshing outfit and crew. The one unusual aspect of it is the fact that while no one ever seems to smile in 100-year-old photos, this group is cutting up - note the tray with drinks and the man in the back 'chugging' a bottle of something - very unusual and comical.'

Steam Birthday

Worth F. Pickard, 4820 Carbonton Road, Sanford, NC 27330, sends in some photos of his good friend Jay Wilbur Moore on the occasion of Jay's 80th birthday. Worth tells us Jay has been active in the steam community for some years now, especially in the Ole Gilliam Mill Crank-Up, and he was the driving force behind starting the Central Carolina Antique Power and Equipment Club, or C-CAPE as it's also called.

The club recently held a party for Jay on his 80th birthday, complete with a Keck-Gonnerman decorated birthday cake. The club recently voted to sponsor a $500 scholarship in Jay's name, to be given to a deserving high school senior. Happy birthday, Jay!


Tom Downing, R.R.3, Box 149A, Ellwood City, PA 16117, chimes in on the photo Curtis Cook sent in (see IMA, January/February 2002, page1):

'I was pleased to see a letter from my friend Lyle Hoffmaster on page 1 of the January/ February 2002 issue. He is actually one of the 'old timers' he refers to as not being around any longer.

'We have a gentleman locally who was still running a sawmill when I first met him. A fire in the 1950s ruined the steam engine (a large S-type Farquhar portable) they had been sawing with last. I bought the boiler and remains of the engine and put it back together, and thus cut my 'steam teeth.' 1 later sold it, bought it back, resold it and it is still just a few miles from here.

'The main reason for this letter, which is becoming so wordy, concerns the photo on page 1 of the January/February issue. I pulled out my copy of Jack Norbeck's Encyclopedia of Steam and compared details to pictures there. I do not match the engine with any Gaar-Scott illustrations in the book, but it very much resembles the picture on page 85 of Norbeck's book for a Buffalo-Pitts for 1893.

'I hesitate to guess, but the engine looks quite old and the separator is self-feed and wind stacker, as well as appearing quite huge, especially judging by the distance between the axles. That would make it a relatively late style. The engine may not be as old as I surmise, as they did not change them so often. Best wishes and good steaming in 2002.'

Info Sought

Noble G. Barker, R.R. 73, Box 173, Drury, MO 65638, writes in seeking information:

'We have two stationary steam engines that we would like to learn more about, i.e., when they were built, who they were originally sold to, etc. One engine is said to be 60 HP, the only letters or numbers on the engine are, 'Atlas Engine Works, Indianapolis, Indiana.' The other engine is a Freeman of about 10 HP, I would guess.' If anyone can help Noble, contact him at the address above.

Montana Snapshots

Loyal contributor Gary Yaeger has moved, and he asks everyone to note his new address, 1120 Leisha Lane Kalispell, MT 59901 (e-mail:

But even a house move couldn't keep Gary from sending along another fine batch of vintage photos for our enjoyment this month. This issue Gary writes:

'The first photo is of a 30 HP double-cylinder Nichols & Shepard plowing in eastern Montana, and it comes from the Carl Mehmke postcard collection.

'Photo # 2 is a copy of an old postcard showing a brand new Big Forty Gaar-Scott being unloaded from a railroad flatcar at Floweree, Mont., circa 1910. Floweree was in the Great Falls area.

'Photo # 3 shows another engine to excite Richard Rorvig. It is Joe Bishop's 80 HP Case pulling a railroad flatcar, and Howard Richards' 25 HP Case pulling freight wagons down Main Street in Lewistown, Mont., near the mill ditch. I have seen this picture used elsewhere, and it stated that the 80 HP Case was pulling itself, its load, the 25 HP and its load. It appears to be so, but I could not verify that. The two men did freighting for a living with these Case engines.

'Photos # 4 and # 5 show a couple of pictures that aren't what you might expect, but they are technically of a 'steam traction engine.' Appearing to be the predecessor of the Ditch Witch® trencher, this one operated on steam and is shown digging sewer or water line ditches in Lewistown, Mont. These photos come from the late Glen Morton's photo collection.

'My last picture shows a copy of a print owned by Carl Mehmke. I was intrigued by this one, as we have all seen the literature with the tongue and seat on early J.I. Case steam traction engines, but this one has the horses harnessed and helping steer the engine. I am not sure whether the picture was taken in Montana or not, although the mountains look correct. Notice the original J.I. Case Agitator thresher being pulled behind by horses (no, Case fans, Lyle Hoffmaster was not the original J.I. Case Agitator! He came along quite some time later).

'I really appreciate the pat on the back from Larry Creed, and who wouldn't appreciate everything Larry does for the rest of us. He really works at getting new (old!) photographs for the readers of Iron-Men Album. If everyone did that, IMA would be the size of Life Magazine!

'Larry, may I jump into your Hoosier- J.I. Case quagmire and vote for the 12 UP model shown in the March-April issue? Dick Tombrink of Worden, Mont., has a beautifully restored 12 HP Case tandem-compound, and I think there is another in Oklahoma. They both lack the canopy, but otherwise are identical to the one in Larry's picture.'

Fusible Plug Source

We've recently learned of a few more sources for fusible plugs. Harold Stark, 3215 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46217-3231, writes that Vierk Industrial Products, 3521 Coleman Ct., P.O. Box 1668, Lafayette, IN 47902, (800) 428-7548 (on the web at: offers services and parts for the steam community. Harold says they carry Kunkle safety valves and offer recalibration services for gauges and safety valves.

And while we're here, apologies to Harold for misspelling his name 'Sterk' on the back cover of the January/February 2002 issue of IMA, where we printed the great picture Harold sent of Paul Martins on Chaddy Atteberry's 40 HP Case.

We also heard from Charles Sindelar, S47 W22300, Lawnsdale Rd., Waukesha, WI 53189 who says fusible plugs are available from Cattail Foundry, 167 W. Cattail Rd., Gordenville, PA 17529, and also from Don Whiteacre, who's available at (800) 756-8617, or e-mail at:

Thoughts on Medina

Daniel W. Aldrich, 34540 Sherwood Drive, Solon, OH 44139, writes:

'First of all I would like to commend Mr. Backus for fairly reporting and commenting on the Medina County Fair tragedy. He did so without crucifying Cliff Kovacic, unlike other people and the press have done.

'For some reason a great number of people are willing to 'write off this tragedy as solely operator error and just forget that it ever happened. This hobby must move beyond blame and move on to the prevention of a terrible tragedy like this from ever occurring again.

'In the January/February issue of the Iron-Men Album, a letter by Gary Yaeger from Montana was published, who stated you cannot have a catastrophic crown sheet failure as long as water covers the crown sheet. 'It cannot be done,' he stated. That statement alone demonstrates a very dangerous attitude, because for one it disregards the corrosion of the stay bolts, and the crown sheet. Secondly, if you subject a crown sheet to operating pressure higher than it was designed for, or which it is no longer able to safely hold, it does not matter if you have three inches or 12 inches of water covering it, it can suffer a catastrophic failure.

'Mr. Yaeger went on to say that he would rather have a good engineer on a marginal boiler than a marginal engineer on a brand new boiler. I would not want to be around either one, because both are accidents waiting to happen. For a person with a second class stationary steam engineer license and a Montana steam traction engineers license to make statements like this is rather frightening.

'Mr. Yaeger went on to criticize the Pennsylvania Chief Boiler Inspector, John D. Payton, stating, 'He had another agenda - namely shutting down engines with weak boilers.' Excuse me, Mr. Yaeger, that is Mr. Payton's job, and is it not the goal of boiler inspection to shut down unsafe boilers before accidents occur? When a boiler inspector approves a boiler for operation, he or she is putting 'their hide' on the line each and every time they do so. It seems that you, Mr. Yaeger and others have the agenda, to 'write off the Medina County Fair accident as operator error of water not covering part of the crown sheet, and that the corrosion of the stay bolts, and corrosion of the crown sheet did not play a major role in the failure. Isn't it possible the distortion of the crown bolt holes could also be caused by the crown sheet being subjected to pressure it was no longer able to safely hold?

'We must focus on preventing an accident like this one from ever happening again. If we choose to ignore the facts and just consider this accident as a tragic, isolated incidence, we doom ourselves to repeat this horrible tragedy again, and it will happen again if we fail to learn from it. Here in Ohio, they are in the process of passing laws regarding mandatory antique boiler inspection and the possible licensing of said operators. It is unlikely that it will be in place before 2003. Most people have concerned themselves with who is to blame, but what they should concern themselves with is: What can I do to stop something like this from ever happening again? Each one of us needs to investigate what changes are being made and work with the people involved to change things for the better.

'Blame is irrelevant, since it will not change anything. The insurance companies, state boiler inspectors, fair board members, etc., are not concerned with who is to blame. They are concerned with what everyone in this hobby should be, and that is preventing another accident like this one from ever occurring again. Some of us will have to demonstrate what extra steps we have taken to assure that our antique boilers are safe to operate.

'I have operated steam traction engines, portable steam engines, and stationary steam engine/boilers for almost 15 years. I am not afraid of steam, but by the same token I respect its power and the destructive force it has. Steam is like anything else, when you lose respect for what you are dealing with that is when it is the most dangerous. We in this hobby will have to deal with the aftermath of the Medina County Fair accident for quite some time to come.'

Avery, or Robinson?

Lyle Hoffmaster, 1845 Marion Road, Bucyrus, OH 44820, writes in again this issue:

'I'm at it again: Larry Creed's picture on page 2 of the March/April 2002 issue of Iron-Men Album is my reason for writing.

'Larry calls the engine a straight-flue Avery, and here I beg to differ with him. Now, that front tank may be from an Avery, the engine is not: it's a Robinson. The general layout of parts, the canopy with its raised section and governors jutting up in it, the smokestack and steps up to the engine proper, all differentiate it, even from a Gaar-Scott.

'Since most of the 22 HP and 25 HP engines had the trunnions tying the outer end of the rear axle back to the outer ends of the drawbar - and this picture does not show them - we can maybe say it isn't a 22 HP or a 25 HP. This engine is not mounted on a heater bedplate; the 18 HP and smaller were mounted on heater bedplates. I would say the engine is a 20 HP.

'The 20 HP engine is unique as it didn't come out until 1908, about three years after the 22 HP and 25 HP engines were first built. What few details the separator shows it also appears to be a Robinson. A nice picture, and of a rare outfit.

'Now Richard, please run another correction for me. In the March/April 2002 issue the last word in my letter reads 'engine.' This should have read 'dome.' I'll never live that last sentence down if you don't make a correction!' Consider it done, Lyle.

Birdsall Huller

Boyd Silsby, R.R.1, Box 101, Mankato, KS 66956, writes in for information on a Birdsall Huller. Boyd writes:

'We have acquired a Birdsall alfalfa or clover huller, a gift to our museum (the Jewel County Historical Society) by Maxine Jackson Krier from the Jackson estate. The former owner was Louis Jackson, who operated Jackson Manufacturing in Simpson, Kan.

'I am enclosing a picture of the huller, and would appreciate any information on Birdsall hullers. We are not able to find a serial number and are wondering where it might be located on the machine. We would greatly appreciate any information about this machine.'

If anybody out there can help, please contact Boyd at the address above.

More on Avery

Randy Schwerin, 3040 160th St., Sumner, IA 50674 chimes in on the Avery:

'Richard, I wanted to comment on a couple of things in past issues of your magazine. First off, I would like to thank you for keeping the same format that we readers have grown accustomed to. I have been a full-time subscriber now for right at 30 years and really treasure the Iron-Men Album. I would like to echo my friend Jim Russell's suggestion that you occasionally reprint article from early IMAs. I feel that these contributors were the people who really shaped the magazine through the years. After all, we are all probably second, third or fourth generation hobbyists and owe it all to our forefathers of the hobby.

'On the lighter side, I see an interesting photo in the March/April 2002 issue on page 2. This photo instantly caught my eye when I read Larry Creed's labeling of the engine as an Avery. I apologize, but just can't resist taking issue with his call on this one.

'I really don't see any Avery traits on this engine. First off, take a good look at the drive wheels: they have cast iron rims, and I don't believe Avery built a cast drive wheel. Secondly, notice how the bull gear is mounted to the rim of the wheel, again definitely not an Avery design. Thirdly, the crosshead guide with its closed end. As far as I can research, Avery always used an open-ended guide. Next, the crank disc: this one appears to be open on the opposite side of the counter balance. The 25 HP Avery used a solid disc. Lastly, this engine is equipped with a dry pipe that is an internal steam supply line, which exited the boiler over the firebox, back of the cylinder/steam chest. Avery used an external steam line to feed the engine. Larry, sorry I had to call you on this one, however, I think with a little careful reconsideration you may want to trade this Bulldog in on a Tiger.

'Now on to the more serious side of this. I have read with keen interest all of the dialogue that has come forth since the July 29 incident at Medina, Ohio. That day was truly a sad day for our hobby, and I feel that we can all learn something from this tragedy. There seems to be a lot of negative press as to the condition of the boiler of the 110 Case, with differing theories on how much pressure it would have or wouldn't have held.

'John D. Payton, chief boiler inspector of the state of Pennsylvania, makes reference in his questionable report as to the thickness of the crown sheet after the explosion, coming up with a maximum allowable working pressure of 47 psi, using some sort of a ASME equation. He also comes up with the theoretical pressure of 90 psi as to the pressure at which the boiler actually ruptured. Let me point out that these numbers are obtained through theory, and there is no way he can be certain of their accuracy. If this boiler was allowed to run low on water prior to its rupturing, which I truly believe it was, the pressure within the boiler would have surely stretched the metal at the point where the crown sheet was overheated the most. Therefore, the ultrasound readings that Mr. Payton uses for his equations absolutely cannot be relied upon.

'I would make a fairly educated guess that 95 percent of all (catastrophic) crown sheet failures down through the years were brought on by low water. Either in the situation where the crown sheet was overheated to the point where it simply pulls away from the stay bolts or where water is introduced into this same setting either by injecting of the water as in feed water makeup or by the remaining boiler water washing up onto the overheated portion of the firebox due to the movement of the engine. This creates what Mr. Payton referred to as a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion), which he tries to discount.

'I feel this points out two things about Mr. Payton and his report. First, his lack of background experience in assessing boiler failures of this type; that is, locomotive style boilers with their crown sheets ruptured. I would venture to say this is likely the first one he has been called into to assess. Secondly, he quite probably has his own personal agenda to promote through his findings. By this, I mean greater restrictions through state legislation, getting insurance companies involved to a greater degree and making the inspection of these boilers more costly to get certified for operation in public.

'Please don't misunderstand what 1 am saying by all of this. The incident at Medina was a tragedy, the only one of its kind that our hobby has ever seen, and the sad part of it is, it could have been completely avoided. It is just too bad Mr. Payton cannot open his ASME Code Book and find an equation for calculating a person's capacity for common sense and level of respect for the power of steam. I think the education of antique hobby boiler owners and operators is a far better approach to this problem than the policing of the boilers themselves by outside inspecting agencies.

'I have always maintained that you can inspect a boiler as often as you like but, through negligence and disrespect, still have a potential accident. Let me point out that this boiler did hold a state certificate a scant 10 years ago in the state of Minnesota and was shown numerous times in public with no adverse affects. Minnesota's inspection program includes visual inspections, ultrasound testing and a hydrostatic test of one and one-half times MAWP and also licensing of its operators.

'Know your boiler intimately both inside and out and keep its appliances in good operating condition. Make sure your steam gauge is calibrated properly, as well as your safety valve. Blow your water glass out frequently while under steam and make sure its connections are clean and clear of sediment. Keep your injectors functioning well and understand their pressure operating ranges, and take pride in keeping your boiler free of accumulated mud and scale as well as soot and ashes. We, as owners and operators, hold the responsibility of making sure our engines are safe for the public. I don't feel that we should depend on outside agencies to do this for us.

'As to my own personal background in this matter, I have spent 30 years in the steam engine hobby, owned 10 engines and restored them from various states of repair and disrepair. I presently own six traction engines and one stationary engine and boiler.

'I currently hold a director's position on the board at our local show, which has a roster of between eight to 10 operating engines. I have traveled to numerous shows throughout the Midwest over the years, and have seen literally hundreds of engines under steam in various operating situations. I have always felt comfortable around a traction engine's boiler with a reasonable amount of steam on the gauge, a good amount of water in the glass and a competent operator on the platform.

'In closing, I would like to complement Bruce Babcock on his articles pertaining to the fusible plug. I thought they were very well written, researched and presented, and they contain information we all can benefit from.'

If you have a photo or a comment for Soot in the Flues, please send it along to Iron-Men Album, 1503 SW 42nd St.,Topeka, KS 66609-1265, or e-mail: