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Traction Engines and Threshing Machines


Geoffrey Stein, senior historian at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y., recently contacted me concerning Cindy and Ross Bendixen's article on their 6 HP 1890 Birdsall portable (IMA, January/February 2002). In that article it was suggested Birdsall, in addition to its operations in Auburn, N.Y., may have operated at one time in Newark, N.Y., and information sent by Geoffrey bears this out.

The circa1918 18 HP Birdsall , serial number 3455,beingloaded for transport to the New York state Museum in Albany in 1968.

Geoffrey says a Birdsall traction engine in the museum's collection has a smoke box door marked, 'Birdsall Engine Co. Newark, N.Y.' Additionally, Geoffrey says the engine in their collection, an 18 HP bearing engine number 3455, dates to around 1918. This last item is very interesting, as there had been indications Birdsall closed shop in 1893, but clearly that wasn't the case. Our best guess is Birdsall only closed its Auburn facility in 1893, moving all production to Newark and obviously staying in business for some years thereafter. If anyone knows exactly when the company finally closed its doors, we'd love to hear from them.

The circa 1918 18 HP Birdsall in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y. This photo is believed to have been taken by the Birdsall's last owner, Stephen Davis, some time around 1967. Photo courtesy of the New York State Museum, Albany, N.Y.

Geoffrey also sent photos of the Birdsall in the New York State Museum's collection. The first (Birdsall Photo #1) shows the Birdsall being loaded for transport to the museum in 1968 and the second (Birdsall Photo #2) is believed to have been taken some time around 1967, possibly by Stephen Davis, who sold the Birdsall to the museum.

Geoffrey is interested in any information on surviving Birdsall engines, and he can be reached at: New York State Museum, Division of Research and Collections, 3021 Cultural Education Center, Albany, NY 12230, (518) 473-3810, or via e-mail at:

Cornwall Threshing Rigs

Thomas Martin, Nantrysack Vean, Churchtown, St. Sithney, Cornwall, TR13 ORN, United Kingdom, (e-mail:, is looking for information on threshing rigs and threshing teams that operated in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Thomas writes:

I am currently engaged on my own project of gathering details of as many threshing rigs/teams that worked in Cornwall, UK. As many people left Cornwall for America during the 1800s, they may have taken with them stories, photographs and details of threshing that I would like to include in this work. This project has two threads; one of threshing and one of family history, as some group photos have many family members. I have read Robert Rhode's The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen - what a mirror of the threshing scene that took place in Cornwall, only the passing of threshing happened sooner in the U.S. It would be great to receive copies of any original photos of threshing scenes in Cornwall, with details if possible of the names of people and places in any photos.

My Family ran a threshing outfit from 1923 to 1949, starting with a traction engine built by Marshall Sons & Company, Ltd., Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, UK. This was registered 7nhp, engine number 37463, built on Aug. 27, 1902. The engine, a Marshall thresher and an elevator were purchased from the New bridge Threshing Co. near Penzance in West Cornwall in 1923. My grandfather and his three brothers owned this outfit, and my grandfather, my uncles and my father ran it until 1943. They had a number of incidents with the set, including getting caught in a nighttime German bombing raid while traveling on the road. They left the threshing machine in the road and continued home, their only light the glow from the firebox whenever they opened it up.

They bought another Marshall machine and a Marshall Model M tractor, selling all the gear in 1949. Only one uncle, now 93 years old, is left. He worked on the set from 1928 to 1943, and I still hear new stories from him about those days and the people he knew.

Fusible Plugs

Ed Gladkowski, 1129 West Gardner St., Houston, TX 77009, writes:

I thought Bruce Babcock's fusible plug articles in the March/April and May/June 2002 issues were very interesting, and I thought readers might be interested in a little historical perspective. The excerpt below [complete with any and all issues of style or composition contained in the original - Editor] is from The Book of Modern Marvels, copyright 1917 by the Modern Publishing Company. Notice how closely the U.S. Bureau of Standards test result agreed with the tin oxide melting point given in Mr. Babcock's article.

Finally, I sure agree with Randy Schwerin's closing paragraph in his letter in the July/August issue: A fusible plug is a last ditch device - figuring it'll save you is like aiming your pickup at a tree at 90 mph and relying on the seatbelts to pull you through: It's fine, if it works.

Good luck with the magazine!

Melting Fusible Plugs

Bruce Babcock, 11155 Stout Road, Amanda, OH 43102, writes in relaying recent experience with fusible plugs -experience that should be of particular interest to IMA readers. Bruce writes:

Bruce Babcock (left), Ray Hintz (holding torch) and Rick Berens (right rear) try to melt a fusible plug.

While at the Miami Valley Steam Thresher's show in Plain City, Ohio, Robby Bachman of Nelsonville, Ohio, brought me the fusible plug from a Frick portable engine he is restoring so we might test it.

That evening I fabricated a stand to hold the plug in the same position it would be in when installed in the boiler. The next day, after assembling a small group of engine owners and spectators, we attempted to melt the fusible metal out of the plug using a propane torch. Even though we heated the plug until it was red hot we got only a drop of metal out of it. If anyone in attendance was not already convinced of the danger of using old fusible plugs, by the time we completed the test they had to be believers.

Prior to the show I had purchased an ingot of pure virgin tin, and it was interesting to take a knife and scratch the tin ingot and then scratch the metal in the fusible plug. The tin in the ingot was very soft and malleable, but when the metal in the plug was scratched it appeared very brittle and flaked off in minute pieces. I am not suggesting this is an acceptable way to test fusible plugs, but I will suggest that if the fusible plug in a boiler was not installed new by the present owner in the last year or two it should be considered to be a bad plug and be replaced.

Since the articles on the fusible plug were published in the Iron-Men Album (see IMA, March/April 2002) I have heard of several other people who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to melt out old fusible plugs. I have had an exhibit at two engine shows this year, and at both of them I have included my display of fusible plugs. Thanks to many people in the steam engine community this display has grown to include everything from a 3/8-inch water-side plug that had been in use as a fire-side plug in a large boiler (and which I believe is completely oxidized and thus ineffective) to 1-inch fire-side and 1-inch water-side plugs. I have even received three very large fusible plugs from locomotives. My display also includes the Fusible Plug From Hell that failed to melt at 1,000 degrees F in a laboratory test. I encourage everyone to spread the word as to the danger of using old fusible plugs.

Finally, here is a photo (Photo #2) showing three traction engines moving a house. I thought this might be of some interest to IMA readers. Unfortunately, the only thing I can tell you about the photo is that it is stamped 'O.P. Branch Chaffee N. Dak.' on the back.

Gaar-Scott and Robinson

Lyle Hoff master, 1845 Marion Road, Bueyrus, OH 44820, kicks in again this issue. Lyle writes:

I was asked in the July/August 2002 issue to comment on some items, so here goes.

In answer to Randy Schwerin's questions regarding Gaar-Scott and Robinson; yes, there were some connections. Bascomb B. Clarke wrote a series of articles in his American Threshermen magazine called '50 Years a Machine Man,' in which he tells us Abram Gaar and Francis Robinson were cousins. He also tells of an incident in the early 1880s of Francis Robinson asking Abram Gaar to loan him the patterns for Gaar's new traction engine! Abram's answer was to the effect that he believed in being a good neighbor, but he thought that was asking a bit too much. For the most part I do believe they got along well. It is remarkable that a company as small as Robinson outlasted Gaar-Scott for many years (about 50). Their separators were sold by Hart-Parr well into the 1920s and used the old Robinson trade name of 'Bonanza.'

Now for Gary Yaeger's Photo #4. Outside of the engine proper, this is a standard 25 HP Reeves cross-compound engine; they just put a 20 HP double-simple engine on the boiler it would be mounted on if one had ordered a 20 HP double-simple engine. Reeves mechanical engineer, Harry Clay, had long realized the limiting factor for any engine doing traction work was traction; the wheels just would not hold. I think in Photo #4 they are experimenting to see how much these larger wheels would help the traction problem. I can only tentatively identify two of the men in the picture; Harry Clay is standing beside the front right plow wheel and F.W. Weego is resting his left hand on the left rear of the water tank.

For years I have thought the 32 HP engines should have been equipped with 84-inch drivers and the 40 HP engine should have had 96-inch drivers. This would be especially good for the engines equipped with the Canadian special boilers. Matter of cost!

Now for Photo #8 of Gary's: I have never seen a picture of the 40 with such a short radius on the cab top, either. Since it seems to be rather unusual I am wondering if it could be one of the first two made in early 1909. One of these was shipped early in the spring of 1909 to William Rouse of Handley, Saskatchewan, and the other made the state fairs. This could be the engine Nielson-Geddis farms had and is in the picture.

Later in 1909 they built a lot of 12 of these 40s, and in 1910 they built two lots of 12 each and in 1911 they built the final lot of 12. Some of these engines in the last lot were not sold until about 1917 or 1918. They made some changes on each lot and even some changes in the last lot. 1 am of the opinion the one remaining 40 is the next to last engine built.

And now for the last item: We had a good discussion going earlier this year on the trunk-compound engines. On page 25 of the July/August issue is a picture of an Aultman & Taylor trunk-compound engine. Aultman & Taylor and Case seem to be the only companies who were hooked with this mechanical abomination!

Identifying and Supplying

Regular contributor Larry Creed, R.R. #13, Box 209, Brazil, IN 47834, writes back about the Avery/Robinson identification:

I would like Lyle Hoffmaster and Randy Schwerin to know that Bob Gold beat them to the punch. Bob informed me that I had misidentified the engine in one of my photographs as an Avery instead of a Robinson (see IMA, March/April 2002, page 2). Bob gave me this important information the first thing at Pawnee Steam School.

Lyle, after the spanking you gave Gary Yeager over one of his Reeves photographs, I sorted all of the Reeves steam engine pictures out of my collection and sat them next to my paper shredder. No good deed goes unpunished.

I would like to thank these three individuals for pointing out the mistake so expertly (I think Randy finally got on the bandwagon). I have so many constraints and commitments on my time that I did not do a proper job of research on this particular photograph. As a result of this, I have decided that I will continue to collect old steam photographs, but I will enjoy them at home where I don't have to debate the make of the engine, horsepower or configuration.

I am sure these three individuals will be able to supply more old steam photographs and much more information to the Iron-Men Album than I would.

Crown Sheet Deformation

David Hughes, 11 Riceholme Place, Welland, Ontario, Canada L3C6H2 (e-mail, writes in on the continuing discussion over crown sheet deformation. David writes:

In the July/August issue of IMA, Mr. Yeager gives a rebuttal to comments made by Mr. Aldrich. This is good - nothing wrong with some constructive criticism and getting a point across. On the other hand, to say (without thorough research) that someone is absolutely wrong and then to say that in a public forum is not in good taste.

Mr. Yeager, do you mean to tell me that a crown sheet made of low carbon steel and after being subjected to years of corrosion and subsequently reduced to a thickness well beyond acceptable limits won't rupture even with water over it - especially when the crown stays are also reduced in thickness due to the same effects? How many boiler failures occurred over the years (especially during the steam era) where boilers owned and operated in the private sector were allowed to deteriorate under similar conditions? Mr. Aldrich's comments not only make sense, but close research in A.S.M.E. and (maybe) National Board archives will probably show evidence of such occurrences.

As for stay-bolt holes stretching to oval only being possible by heating to transformation zone temperatures, I do not believe this is the only way for this to occur. This is 'firebox' or 'flange' quality steel and is made in heats with low carbon content. Low carbon steel has a much higher deformation point than that of many grades of steel with a higher carbon or alloy content. Firebox steel needs to 'creep.' I will not make any opinion on the boiler inspector's investigation and the follow-up actions taken, as I'm not completely familiar with that information.

As for Mr. Yeager s comment, 'In the engine I am operating, you will always find one-quarter to one-half glass of water; plus water in the tanks, and enough steam to run the injector or pump.' Are you sure about that, Mr. Yeager? You are on thin ice when you submit a comment like that. I'm not about to question your expertise and experience, but you are only human and there is a possible first time for everything, including a low water mishap - that goes for the rest of you hot shot engineers!

I have come to the conclusion (and I hope I'm wrong) that you and many others have become a little too confident in the operation and care of boilers and pressure vessels; that you believe this fate will not visit you. That's a very dangerous attitude to develop. As hobby engineers we need to have an open ear for comments and suggestions. In the long run it only benefits us all, and in the end we may come out of a situation safer rather than sorrier.

Hanging a Defective Boiler Plug as a Warning

Excerpted from The Book of Modern Marvels, 1917.

A miniature gallows from which hangs a defective fusible plug responsible for a boiler explosion which occurred on board the steamship Jefferson, near Norfolk, Va., on May 11, 1914, is one of the interesting curios on the walls of the office of Secretary Redfield, of the Department of Commerce in Washington. It is a grim reminder of a tragedy which cost the lives of eleven men. A small placard above it reads:

'A Murderer! Hung for killing eleven men.'

Below it are the words:

'The fusible (?) plug which failed to fuse. From the boiler of the S.S.Jefferson. Boiler exploded. Eleven lives lost.'

The plug consisted of a threaded brass bushing about an inch and a half in diameter, with hexagonal head. Through the center of the bushing runs a plug of fusible metal, which, in this instance, was defective; it did not blow out when the water in the boiler became low, thereby causing a disastrous explosion. When the plug was sawed open lengthwise it was found that most of the original filling had disappeared, only a few traces of it remaining embedded in a dirty, greenish-white mass of tin oxide, which would not melt until heated to a temperature somewhat higher than 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Impurities in the fusible metal, which were the cause of its failure to blow out, are easily discernible. In subsequent investigations made by the United States Bureau of Standards ten hundred and fifty fusible plugs were examined. These were from one hundred and five different makers, and about one hundred of them had been in actual use for from four to twelve months. From a study of these plugs the Bureau recommends that the fusible metal itself should preferably be pure tin, because it has been found to be a far more reliable and durable. The Bureau further recommends that the tin be as free as possible from zinc and lead.

One of the many types of deterioration of fusible plug fillings observed by the Bureau consists in the formation of a network of minute thread-like cracks or corrosion-regions, ramifying in all directions. The Bureau found that these penetrated the metal and then broadened out until the filling was largely, or wholly, oxidized and destroyed. The presence of small quantities of zinc in the tin was the main contributing cause of the network type of corrosion. This was proved conclusively by the investigation conducted after the disaster.

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., KS 66609-1265,or e-mail: rbackus@orgdenpubs.