Steam and Gas Fairs Recall Bygone Times

Steam engine

Photo by Declan Haun 1989 National Geographic.

Declan Haun

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National Geographic News Service National Geographic Society Washington, D.C. 20036

Only a few thousand remain today: monstrous, shrieking, potbellied marvels that helped usher mankind into the industrial age.

'This machine has a lot of sentimental value,' says Wilbur Engle, a 78-year-old Easton, Maryland farmer, as he perches on the steam engine that once belonged to his father. 'Folks didn't have any other kind of mechanization at the time, and this machine seemed like magic.'

Bedecked with American flags, this two-cylinder steam engine puts on a show for visitors to the 16th annual fair of the Tuckahoe Gas and Steam Association in Easton, Maryland.

Engle used to accompany his father on winter sojourns in the woods of Maryland's Eastern Shore, taking the family steam engine from farm to farm and connecting it to a round saw that split trees into clean strips of wood.

In their heyday, steam engines did a lot more than that. They also threshed wheat, milled flour, pumped water, and crushed stones.

Now Engle keeps his engine, along with two others he bought and restored, for display at such events as the Tuckahoe Steam and Gas Show here one of 540 such exhibitions held annually in the United States and Canada.

At the Tuckahoe Show, part country fair and part outdoor museum, the old engines are treated with reverence. The grounds are loud with the hissing of steam, the air redolent of wood burning in the furnaces.

Attractions on the 40-acre fairgrounds include parades, craft sales, horseshoe pitching, and country music. But most impressive are the engines, which tremble as they pour their usable energy into iron-heavy industrial and agricultural machines such as sawmills and threshers.

During this year's three-day show, some 4,000 spectators of all ages mill around the freshly painted engines and talk with owners, who share their mechanical know-how and swap collectors' magazines.

Demonstrations run simultaneously all over the grounds. A steam-powered rock crusher grinds stones to powder. Plow horses brought in by Amish farmers from Pennsylvania turn a wheel to power a machine that cuts cedar into shingles.

Steam technology developed in the mid-1850's, and engines proliferated. But many were converted to scrap metal during the two world wars.

Steam and gas shows featuring the survivors began in the 1950's as reunions of 'threshermen' farmers who took their steam engines from farm to farm to thresh wheat. The first complete directory of the fairs was published 15 years ago by the Steam gas Publishing Company, an organization formed by aficionados of the machinery.

Engle is the resident expert at Tuckahoe. He runs the sawmill, attaching his engine by a belt to the round saw. He also runs the wheat thresher, a funnel-equipped Rube Goldberg apparatus the size of a suburban yard.

A 70 year old one-cylinder steam engine drives this threshing machine at the Tuckahoe show. Multipurpose engines have been operating since the 1850s.

'I think people come to these fairs to see how things used to be,' says Tom Booze, president of the Tuckahoe Gas and Steam Association. 'Plowing and harvesting was done in the hottest time of the year. These machines run at temperatures of 250 degrees from sunup to sundown. I don't think the younger generation realizes what kind of labor went into building this country.'

Most collectors restore their own machines, a task that requires months of labor. Because of high transportation costs, most of the machines are bought locally from abandoned farms or from other collectors.

The boilers must pass a government inspection before they can run, and new parts have to be custom-cast at the foundry. Old engines may cost as much as $15,000; restoration adds thousands more. Owners aren't paid to display their machines.

Bill Cep, who works at a nearby supermarket, owns three engines; one of them, built in 1885, is the fair's oldest. He says that even though the machines strain his budget, he feels he is doing a service by keeping the relics in good repair: 'I like to know they won't just die away and be forgotten.'

For most of the spectators, the fair is simply entertainment. At noon the activity comes to a halt, and lines form at an outdoor eating area. Fairgoers are served piles of Eastern Shore fried chicken, corn, and string beans.

An hour later, as the crowds clear off the picnic tables, the steam whistles screech and the clock again turns back a hundred years.