20th Century Engine

Cut showing 16 and 20 HP 20th Century Engine. Courtesy of Tom Downing, R.D. 1, Box 181, Elwood City, Pennsylvania 16117.

Tom Downing

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R.D. 1, Box 181, Ell wood City, Pennsylvania 16117.

If it were able to talk, an old steam engine which has called this area home for many years and which is believed to be the last of its kinds, would probably be able to tell much about local history.

The steam engine, which carries with it a past of six owners, started out new in Plain Grove Township, was sold six times, and has now returned once more to Plain Grove Township. Throughout the years, the engine has sold for prices ranging from $2,400 to $75 at a low point in its life, and back up to $2,100 in recent years, when it became an antique.

Standing almost as proud as if it were brand new, the steam engine has been on display at the ninth annual steam engine and Old Equipment Show held August 5-7, 1972 on Route 19 on the Lancaster Township Community Club grounds Middle Lancaster, between Lelienople and Portersville.

Older citizens of the community may remember when steam engines, such as the one pictured, were commonly used for threshing, sawmill work, roadwork and other jobs.

This particular engine is one of relatively small production, made by the 20th Century Manufacturing Company of Boynton, Pennsylvania, Somerset County.

In Lawrence County, at one time there were at least six of the engines but of them and of the total number of engines produced by the 20th Century Manufacturing Company, this is believed to be the only complete engine surviving in operating condition.

Charles McMurray, president of the Steam Engine and Old Equipment Association, who once owned the engine, related the history of the machine to Thomas Downing of Wurtemburg, who also belongs to the association. The story follows:

Tom McCune of Plain Grove Township bought the machine new in 1916 and used it for two years to power his custom threshing rig. McCune, who paid $2,400 for the engine, sold it at a public auction in 1918 for $1,500. The new owners were Ethan McDanel and his sons of Fombell who used it for threshing about 4 years.

In 1922 at the New Castle fair, McDanel and his sons traded in the steamer to the Minneapolis Machinery Company on a large new threshing rig which was comprised of a cross motored gas tractor and a big wooden thresher. A $450 trade-in allowance was received from a Mr. Reed of Pittsburgh, a Minneapolis agent, for the steam engine.

The engine, which was partially dismantled due to a broken gear, sat in a field behind the McDanel barn for more than six years even though the Minneapolis company owned it.

During the 1920's, steam power was not much in demand. In 1927 or 1928, however, McMurray of Scott Township, who attended a McDanel reunion with relatives and who had heard of the steamer behind the barn, became interested in it.

McMurray was quite familiar with this type of power as his father, John McMurray already owned a 1906 model which by when was wearing out.

The McDanel engine, which was in better shape than McMurray's engine, had two speeds. Young McMurray was intrigued by the thought of buying the newer engine and he spoke to his father about it.

In the fall of the next year, Mr. Reed, who still represented the Minneapolis Company, visited the McMurray farm and confirmed that his company still owned the engine. It was sold this time for only $150.

Young Charles McMurray and his neighbor, Ray Stoughton, came to the McDanel farm and worked for two days reassembling the engine with parts they had purchased. When they completed work on the engine, they filled the boiler and tanks with water from a nearby spring, built a fire in the fire box and started up the steep lane of the McDanel farm to the music of puffing exhaust of the engine. The trip through Portersville from Fombell to Slippery Rock took only one long afternoon in high gear, according to McMurray.

Nearly a permanent home was found for the engine with the McMurrays who used the engine for general work and threshing later, for sawmill power until the 1940's.

After the death of his father, Charles sold the engine to one of the first collectors to become interested in preserving the old machine, Rev. Elmer Ritzman of Enola, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. This was the low point in the old steamer's career. Now rusted and in need of repair, the engine sold for $75.

It was 1948 and hundreds of its kind had gone to scrap during World War II.

Trucked to the shops of the Arthur Young Company at Kinzers in Lancaster County, the steam engine was rebuilt and put to use during the now famous Thresherman's Reunion of the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Society.

Young, who repaired the engine, was himself an avid collector of such machines and his collection reportedly contained over 300 antique steamers at one time after World War II.

In about 1958, Rev. Ritzman's collection had outgrown his financial resources and once more the antique engine had to be sold. This time, the price had gone up to $500.

The buyer was Harry Moomaw of Dover, Ohio, and it was upon his death in April of '70 that the engine was brought back to Western Pennsylvania. Moomaw was a fine engine operator and mechanic and under his care, the engine's two cylinders had been rebuilt with new rings and reground valves. This left the engine in good shape and at a public auction, it was sold for $2,100, almost the original cost.

The current owner of the steam engine is Archie Glenn of Plain Grove Township, who remembers this engine and a few others which came to thresh at his father's farm when he was a boy.

When he bought it, he oiled it and fired it up and the engine performed just as if it were new. McMurray was there to assist Glenn who is vice president of the association.