Steaming Tobacco Beds

Rumely steam engine

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1213 South Fouirth Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53204

This article is in response to Bruce Atkinson, who is interested in the steaming of tobacco beds. Although there are many ways to steam tobacco, I will tell you how we steam, here in Dane County. The purpose of steaming is to kill weeds and sterilize the soil. Seedbed sterilization can be accomplished by using methyl bromide in the spring; in the fall methyl bromide or vapam can be used.

Early April, if the weather is mild, the steaming of tobacco beds starts. A typical day starts about 5:30 a.m. with the firemen cleaning the flues and fire box. The next step is starting a fire and while waiting for the steam to rise there might be time to have a quick breakfast. When the steam temperature reaches 125-150 lbs. in pressure, the process begins. A six-foot by sixteen-foot pan, that is attached to the rear of the steam engine, is pulled from farm to farm. The pan is laid over freshly plowed ground. A steam hose is placed under the pan and the pan is banked with ground to prevent the steam from escaping. Each area is steamed for approximately 20 minutes.

After the seed beds have been steamed, 6- or 8-inch boards are placed along the edge of the area. The bed is then raked down and sprouted seed is applied with water through a sprinkling can. About one ounce of seed is applied to 8 to 10 rods (or 800 to 1000 sq ft).

NOTE: Too heavy a spread of seedlings encourage plant bed disease and results in weak and spindly plants.

A canvas is laid over the bed to keep the heat in and to protect the bed from cool nights.

Generally plants are transplanted into the field sometime in June.

I am sending some pictures of our steaming in Dane County, Oregon, Stoughton and Cottage Grove areas. The first picture is of my dad, Lawrence Mullarkey. He is steaming with an Advance Rumely steam engine. This took place in the 1940s.

The second picture is of a 20 horsepower Nichols & Shepard steam engine boiler. This engine was tipped over in the early 1950's and the engine was cut off and the boiler was mounted onto a 1942 Chevy truck. This was used for steaming tobacco beds. I bought this boiler in 1973 and put a different truck under it. I also replaced the flues and I am currently using this steamer. The man running the boiler is Edward Severson of Cottage Grove. He is 77 years old and has been steaming for about 58 years.

The third picture shows a recently steamed piece of ground.

The fourth picture is of my 19 horsepower Keck Gonnerman #1731, built in 1923. Also pictured are me and my dog, Ernie. He has been at many shows and parades. This was taken at the Rock River thresheree, Highway 51 between Janesville and Edgerton, Wisconsin.

My brother John has a 75 horsepower Case there. It is their 25th anniversary and we are trying to get our 20 HP Reeves over there. The show is Labor Day weekend.

Incidentally, while steaming tobacco beds for so many years, I have had to try chewing tobacco on occasion; frankly I enjoy it!