The A-B-C's of my Steam Experiences (Avery---Birdsall---Case)

Swell running engine

A no-name engine, built by several men in the Maryville and St. Joe, Mo. area about 60 years ago. It is a prototype and never got into production. It is a swell running engine and now owned by a man in Maryville, Missouri. Courtesy of Roger L. Eshelman, B

Roger L. Eshelman

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R. D. 2, West Winfield, New York 13491

In almost ten years of subscribing to the Iron-Men Album I have never before written up any of my experiences with steam, so better late than never. I first became interested in steam engines at the age of fourteen when I saw my first traction engine at the New York State Fair at Syracuse. Right away the bug bit me and I have been an avid steam enthusiast ever since. For two years afterwards my burning desire was to own an engine of my own. I wrote letters, answered ads and went on many wild good chases. It is unbelievable what some peoples' idea is of a steam engine. I went to look at everything from diesel road rollers to ditching machines.


One of these trips turned out all right as the 'steam engine' turned out to be an 8-16 Avery tractor which had been sitting in a manure pile since 1939, and what a mess it was! The two brothers that owned the tractor had tried to repair the tractor and had given up and as the tractor happened to be sitting behind the barn next to the manure pile, it soon became covered with manure. After a few years the pile rotted down and exposed the tractor again, which is the point where I entered the scene and bought the tractor. I got a friend and our John Deere 730 and went to get the tractor and tow it home on the shoulder of the road. Much to our surprise the old Avery came right out on the first pull, but only one wheel would turn, a front one. Also the steering wheel was rusted tight. A few days later after the generous use of oil and kerosene the wheels were turning on the way home. I spent about a year afterwards getting the old Avery in good shape, although far from being what we would call restored, it was ten times better than when I had found it.


Now all this time I was still dreaming of a steam engine, so at one show I became acquainted with George VanAtta of Barton, N.Y. who had a 1918 Birdsall traction engine which was for sale. I was able to make a deal by trading in the old Avery towards the Birdsall. As the engine was to be trucked home after the show anyways, they hauled it to my place and at last I had an engine. It was up to me to transport the Avery to Mr. VanAtta after I had finished it up, which took another year.

The years following were filled with experiences both good and bad, in which I learned a great deal about engines. Now, take into consideration that I was only 16 when I bought the Birdsall and had never so much as thrown a shovel of coal in an engine. Eventually, I did learn how to run and care for an engine. I think I was the world's champion fire puller, from having to dump the fire during some of the mishaps I had. I believe that these experiences were the best teacher, as I will never forget them.

Two of the more pleasant memories I had of the years I had the engine are the threshing show I had and the one steam show I exhibited. In 1965 I showed this engine at the N.Y.S. Pageant of Steam at Canandaigua, N.Y. for four straight days, all alone. There I met a man who was running a roller of Mr. Marshall's. His name was Stu and his last name I have forgotten. I wish all young engineers could meet him. Although he already had plenty to do, he was more or less always watching over me, giving good advice and lending me a hand when ever I needed help. The other engineers were too busy with their own engines. He alone had the kind heart to give a hand.

On one occasion I had just returned from eating lunch when the parade was starting up. I pulled open the firebox door only to find the fire had gone out. No sooner said than done and this man was bringing over a few shovels of his own fire for getting mine started-up again, while two other engineers nearby only laughed and pulled their engines around mine and went on. This is what great men and great engineers are made of. This was the only year that I had the engine there, as the club president decided that as my engine had to be hauled 140 miles to the show, and most of the others were much closer to the show grounds, that I should forego my expense money which the other engineers got. Also, that if I was to bring the engine again I would have to pay a share of the trucking, so as it turned out, this was to be my only show as an exhibitor.

The next year an old friend of mine, an old time thresherman, Gus Holmes, and myself organized a small steam threshing demonstration at his farm a few miles north of our farm, which was quite a success. However this was not to be an annual event, as Gus passed away a few years ago.

I sold my Birdsall engine five years ago to the state of New York for a museum which is currently under construction in the state capitol in Albany. This museum is to be run by the State Education Dept. and is to contain only items manufactured in N.Y. At last count they had over 25,000 items collected which they plan to display; should be quite a thing. I decided to sell my engine, not because I had lost interest, but because the boiler was not in good shape. It was safe for the pressure I carried but it had a few features which I did not care for, namely, welded patches in the firebox and a flue situation which I have never seen before. The old flues had become bad so black iron pipe had been put inside the old flues and welded on both ends. Also the gearing had worn to a point where a strong man could have shaved with them. All these things had taken place before I bought the engine, and in my ignorance of steam engines had not concerned me, but as time went on these things came to bother me a great deal. I decided to sell and I believe that sitting in a museum in non-operating condition, is the best for this particular engine.

Four years ago, using the money I received for the Birdsall, I purchased a 1916 S.W. Wood traction engine of 16 H.P. which is in like new condition, When I found this engine it was sitting in a cow pasture in Coxsackie, N.Y. on the Hudson river. I still do not have this engine running as yet, for lack of funds for a hand hole repair and set of flues, but I hope to in a few years. This engine is in the best original shape of any I have ever seen. The inside of the boiler shell still has about 50% of the steel mill bluing on it. The gearing shows absolutely no wear and when I tried removing one layer of paper shim stock from the crankshaft journals I found that I could not turn the engine over without first replacing the shims I had taken out!


Since I first started out with the old Avery tractor I have collected quite a number of steam and antique items such as a 1930 Chrysler which I drove to college and when I first got married, a 1922 Sanford fire truck which I use as a farm truck, an 1892 Case portable which I bought in a junkyard, which I am looking for the engine for it, a 1915 Metz friction drive roadster which is mostly complete, a 1913 Ford model T which I have built up from a buzz saw rig which only needs the body to complete, a horsedrawn two-passenger coach, and a 1904 curved-dash Oldsmobile body, which belongs to my wife, Sally. She hopes to built it into a car again as I did with the model T. All this plus I make maple syrup in the spring and run a dairy farm of 380 acres in partnership with my mother. So I have enough to keep me fairly busy. I will try to get some good pictures of my engines and other interesting pieces of steam equipment nearby to send in for a later issue. Take care.