The Spirit of the Machine

A 1903 American-Abell that Helped Break the Canadian Prairie

American-Abell Engine and Thresher

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The Reynolds-Alberta Museum's 1903 American Abell, serial number 1165, built by the American-Abell Engine and Thresher Co., Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Rated as an 18-50, this single-cylinder engine has a bore and stroke of 8- inches by 12 inches and uses an inverted Woolf reverse gear. Note the smoke box door, which carries a depiction of Saint George the dragon slayer. This is possibly the only engine that survives with this door intact.

This spring, not really paying attention to what I was doing, I accidentally ran the wing of my cultivator into the grass along the edge of the field I was working. There was an old roll of barbed wire in there and it got wrapped around the wheel. By the time I noticed, it had wrapped around the wheel about a hundred times and was just a tangled mess. Getting off the tractor, I was mad as heck and wondered just who was the stupid so-and-so who had left that wire where I could snag it.

I soon realized it was going to take awhile to untangle this mess, and as my temper cooled I noticed there were three huge rocks on the edge of the field where I had hooked that wire. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn't hit one of those rocks, or I'd have wrecked my cultivator for sure.

Sitting there untangling the wire and looking at those rocks, I recalled a conversation I overheard when I was a kid. I remember my grandfather, my dad and my uncles talking about how my great-grandfather used blasting powder and his steam engine to pull rocks and stumps off the land he homesteaded.

The steam engine they were talking about is the same 1903 American-Abell that is in our museum warehouse. I started wondering what kind of equipment the fellow who had moved those rocks had used, and I figured he had probably used a tractor similar to what my great grandfather had.

Working here at the Reynolds-Alberta

A straw-burner, this American-Abell's boiler has a stepped crownsheet. The boiler barrel is 30 inches in diameter, with 38 two-inch boiler tubes running 96 inches. Its original rated working pressure was 120 psi.

Museum, I have had the opportunity to operate some of these antique machines, and I have stood on the deck and operated the controls of my great grandfather's tractor. In truth, it amazes me how slow, uncomfortable and awkward the old tractors are to use. I found myself wondering how long it would take to move these rocks, by the time you packed shovels and chains and blasting powder and ran out in the field at the top speed of two miles per hour, blasting the rocks out, then figuring out a way to wrap a chain around them so you could drag them off the field. I began to realize that just moving these rocks with that old equipment would have taken at least one whole day.

Darren Wiberg on the 1903 American-Abell, the same tractor his great-grandfather used to break the Canadian prairie. Rear wheels are 64 inches in diameter, 20 inches wide, while the fronts are 40 inches in diameter and 10 inches wide.

Now, if that fellow, whoever he was, hadn't moved these rocks, I wouldn't be able to farm that area of that field at all. And all of a sudden, I started feeling a little sheepish about some of the things I was thinking about the man who had cared for this land before me.

My thoughts turned to my great-grandfather and what possessed him to come out to the end of the world to start a farm where there was no power, no roads and acres and acres of uncultivated land. Pulling the last strands of wire from my cultivator, it occurred to me that in four generations my forefathers transformed this land from wilderness into one of the richest provinces in one of the richest countries in the world.

We have some unique and rare things here at our museum, but if you expect to see the crown jewels here you're probably going to be disappointed. However, when I look at one of these old steam tractors I see so much more than a collection of nuts, bolts and gears.

The exhibits at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum are not about moving rocks, building roads, moving freight or cultivating the land. In this museum, we celebrate the ordinary people with ordinary tools doing the extraordinary job of building this province. Would these machines mean so much anywhere else? Ordinary people, like my great grandfather, Deitrich Humbke, who owned the 1903 American-Abell Steam Engine, really are the 'Spirit of the Machine.'

As I sit here looking at my two-story tall, 250 HP, four-wheel drive tractor and 42-foot cultivator, I realize I can work more land in an hour than the fellow who moved these rocks could have done in a day. But I also realize how totally ineffective my modern machine would be if someone hadn't moved those rocks and prepared this land before me.

Working here at the museum, I celebrate the Spirit of the Machine, because how many provinces have been built with the crown jewels?

Steam enthusiast Darren Wiberg is the head of restoration services at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, P.O. Box 6360, Wetaskiwin, Alberta T9A 2G1 Canada, (800) 661-4726, or e-mail: ram@gov.ab.ca