Thirty Years At The Throttle

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Maxwell, Iowa 50161

Work finished at Koester's, Sam and I settled down on our claims and after a not too bad winter, I went to work for Chas. Creighton near Colome, running a new Case, two cylinder tractor, one of their first, number three hundred as I recall. He had contracted to plow a lot of old ground east of town and we could pull four plows in it easily. We lived in a tent and did our own cooking, as simple as possible, but we were so hungry after a half-day run, we were not too particular what we ate. only wanted plenty. The work was not bad as we took turns driving and tending plows. The worst part was cranking the big two cylinder, direct opposed motor, as it had a low tension magneto and batteries to start on. When brought up on compression, if allowed to rock back, the mag points would open causing a kick back and if one didn't dodge the long, heavy crank, he got a knot on his head. We found by both of us on the crank and by holding onto the driver, we could pull it over center and get going. It was quite a spring's work with many exciting experiences.

The new settlement around Colome was ready for their first threshing run that fall and as Harry Monroe and Charlie owned a Gaar-Scott rig in Chas Mix County, east of the Missouri River, we had it shipped to Dallas but the freight was so much more than we expected, we had to turn our pockets inside out to raise the money, leaving us nothing to buy food and lodging. We had brought some food with us so we made out all right that day, unloaded and were all set to move the next day so we slept in an empty shed that night and early morning started home.

From here on unfolds a tale of hunger, hard work and hardships as bad as I can remember. After several hours of slow progress, getting in and our of sand holes, the freight agent drove out from town with a hired livery team to tell us he had made a mistake on the bill so we owed him $20 more. Tired and hungry as we were, it didn't take long to tell him he could tie up out on the prairie and whistle for his pay or let us go on to the settlement where we could earn the money. He let us go on.

When about half-way home, we made a lucky decision that avoided worry later on. At one corner we could go a mile west, then south, or a mile south, then west; so we decided to go south on account of sand holes. Half way on the west road, a new barn was just finished that day and a lot of farm implements stored. During the night the barn burned, cause not known, but if we had passed they would naturally have thought we threw a spark causing it. That evening, tired and hungry, we came to a school house, locked, but I picked the lock with a wire and after trying without much success to roast some field corn roasting ears in the firebox (they had a decidely coal smoke flavor) we retired on the 'hard pine' floor. Mid afternoon found us near my sister's farm, so leaving Harry to keep coming, I burst in on Sis, telling her I was starving, so as she had just removed a baking of bread from the oven, she cut off a thick slice and put a generous quantity of butter and choke cherry jelly on it and prepared another for Harry. I took it to him and both of us agreed nothing ever tasted better. We found two large stacks of oats ready and from then on we kept Gaar-Scott number 10796 busy in the belt or on the road all fall and had many experiences, some amusing, some not so funny. At one farmer's place we arrived just after noon. He had gone that morning for groceries and had stopped at the saloon for a glass of beer, but met so many friends he didn't get back until after dark, but his neighbors did the threshing for him any way.

I spent the night at my sister's, which was near, and next morning I fired up. No signs of life in the house so I blew the whistle but still no stir, so I just blew 'off brakes' and pulled to the next job for breakfast, arriving just in time. To make it more enjoyable they had a very pretty blond daughter who proved to me the truth of the old saying 'Pride goeth before a fall', and this is how it happened. A two-wheeled tender had wheels controlled by rods attached to the front axle on the engine so one could back up or go any way. Taking off the governor belt I made a flying switch all but backing up to the separator when one of the guide rods broke. It spoiled the show and reminded me of what the old Swede I ran an engine for would say when the crew started scuffling, 'I tont like tat darned boy play.' This tender could have caused a fatal accident. Harry's wife and sister would drive the little mule team, hitched to a top buggy, out to see us every day so in case we needed supplies they could get them for us and this day they had driven up behind the tender and called us to come help eat. a water mellon. I put in an extra shovel of coal and upon finishing the mellon, the girls started to drive away while I had started around the tender when the wind, which had risen, blew the drive belt off on the inside of the flywheel, setting the clutch, tearing the belt in two and the engine came backing up several feet before I reached the throttle. If the team had still been headed up to the tender, they would doubtless have cramped the buggy around, overturning it, and the girls would have quite likely been run over. However, the torn belt was a problem as we were still financially embarrassed and had no lace leather. I had heard that striped bed ticking made satisfactory lacing so we tried it and it ran all fall. Another time a small hole came in the body of the steam blower valve on the live steam side wasting a lot of steam but I made out until night. Then I placed a small can around the base of the valve and filled it with lead.

While the engine was on the train at Bonesteel, a girl had written Miss Nina White on the smokestack, so we called the engine 'Nina.' To show what can be done in a pinch, one evening we were pulling in between stacks when three teeth broke out of the right bull pinion and upon removing it that night, we took it to a country blacksmith shop and we drilled and tapped three three-quarter holes at each broken tooth. Threading rods to fit, we cut them the same length as the teeth, rounded the ends and got along until a new pinion arrived from Freemont.

Being the first threshers there the women seemed to try to outdo each other in cooking, with roast and fried chicken, roast beef and fresh meats when obtainable, pie and cake and always a lunch in forenoon and afternoon, especially among the Scandinavians and Germans.

On one job the Russian farmer declared he would keep us only one night so we would have to finish his big job in one day. He called us about three o'clock and while at breakfast he said, 'Wife' you must have killed . all the roosters for the threshers as I don't hear any crowing.' I said, 'They don't crow until about morning, do they?' About this time the water monkey came down stairs with his suitcase and when asked where he was going he said, 'Over to Frescolns to say all night.' That was where we threshed yesterday.

We had a little flue trouble since pulling out of sand holes made them leak for a while. One time we had a steep bank to climb for about three rods. I raised steam until the safety started it's warning fizz so putting reverse in corner of quadrant out of the notches, we made it just about to the top when the clutch started slipping. So bracing my hip against the long, horizontal clutch lever, we made the grade.

The crank disc on this engine had cracked from crank pin hole out through the rim, but some blacksmith had shrunk a band like a wagon tire around it so it caused no trouble. This Gaar-Scott was Number 10796 and fifteen years later in Iowa, I found a sister engine Number 10798, just two numbers different, perhaps built the same day.

Proving up on my claim that fall, I came back to Iowa where I was to continue engineering for some time but in quite a different line of work.

The next spring, Bob Mc Quern, my old employer, took a grading contract and bought an Emerson Brantingham 'Big Four' tractor and two Adams 'Leaning Wheel' graders, A ten and a twelve foot, and hired me as engineer and my cousin as one grader man while he took one himself. That summer was a very rainy one so we averaged about three-fourth time, but we did well when we could work, as we pulled one grader on a fifty foot cable and so could work both sides of the road at once. The tractor was three speed but with those heavy graders, we had to use low except in finishing a grade and smoothing up or dead heading.

To keep down pre-ignition we had a Bennet water feed carburetor which we needed as we burned gasoline and kerosene, mixed, which was plenty volatile for our heavy work. Gasoline cost then ten cents a gallon and kerosene five, I think, or four and one half. The motor had no oil pressure gauge, so we were told to hold a bright tool, a wrench or pair of pliers, to an open compression relief cock and see if a film of oil collected. Another weak place we found was the counter shaft support. It was held to the frame by two big bearing caps bolted to the underside of the frame and when pulling it was all right, but in reverse the pull was down, causing the ears to break off the cap and we broke two sets at $30 each cap before we gave up trying to move a load in reverse. I don't know why the company, or we, didn't under truss the cap. Then it would have held.

When July 4th came, Bob asked us if we would work that day, so as we had lost so much time, we told him we would although we wanted to celebrate. That night it rained so we were glad we had promised to work. We had signs up 'Road under Construction' but the public used it any way, with some accidents. One old gentleman started around us, unnoticed by me, and his team shied up on the bank, overturning the buggy and dumping him out. Then the team ran about a hundred yards where they stradled a telephone pole, breaking up a lot of things and causing the old gentleman to recall a lot of his boyhood profanity, which he promptly recited.

One day a fat girl and two small boys rolled down the same bank but they just laughed.

One morning I was having trouble getting started, had cranked and cranked, when just across the fence a farmer was just passing cutting oats with a four-horse team. Just as he was even with us and unnoticed, the tractor started with a bang and roar and away went the team. The farmer was game as he held onto the lines with one the seat with the other until reaching the barn, forty rods away. I was sorry to have caused the trouble. The big motor was rather hard to start as it had a K.W. magneto with no impulse on it so we had to turn it fast enough by quarter turns to make a spark by placing one foot on the crank and throwing one's weight on it. An impulse mag would have helped a lot. Priming cups over the intake valves didn't seem to help, but removing the spark plugs and pouring in gas often would get results when all else failed.

After finishing the contract, Bob sold the tractor so I loaded it and shipped it North. That fall I took the Gaar-Scott and pulled Garners sawmill on Squaw Creek, where one day we hit a railroad spike, buried in a limb-log far above the ground and were puzzled to know why until an old timer told us that when just a small boy, he was with a party of 'coon hunters when they treed a 'coon in the big elm and being near the railroad, they brought spikes from where the section crew were repairing track and made a ladder with them, intending to remove them but in the dark must have missed one, which grew from sight during the passing years.

Finishing that set Jesse and I decided to trade for a used Avery under mounted which we did. But when unloading it I found it popped off at a hundred pounds and knowing that was no good for those two small cylinders, I asked the man who came to help unload about it and he said they were overhauling an old Frick at the time they were repairing the Avery and got the valves exchanged, so I told him he had better find the buyer of that Frick before he blew himself up. Seeing that story wouldn't stick, he said they broke the original valve and bought a new one and as is was at one hundred pounds, they didn't change it. I tried in vain to talk Jesse out of signing for it, so we unloaded and found we couldn't keep it in coal and water so we traded it for a new 18 H.P. Aultman Taylor.

Starting as sawyer for Garner, with his Frick mill pulled by Chet Halls 16 H.P. Rumley with him as engineer, I liked the clean work although rather a cold job in winter, and it could have finished me one day owing to my own carelessness. We had the engine housed in while the saw was out in the open, so one noon after finishing eating, I went out to file the saw leaving a few farmers and the rest in the cook shack. I always hooked one leg up over the saw to hold the blade more steady. I had filed only a few teeth when the blade turned so it raised up about a foot where I rolled off wondering what happened, when out of the shed came a farmer who said he wondered what would happen if he moved that lever, the reverse, which he did but there was just enough steam in the steam chest and pipe to turn the saw a little. My first thought was to go after that farmer with a hand spike, but when I saw he was as badly scared as I was, I told him he had taught me a lesson. Now I always shut the dome valve after that.

One day the governor belt broke and it took Chet so by surprise the engine went on a tear. The saw was jumping up and down so Bill got scared and started running up the roll way. With coat-tail sticking straight out, his feet were slipping so he was like a squirrel in a wheel, working hard but not going any place. Another time I started the carriage toward the saw and leaned over the big lever to brush some snow off the figures on the head block when my double pair of mittens hooked over the pointer so it was taking me toward the saw. Pulling loose the mitten chafed up the back of my hand but better than sawing it off.

The next summer we started at threshing time with the new Aultman Taylor but had only a short time run when all at once there was a loud 'bump, bump, bump,' in the cylinder and when I shut off the steam, she stopped on back center, locked tight. Removing the cylinder head we found a slug of cast we estimated was the right size to have come from the back port which had dropped out of sight and lodged for a time midway down until working loose. It sprung the main shaft in the pillow block bearing, causing us to have to change it later, a big job in the field, although the company furnished the repairs at no charge.

That fall Bud Harris had bought a new Case and we both wanted the same run near Osceola. Jesse and I started the ten-mile pull at night with the tank wagon tied on behind the separator, and after four or five miles we found it had come loose so we had to dead head back and get it but luckily it didn't upset. Bud had some trouble with boiler foaming from something in the boiler, but we had no trouble. A small leak along the main seam the smoke box fizzed for awhile but soon limed up. This engine had the smoothest clutch I ever used and the cross head pump was fine as I put a globe valve and hose between pump and boiler so I could let the pump run full time and shunt excess water back to the tank, and that way the pump was always cool so packing lasted all fall. A weak place was some coil springs in the drive wheels to take shock off the gears, but pulling some hedge compressed the springs so they did not return to full length but caused no trouble.

When our run was over I went to North Dakota again, but had to take a job firing a big Reeves, simple, double with a big Swede engineer, name of Ole, who was long on strength but short on judgment. He twisted off many bolts and studs. One day the one that held the hand hole plate in the smoke box. He came rushing back telling me to not fire any more so he shut down and after he had it in place, he made me tighten it for fear he would do it again.

One day while oiling the main bearing next to the flywheel with an old coffee pot of oil, the flywheel knocked the pot out of his hand and it disappeared. I finally told him it was in the wheel, held by centrifugal force and when he stopped to look out for it, it might come out fast. When he shut down it did, but didn't happen to hit or break anything.

An earlier hail storm shortened this run, so I went farther west and went to spike pitching on another job on a Minneapolis. On finishing this job, the other spiker and I rode the separator the several miles home just for fun, putting out sparks, but when we arrived the boss gave us a half-day's pay, as he said, for helping get the machine home.

Going back to Newburg I hired out to run a 16 horse Fairbanks Morse gasoline engine in a mill pulling a roller feed grinder. The engine was a 'Match Head Starter'. An old redhead match was placed in a tube on the end of a plunger. Engine was held on center while a charge of gas and air was pumped up, then as the engine was turned off center, the plunger was hit a sharp blow with the hand, igniting the match and if all went well you were started.

That fall, while drilling a deep well near Newburg, the drill hit gas, blowing the drill out of the hole and mud and rocks flew high in the air. Finally getting capped, a gauge showed one hundred pound pressure, so it was piped into West hope, several miles north but it soon failed so the next year a big drill rig came and after going down several hundred feet, they pulled out but several years later oil was struck there and it's a big field today.

Coming back to Iowa I realized the steam days were about over, so I decided to go to a school to finish learning telegraphy which I had partly learned, or to take up auto repair which was coming on fast. The flip of a coin said auto mechanic so I attended Allen's Auto School in Des Moines and upon finishing the course, I went to work for Jesse Living good in Osceola where I worked for six years for different garages, the last one the Frederick Garage where I was shop foreman, and there hired a mechanic who was destined to later be my partner.

One day Wes Miller came to the shop and said they were having trouble with their eighteen horse power Huber, a twelve-year-old job, so they talked the boss into letting me run a few days for them. Going out I had things going fine when one day, having just finished a very tough job of timothy and while moving, we were pulling up a very gentle slope when at once the connecting rod broke in two about the middle, letting the piston knock out cylinder head and tearing off cross head pump and throwing cross head piston rod and all up in front of the engine. Upon examination I found the rod, where it broke, to consist of alternate layers of steel and charcoal, about one-eighth thick, weaking the rod so it finally failed. Upon writing the company, I received a letter saying as the machine had been out twelve years, they didn't feel they should replace it at no charge. Not being satisfied, I wrapped the broken rod and sent it to them for examination, telling them if they could honestly say this piece of metal should have been installed, especially in this important place, I would pay for all parts. Soon came a letter saying the part was defective and new parts were being shipped, no charge. I do not know why a lathe man would finish a piece if metal like that.

This ended my traction engine work for some time, only flue work, valve setting', etc. Back of the garage where I worked was a steam laundry with a big horizontal, bricked in boiler and every so often, a hole would come in the end of a flue, so several Saturday nights I had to crawl over the fire bridge to the back where I had about eighteen inches space to cut off the flue, then drive and pull it out the back.

About this time my steady girl and I decided we had enough saved up to start housekeeping, so securing a three-days' leave from the garage we were married June 21, 1916. As I was only earning $12 a week at that time, we had to use some of wife's saving to get started, but as bread was five cents a loaf and we could buy enough beef steak for a meal for ten cents, we made out all right until shortly I received a substantial raise.

Hearing of a garage for sale in Truro, my friend and I bought the place, but while the deal was going through, I quit the Osceola garage and broke in a new C. L. Best tractor pulling an elevator grader on Highway 34 in Mills County. It was my first crawler-type tractor and one of the first put out by Best.

Before leaving Osceola I sold my big I. H. C. Mogul that we had used grading roads and moved to Truro, where about my last boiler repair was beading the stay bolts on a Nichols & Shepard and also babbited a blower bearing on the separator.

In 1926 we took the agency for International Machinery, the 10-20 tractor had just come out so we made it tough for Fordsons and Sampsons as we had so much more power. We bought a twenty-two inch Red River Special Jr. separator and used it three seasons. Later my partner and I bought a 32 x 54 Case separator and pulled it with his cross mounted Case tractor for two seasons and that ended my owning any more threshing machines.

In the spring of 1945 as the gas in the garage had about got me down, we decided to shut up the shop and spend the summer in Minong, Wisconsin and just rest, but after a month in the open I felt so much better that I stumbled into another engineer job. A man in town had a sawmill and lumber yard but, on account of the war, could not find any one to run the engine. One day my neighbor told him I was an old engineer so that evening he was right over to see me and when I told him I hadn't run an engine for nineteen years, he just laughed and said I hadn't forgot how, so I looked the mill over and as they had a saw and gas engine to cut fuel to fire with, besides planer shavings, and a pump driven from an extra pulley on the engine, I took the job and worked all summer and the boss said I saved his life. The drive belt extended out front to the saw and when using the planer, we ran the belt over a roller on top of the rear wheel, the planer being the same distance as the saw. When planning he controlled power by a long wooden slat bolted to the throttle. As he was always tinkering with the little belts on the planer, I was afraid he would get caught by one so I had planned how to shove the pole in while standing on the ground. One day the belt to the saw needed tightening. He started to back up while I put a block in front of the wheel, but the engine stopped on center. He partially closed the throttle and climbing up turned the flywheel. I was down holding the block but hearing one exhaust, I knew what had happened so leaping up I jammed the pole hard shutting off the steam. The belt had caught him, lifting him up, so I ran around in time to catch him and ease him down, but it broke his big toe on one foot and bruised him up considerably.

After a two-weeks layoff we went back to work and a neighbor boy and his two sisters started coming to the mill about every day. One frail little girl, eight years old, took a surprising interest in the engine, watching me fire and wanting to help, she would take the scoop and gather chips and scraps of bark for me to put in the fire. She wanted to know what that glass with water in it was for and I told her that was so the engine would not blow up and if she ever saw it empty to run home. After we came home she wrote and said the man that took my place kept water in it too. One day I was using the cut-off saw to square up some boards and turned around to see Dorothy trying to remove a piece of wood right by the saw teeth. I pulled her away from the saw and showed her how a piece of bark could be cut off by the teeth when you could hardly see them. She didn't bother it again.

As the winter cuttings of logs were about sawed up, we decided we had better open our own garage again, so it was with regret that I closed the throttle on the Case for the last time and, incidentally, closing the book on my active career as engineer.

As I look back over the long years, I will be seventy-nine come September fifth and by the way, I was on an engine seven birthdays in a row from 1907 on. With the new stronger metals, increased steam pressures, condensers and gears running in oil, it seems just as they learned how to build an efficient engine the curtain fell.

Joining the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association, Inc., I attended the reunions each fall. One year firing a Geiser and another year driving a Case around the half-mile race track in front of the grandstand. I also attended Neil Miller's show at Alden where I had the pleasure of driving an Aultman Taylor like the one we bought in 1914. At one show I noticed an old fellow trying to start an injector, so I said, 'It may be too hot; let's put some water higher than it is.' We filled a bucket and set it up high, then steam blew back into the bucket, so I asked him if he had taken the unit apart and he said he had soaked the parts in weak acid to remove lime. I sent him to look in the bath. Soon he returned with the steam jet and with it replaced, it worked perfectly.

One thing gave the gas tractor the advantage in the past was the coal and water trouble. As the farmer usually burned wood, he disliked having coal left after threshing and there was nothing more aggravating than to start doing chores at night, finding gates open, stock scattered and water tanks dry. Later on a small truck, with coal bunker and water tank could have furnished clean water if having had to be hauled several miles.

The lack of a power takeoff also limited the use of the steam tractor and instead of an old smokey lantern to move by or check steam and water, how easy one could have installed a car generator and storage battery, had they been available.

Well, friends, I could go on and on writing of happenings that caused an engineer to give fifty horsepower one day, and half as much the next owing to unfavorable conditions. But unless the one who reads this has stood behind a throttle, with the responsibility of watching out for the safety of those at the machine he is powering, the constant attention that must be given the water level, steam pressure, bearings and all the various things vital to safe, economical operation, it would be drab reading, but to you who have experienced some of the things I have mentioned, I hereby dedicate this narrative.