1511 Iglehart, St. Paul, Minn. 55104.
Recently I enjoyed an interesting chat with Mr. Ralph C. Truax of 2214 Marshall Avenue, St. Paul, 55104.
Mr. Truax who is a retired machinist, told me some of his experiences with steam engines and as a steam engineer.
When, as a young man, he came out of machinist training, he found jobs were hard to get. As he tells it, 'machinists were a dime a dozen.'
It was in 1914 when he began his steam career by taking a job running a stationary engine in a coal mine power plant at Noonan, North Dakota near the Montana, Canadian Borders. At that time, engineers did not need a license; however, he was licensed.
In his spare time, he did repair work on steam traction engines. He recalled an instance while he was running a steam traction engine, threshing. He was asked by the owner of a Case engine, to see if he could locate a pound or knock in it. He found the piston loose on the rod. He repaired it for the owner.
On another occasion, the valve seat became loose on the governor and dropped into the steam chest; however, it failed to break anything.
The first traction engine he operated was a Huber of either 25 or 27 H. P., fired with straw. It was an easy steamer and trouble free, except for a time when the check valve leaked between the injector and the boiler, causing the injector to get hot and quit working. By pouring water on it, he could cool the injector enough so that water would enter the boiler. A new check valve solved the problem.
One of the big obstacles in the way of successful threshing in some localities in North Dakota, was the alkali content in the water. It caused the boilers to foam, while water sprayed out of the smoke stack in a heavy mist. If the operator was burning coal, the mist would be black as ink.
When a boiler foamed, the engine was stopped, and the boilers had to be cleaned every day. Some makes of engines were bothered more by alkali than others.
Two twenty-two barrel tanks, each drawn by four horses, furnished the water supply.
Life on a threshing crew in North Dakota was rugged to say the least. Although the men were fed well three times a day at what was known as the cook shack, they slept in barns, straw stacks or on the ground.
In one instance the crew had just bedded down in a barn, when the farmer drove in a flock of geese.
Threshing started at 6:30 in the morning and the big Advance separator was well-supplied with grain bundles by the haulers and spike pitchers. Farmers hauled the threshed grain from the machine with four horse teams on grain tanks. As the days became shorter, they threshed in the evening by car light.
Sunday was just another day; threshing kept on. If it rained, the men could rest, but the engineer and separator man would catch up on repair jobs. The boss would drive his car to town and return with liquor. Some of the men would drink too much, but it was his way of keeping the crew together so threshing could resume when the grain was dry again.
Mr. Truax recalls that the fireman on the Huber, refused to get up at four o'clock in the morning to fire up. So he himself had to fire up the engine every morning in time to have steam-up.
One frosty October morning, he mounted a saddle pony and rode to the rig which was a mile and a half across a stubble field from the farm buildings. He arrived at the engine and in due time had plenty of steam.
As he rode the pony away from the engine he soon found that he was lost. He could see the lights of two towns, both miles away. One was Wild Rose and the other was Noonan. Then he heard a sound he knew well. The safety valve on the engine leaked and he had circled back to it. He came back to the engine three times, then he decided to let the pony have his way and with the reins loose, he soon saw the farm buildings come into view. Without the pony he could have been in real trouble. It's an experience he will never forget.