Thresherman Used Baker Steam Engines

Ohio family keeps steam era memories alive with steam engines from A.D. Baker Company.

| November 2008

Born in 1916, Raymond Fork witnessed the transition from steam traction engines to gas-powered tractors. A second-generation thresherman, he never lost his love for the old ways. "Dad was the last of the steam people, the end of an era," says his son, Steve Fork, Pemberville, Ohio. "He always said, 'I am an old man, I live in an old house, I drive an old car, and I like my old steam engines and tractors.'"

Raymond, who died in early 2008, was the son of a steam engineer and grew up in a world now nearly unimaginable. But tales of that era live on through his son. Steve soaked up his family's heritage, which included close connections to the A.D. Baker Co., manufacturer of steam traction engines in Swanton, Ohio.

Raymond's father, Louis "Louie" Fork, began working as a custom thresher as a teenager in the early 1900s, working for more than 200 customers in a 10-square-mile area near Gibsonburg, Ohio. At about age 10, Raymond joined the crew and learned to run the threshing machines and steam engines. Louie used Baker steam engines; early on he had an 18 hp counterflow steam engine. In 1923 he bought a new 21-75 Uniflow engine from A.D. Baker; the family still owns that engine.

Father and son formed a two-man crew, taking care of the steam engine and threshing machine. The farmer was expected to haul the bundles to the threshing machine and a neighbor or two might help - sometimes under the watchful eye of the founder of the Baker company. "A.D. Baker would come out to the farm while they were threshing," Steve says, "and watch the steam engine and the threshing machine work."

Louie and A.D. were close friends, and Louie bought most of his engines and machinery from the Baker company. When he needed parts, he'd take off in his Model T truck at the end of the workday and drive more than 30 miles to Baker's home in Swanton, sometimes arriving so late that Baker had already gone to bed. Wakened by pounding on the door, A.D. would get out of bed and cross the street to his factory, get the part and record the transaction on a scrap of paper he then tossed on a desk awash with other papers. In a couple of months a bill would come in the mail. "My dad was 12 or 14 years old at the time," Steve says. "He never could figure out how A.D. kept track of it all."

During harvest, days were long. One time, for instance, Louie decided to move his rig to a new field for the next day's work even though the sun had set. Using a kerosene lantern for light, he set out. As he rounded a corner with the steam engine and a Baker 33-56 thresher, the thresher's back wheel went off the road and the machine rolled over. The next day Louie used a borrowed wrecker and a couple of teams of horses to extricate the thresher. "It only had minor damage," recalls Ernie Fork, Raymond's brother. "A bent pulley, I think." Another incident looms equally large in Ernie's memory: the day when the straw stack caught on fire while the crew was threshing with a steam engine. "We all had to work to put it out," he says.