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.
Life of a custom thresher
Louie was known to enjoy the occasional bottle of beer. "He would tie a wire on the bottle and drop it down in the water tank on the back of the steam engine to keep it cool," Ernie recalls. "When he wanted a drink he'd grab the wire and pull up the bottle." He also introduced a friendly wager into the custom threshing business. "They used to make bets with the farmer on how many bushels of grain they would produce," Ernie says. "The loser had to buy food and drinks for the whole crew."
In later years farmers complained about furnishing wood, coal and water for the steam engines. So, in 1929, Louie ordered a new Hart-Parr 28-50 and bought a Greyhound tractor from a local farmer. That way, he and Raymond could run two separate rigs through the busy harvest season.
The Hart-Parr was shipped by rail. Raymond drove the new tractor off the railroad car in Fostoria, Ohio, proceeding through town and over 15 miles of rural roads. On his arrival, the Hart-Parr was immediately put to work, powering a threshing machine. The family still owns the tractor; Steve got it running recently for the first time in 50 years.
Machinery put to work
Louie's machinery was rarely idle. Ernie remembers Louie taking the Hart-Parr to a nearby limestone quarry where it was used to pump water, preventing flooding. In the winter Louie used the tractor to power a sawmill in Rollersville, Ohio. And when a pump at the Gibsonburg water department failed, Louie showed up with a steam engine. He ran the engine 24 hours a day all winter to pump water for the town.
Raymond continued his custom threshing operation until 1953. In later years, Steve pestered him to buy a Baker gasoline tractor for his collection that ultimately numbered nearly 100 tractors. But Raymond wouldn't budge. "I don't want one," he said. "They drink too much fuel."
Raymond's collection contains just one non-Baker steam engine: a 6 hp Huber stationary steam engine converted to a traction model. "Dad was strictly a Baker man," says Steve. "He was probably the most knowledgeable person around on Baker engines and threshing machines." He never lost his love for the relics from the past. One of his final acquisitions was a Baker 23-90. "He knew it had a bad boiler," Steve says. "I think he bought it more for parts. Even when he was 85 years old, Dad was still planning on doing all this work." FC
For more information: Steve Fork, 17129 N. River Rd., Pemberville, OH 43450; (419) 287-4358; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don Voelker is a freelance photographer and writer in Fort Wayne, Ind., specializing in tractors, farm equipment, historic sites, museums, barns and covered bridges. View his work at www.voelkerphotography.com.