Steam or Gasoline?

article image

Old time threshing scene featuring a portable steam engine with a vertical boiler. (March 1929 issue of American Thresherman)

During the 1920s and ‘30s there was a huge debate among threshermen as to which power was the best to use on a separator—the old standby steam, or the increasingly popular gasoline and kerosene tractors. These two poems, submitted in 1929 to The American Thresherman magazine give the opposing points of view.

From the March issue is this gem by A.W. Erickson (home town not given, but the author must have threshed in the big wheat fields of the northwest) titled “Give Me the Big Steam Rig!”

You kin talk about yer tractors an’ yer little twenty-twos (small 22-inch threshers),
O’ yer small an nifty threshers thet air run by three men crews;
You kin sing about yer enjines thet air driv by gasoline
But I like to hear the chuggin’ o’ the ol’ time big machine!
Chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug!
As the forty-inch cylinder chews a tough and dampish slug!

Yes I love to hear the zoomin’ as the concaves rip the grain;
Hear the blower’s deep notes boomin’ like a basso’s rich refrain;
Hear the drive belt’s chipper rippin’ as it leaves the enjine’s wheel
In response to power impulse from the throbbin’ steed o’ steel!
Chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud!
Hear it talkin’ to the pitchers like a thing o’ flesh and blood!

Fifteen strappin’ husky pitchers form the backbone o’ the crew
With a separator tender an’ a water hauler too;
While the man who runs the enjine is the king-pin o’ the lot.
We must not forget the cook shack with its cook an’ coffee pot.
Chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug!
Both the cook and enjine driver have to keep their kettles hot!

Nineteen men to keep her busy an’ a boss to watch the clock
While a dozen pair o’ Normans strain at pullin’ in the shocks.
It’s a he-man aggregation that surrounds a big steam rig
An’ a starvin’ congregation if the cook takes on a swig!
Chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug!
Hear it cluckin’ like a rooster that has found a lady-bug!

Oh yer dirty an’ ye’r dusty an ye’r full o’ soot an’ grease,
An you’ve filled my rags with wheat beards till they burn like stingin’ fleas;
In the heat I’ve sweat an’ struggled tryin’ hard to fill yer maw,
But yer appetite’s o’erwhelmin’ when it comes to chewin’ straw!
Chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug!
Hear that blisterin’ black old boiler sayin’ “Slug, ye spikers, slug!”

In the evenin’ after supper when you gather roun’ the shack
Spinnin’ yarns about the threshin’ thet was done in years way back,
Tellin’ how the grain poured out until the only thing you’d see
Wuz the spring seat on the wagon an’ the lead team’s double-tree!
Chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud a chud!
Gee! Thet blamed old enjine snorted like a filly smellin’ blood!

As the stars begin to twinkle an’ you seek the bunk-tent rest,
You unroll a pack o’ blankets on the straw an’ make yer nest;
You relax the weary muscles an’ it seems yer very soul
Feels thet sense o’ satisfaction which is mankind’s richest goal!
Chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug a chug!
An’ you dream about the enjine and its rhythmic chug a chug!

Then in the June issue appeared a reply to Mr. Erickson’s paean to stem by an Iowa tractor user, Ralph Fidler. An editorial note by the magazine pointed out that “Rhymes such as these are not expressions of editorial views but are merely opinions of readers or voluntary contributors.”  The American Thresherman didn’t want to antagonize either of the two camps.

You can talk about your steamers, your water boys and all,
But the man with the tractor outfit is the one who hits the ball.

No getting up at four o’clock, and staying up ‘til ten,
For the lad with the tractor outfit is the one who saves his men.

When you shut down in the evening, you can feel like something’s done,
For the guy with the tractor outfit is the boy who gets the “mon.”

When the weather’s wet and stormy, with lots of wind and rain,
Take a little tractor outfit if you want to save your grain.

When the fields are soft and spongy, and steamers don’t dare to go,
Just take the tractor outfit to bring in plenty of dough.

Throw away the old coal shovel, fill up with kerosene,
For the tractor outfit owner doesn’t shovel to get up steam.

Just sit and hear her cackle, as she puts it in the truck;
The bird with the tractor outfit is sure to have good luck.

Just because our great grandfathers did their threshing with queer flails,
Why should we in tractor eras continue to split oak rails?

Now you may think that I’m goofey, and telling you things not so,
But I have tended both outfits and I think I ought to know.

So we’ll close this chat, but meanwhile keep this fact well in your mind.
The chap with the tractor outfit will never get far behind.

Mr. Fidler had a much more practical and less romantic notion of the threshing business than Mr. Erickson, plus he wasn’t nearly as skilful as a poet, but the debate raged on.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment