Nestled among the overgrown weeds, behind an old weather-beaten barn on one of Michigan's centennial farms, lay a treasure that only collectors of rusty iron would ever spot - a huge, silver-gray Nagel steam boiler engine that had been long forgotten by its owners and those who ran it.
The engine is an example of why collecting can mean so much, telling not only its own story, but a story of early 20th century America. The history behind this old engine tells of the 'greatest generation' and the promise of success that living in America would bring to those who chose to work hard and live frugally. This piece of machinery was purchased by the Michigan Flywheelers Museum of South Haven in the summer of 1999. Because it was such an important part of southwest Michigan, documenting its history has been a project of museum president Pat Ingalls of Bangor who interviewed many of the people whose life stories were inextricably linked to this engine's past.
About 1936, local farmer George Wallace of Lawrence, Mich., set up a box making factory north of Lawrence that was run by a steam traction engine. George also owned the local sawmill so was no stranger to being a businessman.
The factory, which made boxes for strawberries, crates and bushel crates, was soon moved to George's farm about 1936 or 1937. No reason was known for the move. The Nagel steam engine that was found behind the barn, was purchased from a local paper mill located less than 20 miles away in small neighboring town named Watervliet. The engine, which weighed about 1,000 lbs., was a 130 hp engine with a 22-inch stroke, a 12-inch bore and an impressive 5 foot flywheel. The boiler that created steam for the engine, came north from the furniture town of Grand Rapids by train. The nearest depot was in Bangor, north of Lawrence. From there, the boiler had to be taken to George's farm. The man hired to do this enormous job was Roy Markup. Roy used wooden wagons and horses to move the boiler and apparently had only one breakdown during the long, difficult trip.
The factory, which became 'George Wallace & Son Fruit Boxes', was a small family-run business that employed several neighbors. It ran during the spring, summer and fall from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day. Workers earned an one hour lunch break. A local store, Root's Grocery, would come out to the factory each day to sell lunch items to the hungry workmen. Lunchtime and quitting time were signaled by the powerful blast of the steam whistle which could be heard all the way into Lawrence. When production was in full swing, approximately 400 boxes could be made in a day. The factory would shut down in November unless there were special orders for wooden boxes.
George was born on October 29, 1879 on the Wallace farm. One of fourteen children, he married Edna Hinckley, also on October 29th but in the year of 1898 at the ripe old age of nineteen. After taking over the farm from his parents, Seymour and Frances, George and Edna produced three children: Neva, Clark and Frances. George kept busy by doing threshing and other custom work in the area. He was involved in community groups - the Odd Fellows and Modern Woodsman - and was often seen driving his Auburn car around town. Former employee Bert Delong of Lawrence (now deceased) worked for Wallace for many years tending the boiler. One of the interesting facts that Delong remembered about his boss was that he only had stubs for fingers on his right hand except for his thumb.
Delong retired from the box factory which was by then managed by George's son, Clark. Among the many duties that Bert had was to keep the boiler's steam pressure in an acceptable range. Firing the boiler meant adding slab wood or sawdust to the fire box. The operator was also responsible for keeping the water level above the boiler tubes and lubricating the steam engine. Bert fondly remembered receiving an impressive Buliva self-winding watch from Clark at his retirement dinner.
Equipment at the business included a head saw, planner, splitting saw, cut-off saw, log peeler, corner saw, basket nailer and staples. The Nagel engine powered a line shaft into the family barn by using an eight-inch flat belt. Flat belts were used to run all the machinery. For small orders, workers would hook up a 15-30 International Harvester tractor instead of the Nagel. The peeler could also be powered by a 85 hp Ford flathead engine. White wood was used to make the fruit boxes while elm was used for crates. The logs were steamed in a concrete tank that received heat from the steam engine exhaust and were then peeled, revealing the virgin wood.
Irwin Guernsey and his wife Eva, of Lawrence, Michigan, remember working at the factory as teenagers. Irwin, now 78, thought he started at the mill in about '35 or '36. They both worked evenings assembling boxes at the Wallace's house. Irwin's brother Warren, also worked at the mill. They chuckle when they tell the story about a chicken that got tangled up in the gang saw while they were working. As the feathers and blood flew all over the place, workers became alarmed when they saw Evelyn (Clark's wife) covered in chicken blood. They thought that she had been hurt. Irwin did lose an eye while working for Wallace. He hired an attorney and sued for damages, but says that the lawyer took most of the money.
Warren, who lives in nearby Bangor, use to help Irwin cut logs for the factory, using a cross saw. They also had an uncle named Frank who was employed there. Warren remembers making $8.10 a day and working 10 hours a day and six days a week. He left in 1941 to join the service.
Despite having many local customers such as Sugars Strawberry Farm in Hartford, Emmerts in Bangor, the Hartford Fruit Exchange and an outlet in Keeler, the box factory stopped operation about 1955 as the demand for wooden crates and boxes was replaced with the newer and more popular paper and plastic products. Bob Delong, Bert's grandson, hired in when he was 14 years old. He thought the factory quit production due to the dwindling number of strawberry farms and rising insurance costs. One of the many tasks that Bob was required to do besides sweep the floor, was to shovel sawdust and chips into the boiler. Paid 25 c per hour, Bob used a potato fork to do this and had to go outside to gather the wooden chips that were thrown there by the planner. He remembers Clark as a good man to work for and who made good money making fruit boxes.
Clark Wallace died in 1996. He and his wife Evelyn had two children, Rheta and Robert. When Clark took over management of the farm factory, they started a crate mill and saw mill as well. Robert and his wife, Clara, moved into the old house on 46th Street upon the death of his grandmother, Edna. They kept the Nagel engine until selling it to the museum. The engine at this point, has a cracked head which apparently happened by high steam pressure. The remaining pieces of equipment were sold to a Riverside box factory which is still in business. The engine is being restored by the volunteers at the museum.
Information for this story about the Nagel engine and the box factory was taken from interviews and the 'History of Van Buren County', 1912 & 1982. Plans for the engine after restoration, are to use it in a permanent crate and box-making display for demonstration purposes. The non-profit museum is located at 06285 68th Street, South Haven, Mich; (616) 639-2010; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Ingalls lives and works in Bangor, Mich.