Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

| April 2001

  • FC_V3_I09_Apr_2001_11-2.jpg
    The Nagel engine weighs 1,000 lbs., pushes 130 hp with a 22-inch stroke
  • FC_V3_I09_Apr_2001_11-1.jpg
    The Nagel engine, discovered behind a barn, in its natural state.

  • FC_V3_I09_Apr_2001_11-2.jpg
  • FC_V3_I09_Apr_2001_11-1.jpg

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.

Dwight Lanning
3/31/2009 12:48:43 PM

I have a Nagel horizontal steam engine w/a 5 inch bore that looks like a small version of this engine. It was/is red similar to the "original" picture. I don't remember any gray on it anywhere (and I don't see any "silver-grey on this one). Kim says the head was probably cracked by steam pressure but I would think a more likely cause was ice from letting the head get filled with water. I have seen this happen many times. After it cracks, you don't have to worry about it getting filled up again.


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