Best Steam Traction Engine and Best Harvester

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The harvester during renovation, about a year ago. In 1907, the "Century" harvester/steamer package, complete with a 110 hp traction engine, harvester and water wagon, sold for $8,300. As a point of comparison, gasoline sold then for about 3 cents a gallon.
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Detail of lettering on the renovated harvester.
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The harvester has a 38-inch cylinder, 54-inch separator shoe, and a 25-foot header. The harvester is 22 feet wide, 19 feet tall, and 38 feet long. It's currently powered by a four-cylinder gas engine; the second oldest Best engine known of. It's serial number 55; built in 1912.
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1906 Best Steam Traction Engine's wheels are eight feet in diameter, and five feet wide. The Best weighs 11 tons.
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The first step in restoring the harvester? Disassembly, then sandblasting with walnut shells.
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A crew of volunteers at work on the header.

Two giants will heave open a window to the past this June. The two – a 1906 Best Steam Traction Engine, pulling a 1907 Best Steam Combined Harvester – will be put through their paces in a California wheat field.

Organizers of the Bygone Farming Days Show, or the Best Show, (Held each summer in Woodland, Calif.) plan to illustrate the complete cycle of food production.

“We hope to take the grain they harvest, run it through the grist mill, make flour, use that to make bread-sticks, and bake them in a pueblo oven,” says Lorry Dunning, historical consultant for the Golden State Farm Education Center. “And we may even churn butter for the bread. A lot of people just don’t know where their food and fiber comes from.”

An admirable undertaking, to be sure. But even the aroma of baking bread will offer little distraction for those watching the two giants lumber back to life. Just two Best steam traction engines with agricultural wheels are known of; the other one is not operational. And the ’07 Best Harvester? No others – in any condition – are known of.

The Best Harvester is a relic from an era long since passed. But as recently as the late 1950s, it was a working part of a California farm operation.

McClellan Lovelace, who farmed in the Tulare Lake Basin, was the original owner of the harvester. Detailed records have been hard to come by, but Dunning believes Lovelace purchased the harvester about 1907, and continued using it until 1958.

“That’s quite late,” he says. “But that’s the way these farmers operated: If you got it, use it.”

After the harvester was retired, it was kept under cover until about 10 or 15 years ago. Later, storm damage to the building housing it resulted in deterioration. When the harvester was donated to the Joseph A. Heidrick Sr. Foundation in 1998, volunteer restorers had their hands full.

Almost every step of the harvester’s restoration has presented unique challenges. Take re-building the harvester’s 25-foot header.

“When we looked at a core sample of the existing beam,” Dunning says, “we knew we had to have old growth lumber, and it had to be 25 feet long. Well, that’s not standard material today. In the old beams, there was not a single knot in them, and the growth ring count was 18 rings/inch. You almost had to have a magnifying glass to see the rings. The new logs have 12 rings/inch. We’re really ashamed to paint the header because the wood’s so beautiful.”

Soper Wheeler lumber company donated timbers, presenting the next challenge.

“We had a 20-foot saw, and needed 25-foot lumber,” Dunning recalls. “But the Wood-Mizer saw company loaned us a 10-foot extension to put on the saw.”

Industrial standardization in the last 75 years made replacement of some elements all but impossible.

“The harvester has a lot of roller chain to run the mechanisms,” Dunning says. “So, we took it all off, and thought we’d just buy new chains. Well, that size of chain no longer exists. There’s five chains, each one 10 or 12 feet long. I had to take my torch, take each chain link apart, hand-brush them to remove the rust, drill out all the links and rollers, then reassemble it all. It took three days to do one chain.”

Then there were the finishing touches. The harvester has been completely painted – hand-brushed – by volunteers.

“It’s soaking in like water. We’ve used 11 gallons of red paint so far,” Dunning says. “The first thing we did was spray it with 12 gallons of a linseed oil/turpentine mix. By the time we’d worked our way around the whole thing, you couldn’t tell where you had started.”

The two-year restoration has been conducted entirely by an army of volunteers. Members of the Golden State Farm Education Center’s Vintage Iron Machinery Club have pitched in, as have local 4-H’ers wielding paint brushes.

“We have 2,200 recorded man hours in the whole project,” Dunning said this spring, “and we figure we’re two-thirds finished. But I’m positive we’re going to make it (in time for the scheduled June demonstration).”

Some may dispute the restoration’s authenticity.

“That’s something we had to decide,” Dunning says. “Leave it the way it is, as an interpretive piece, or restore it? And if we restore it, do we restore it to the original condition?

“We’re not going back to the original condition. Through the years of the harvester, things changed. Originally, it was a sack harvester. It had a 19-foot-long chute; it was the longest chute I’ve ever seen. We’re going to put the sack chute back on. Later on, they converted it to a bulk rig with an auger, and attached the bulk tank to the side of the harvester. We have that, but it doesn’t get it back to the era we want to portray, which is 1910-12.”

“Some of the fittings and the welding is not original; there’s V-belt sprockets that aren’t original,” he says. “Number one, we don’t have the time. But what we’ve done is interpretative of the ingenuity farmers had to keep equipment going.”

And, technically, the 70 hp Best engine that powers the unit is not, in a pure sense, authentic to the harvester. During extensive research on the project, Dunning discovered a crucial fact about the old relic: It was originally powered by steam, not gas.

“We determined that it was originally a steam harvester,” Dunning says, “possibly built about 1907. Then, when gas engines were developed, it was converted to gas in about 1912. We hope to find a steam engine to put back on the front of it. This would be the only operational steam harvester in the country, if we could find a steam engine for it.”

The harvester is one of a kind; essentially, it is a museum piece. Is there any anxiety associated with actually using the beast to thresh a field of wheat?

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be nervous to a certain degree. I’m sure there’s going to be a fair amount of trepidation associated with using it,” Dunning says. “But it was built to run. It was last used in 1958; the main hulk is in good shape.

“Still, with today’s standard of planting, the wheat has much heavier heads, greater and heavier yields. We had to have them plant the field at half of today’s planting rates … that old harvester doesn’t go that fast.” FC

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