Everett Johnson never forgot what it felt like to drive a steam traction engine. ‘When I was a youngster on the farm (in the 1920s and 1930s),’ the 80-year-old Pelican Rapids, Minn., native says, ‘my dad was a partner in a Northwest steam engine that we used to fill silos. After the day’s work was done, and the steam had just about petered out, my dad would let my brother and me drive that Northwest around the barnyard. That’s where I first got the bug.’
As he got older, he helped with farm work involving the steam engine. ‘I pitched (corn) bundles for the Northwest. We’d pick them up in the field and haul them in a hay rack with horses and throw them into the ensilage cutter.’ They would use the steam engine to put ensilage in the silo.
The Northwest steam engine was the only one the Johnsons ever had, but other friends threshed with an Advance steam traction engine, or a Case. ‘So those were the engines I grew up with,’ Everett says.
Except for those rare times when his father would let him drive their Northwest around the yard, the closest Everett got to a steam engine was pitching bundles for the separator attached to the Advance engine during his teens, and occasionally tending the water tank because the operator was a friend of his.
In those days, a steam traction engine moving from farm to farm was quite a sight, Everett says. ‘That was really exciting to youngsters to see this big powerful thing come up your driveway. Everybody was out looking, even the mothers. The smoke and steam that came off the machine had their own powerful and memorable smells.’
Workers needed for filling silos or threshing with the steam traction engines came mostly from neighbors, Everett says. ‘In those days there were just plain farm workers, if you want to call them that. They would all come together and work at our place, and we would go back to theirs and help them when their project was going on.’
The steam engine required quite a crew, including, at the very least, a water hauler, fuel/wood/straw haulers, a fireman, and an engineer.
Threshing season started in August and went into October. ‘Five, six, seven neighbors would all hire each other, and the same thresher would come to all different places. Sometimes a threshing run would last ten days.’
Early threshing was called a ‘threshing run,’ and later, after bundles had been piled high waiting for the steam engine to come to a particular farm, it was called ‘stack threshing.’ ‘Sometimes stack threshing was done even after some of the snow had come,’ Everett explains.
Food was provided by the farm women. ‘The poor wives…’ Everett says. ‘Sometimes they would get help from a neighbor’s wife, and in lots of cases there were daughters in the home. But that was a big job for a farmer’s wife when threshers came. They would make an early morning breakfast, forenoon lunch, big dinner, afternoon lunch, and evening supper. They worked hard, and everybody tried to out-do each other, so the meals were just wonderful, all the pies and trimmings…’
Lunches were sandwiches, cakes, and cookies, with coffee the main drink, along with Watkin’s nectar. ‘During coffee breaks they would just hurry over and get sandwiches and cookies and coffee and eat and drink it hurriedly and then get to work again. They didn’t stop the engines for a coffee break. The only time the engines stopped during the day was at noon hour.’
Occasionally itinerant workers helped, too, but not very often, he says. ‘Most of the men came from the community, odd-job workers who did different things throughout the course of the year, and when August came, they would go out shocking grain. Then they’d go through the threshing part of it. After that they would find something else to do , through the fall. Some stayed on the farm and helped throughout the winter, but not too many did.’
Farm life was very different in those days from today, Everett says. ‘People enjoyed being together. That breed of people that grew up with steam engines and the changes that came when the steam engines came in were a breed of their own. They were so caught up in what steam engines could do and all the mechanics of it and so forth that they had a lot to talk about. Besides that, it was the everyday things they visited about. It got to be quite a social thing.’
But it was also a great deal of hard work. Steam engines replaced horses, which in themselves had required a great deal of work, but running steam engines was difficult work too. ‘And hot,’ Everett says. ‘Oh, it was terrible working around a steam engine in the summer with the heat. You had to always go around and oil it all the time. It was almost a continuous job keeping oil in it.’
Steams engines were also dangerous. ‘There were always fears they would blow up.’
Very few steam traction engines existed in small communities like Pelican Rapids, because they were quite expensive. But they were needed on farms of the day, and that’s how Everett’s father got involved, as he needed power to operate machinery to toss ensilage up into the silo.
Steam traction engines were used for more than threshing and filling silos, however. ‘There were those who plowed with them,’ Everett says, ’16-20 bottom plows pulled by those engines. I don’t think they disked or anything like that, though. In this area where there are a lot of woods, winter chores for the steam engine crew was running those big saw rigs and saw mills. They were all powered by steam.’
As he grew older and the farm scene changed drastically, Everett never forgot how he had been weaned on steam engines, and his early love of the great almost-silent beasts. He took part in modern steam-related events. ‘I used to go up to Rolla (the annual Western Minnesota Steam Thresher’s Reunion) and pitch bundles and things like that for the machines.’
But he wanted to own his own engine, and his desire to own a machine continued strong. In 1968 he saw his chance. ‘I saw this 1890 model Birdsall 12 hp engine advertised by Lester Olson of Mora, Minn.’
He says he would have liked to have a Northwest or an Advance or a Case, the steam engines he grew up with and were popular in the Pelican Rapids, Minn., area. ‘In those early days, I never heard of a Birdsall, or knew of anybody who had one.
‘We felt fortunate to find this Birdsall engine, because it’s very rare, at least for this area. There weren’t many of them around at all, I don’t think.’ This particular Birdsall had spent most of its working life in Kentucky, where it belonged to a Louisville Baptist minister who was also involved with a couple of steam engine magazines. Everett and his brother Virgil bought the machine in 1968, and installed it at WMSTR, where it is kept on permanent display.
‘It was in very good shape when we got it. Lester was a steam jockey, so he knew how to take care of the machine.’
Running the machine requires a great deal of diligence and care, Everett says. ‘I’m probably not an expert in that respect. But we feel we have to keep it clean inside and out all the time. If something needs attention we try to fix it right away. There are people on the grounds who are very knowledgeable about steam engines, and we get help from them.’
Leaks in the boiler must be fixed immediately, and it must be kept clean and dry when it’s not in use. It opens from the front and the back. ‘Every day we have to clean the flues with a special rod with a cleaner on it that fits into the flue. You run the rod back and forth in it so it scrapes out the soot and the crud that might come into the flues.’
For the steam engine to run, water is sucked out of the water tank and injected into the steam chamber. That steam powers the piston and is released into the air, just as gasoline by-products are in an internal combustion engine. ‘You have to add water every 15-20 minutes. It’s important that your water level is high to protect the machine,’ cautions Everett. ‘You have a gauge, of course, to help check it.’
‘You have to be so careful and be on your toes and not neglect anything. You have to check every valve and see if everything is right, that they’re open and so forth. It’s a scary thing, and as you grow older I think you get more concerned. And accidents have happened over the years.’
The Rollag area has hills, and steam engine operators have to be careful that the water level stays high in the water tank. ‘When you go downhill the water flows forward, and there’s a crown sheet on the back of your fire chamber and boiler, and it’s always necessary for that to be covered with water, so you have to be really careful.’
Occasionally Everett will get the Birdsall back from WMSTR so he can run it in a local parade, as he did in the summer of 1968, during the Bi-Centennial Parade in his hometown in 1976, and others. ‘It’s quite a thing at parades. People really do enjoy the steam engine, that’s for sure. Of course, we’re on the engine so we don’t hear the remarks, but we can see the expressions their faces, because for the most part, many of them have never seen anything like it before.’
‘I guess they call them the good old days,’ Everett says, looking into the distance. ‘There was something really wonderful about them. There were always helping hands extended in every which direction. Neighbors would come and help you with your work. There was a closeness in the community that is today so different. We don’t have time to stop, visit, talk, or chat a bit, which was very common in those days, and that was their entertainment, to be honest with you. I guess that’s missed.’
‘In those days, steam engines were burned into people’s consciousnesses.’
Everett says he has always enjoyed the people involved in steam traction engines, from when he was child until now. ‘Also the quietness of them. When they’re running, they’re not noisy or anything like that. They’re fascinating and exciting. Kind of big, I guess you could call them. Big and magnificent.’
Bill Vossler is a frequent contributor to Farm Collector. He lives and works in-Minnesota.
The Birdsall Story
Birdsall steam traction engines were manufactured by Birdsall Company of Penn Yan, N.Y., starting in 1874. Up until this time the company had manufactured a variety of other farm machines, including portable engines, threshers, and sawmills, as well as road rollers and road machines.
Birdsall machinery was known for its quality. As Jack Norbeck writes in Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, ‘The diligent attention given to details and first-class workmanship, soon brought Birdsall products into deserved popularity. …The same energy and careful attention to the perfection of manufacture, which had always characterized this company, was directed toward the development of an engine that would at once, by its economy and utility, retain the reputation of the products. As a result, trade increased so rapidly that the business soon outgrew its facilities.’ It was moved to Auburn, N.Y., into a larger plant.
The company manufactured smaller steam traction engines of 8, 12, and 15 horsepower. It is unclear whether they manufactured any other sizes of steam traction engines.
The Birdsall steam traction engine had several unique features, as Norbeck writes: ‘The Birdsall steam traction engine was the only one at that time (1890s) made with the Automobile steering gear, open or solid faced drivers and a six to ten barrel water capacity on the engine. The cylinder was of the Corliss pattern, and was cast with the way and brackets in one piece. The compensating gear was placed directly on the rear axle, inside of the large spur driving-gear, and the power was transmitted to it from the large gear through a heavy steel coil spring, thereby forming a perfect cushion to protect the gearing from sudden shocks or severe strains when starting the engine in either direction. The Cross-Head was adjustable to take up wear, and the slides had large wearing surfaces, which were concaved to prevent cramping or heating. The connecting rod was so constructed as to be practically free from vibration. The result was a perfectly smooth-running engine, even under the strain of a heavy load. The crank head was perfectly balanced, as was the fly wheel.’
Birdsall Company steam traction engines were made into the early 1900s. The company still exists as a foundry today in Auburn, N.Y., controlled by the same Birdsall family that started it in June of 1860 as H. Birdsall & Son.