It’s impossible to experience the past … until you’ve been to Meridian, Mississippi. There, inside a pair of otherwise unremarkable buildings occupying one city block, is what is believed to be America’s last intact steam engine factory, complete with foundry and machine shop dating to the late 1800s.
Today, the historic Soulé Steam Feed Works survives as the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum in Meridian (though locals still refer to it as, simply, Soulé). The foundry, machine shop, assembly area, pattern shop, and blacksmith’s forges exist as if workers had just gone home for the day. Visitors gawk at the 106-foot line shaft that provides power to belt-driven machines built more than a century ago. Work orders hand-written on faded slips of paper hang on a hook by the foreman’s desk.
When Bob Soulé, the third-generation owner of Soulé Steam Feed Works, decided in 2002 to close the doors on the 110-year-old family business, he scheduled an auction. He hadn’t counted on one bidder taking nearly the entire offering. “Actually, I was afraid it would be torn down,” he says. So fast it’d make your head spin, local businessman Jim McRae was the new owner of the building, the real estate, and all the ancient machinery.
Leaving a trail of bread crumbs
From the beginning, Jim saw Soulé as a museum, one that would deliver a bit of economic development to the city of Meridian. “Bringing jobs to a town is tough,” he admits. “But we can get visitors. We’ve had visitors from every state in the U.S. and several foreign countries.”
Industrial museums, he explains, are more commonly found in Europe. “America tends to forget about the old,” he says. “We tend to throw things away. But we need to be leaving a trail of bread crumbs to show the way we were.”
Education, though, is his real goal. “We want Soulé to have an educational component that is stronger than any other component,” he says. “A lot of kids today are not exposed to work or manufacturing. We’re presenting something here to spark their interest, to help them decide what it is they want to do.”
The Soulé Rotary steam feed engine
Soulé Steam Feed Works was launched in 1892 in Meridian, Mississippi, by industrialist George W. Soulé. An inventor with at least 25 patents to his name, Soulé devised a steam engine – the Soulé Rotary – used in sawmills to feed the log and carriage to the saw blade, hence the name “steam feed.” The Soulé Rotary engine remained in production for nearly 30 years.
Primarily serving the booming lumber industry, the Soulé Rotary engine was also used to power winches to drag and lift logs onto railroad cars and wagons. Durable and easily controlled, the rotary was at that time the quickest, simplest and cheapest engine of its kind on the market.
Soulé’s invention could not have been more perfectly timed. From the end of the 19th century up to the Great Depression, American cities experienced an unprecedented building boom, creating a huge demand for lumber. Lumber mills in the southeast were running at full production, powered in part by an engine built in Meridian, Mississippi.
The Soulé Spee-D Twin engine
In 1921, Soulé launched the Spee-D Twin as an improvement on the Rotary. With 41 moving parts, the Rotary was prone to maintenance issues. Nicknamed “the steam hog” for its insatiable appetite for steam during operation, it was the best of its day – but an upgrade was overdue.
The Spee-D Twin, on the other hand, was a compact, mechanically simple, low-maintenance design. Popular for its efficiency, power,
and dependability, the Spee-D Twin – a 2-cylinder reciprocating engine – found immediate success in the market. Soulé produced 4,301 Spee-D Twins from 1921 to 1984 (the final Rotary engine was built in 1923). That number does not include the significant number of engines later returned to the factory to be rebuilt and resold.
Soulé’s output was shipped to every state in the U.S. and several foreign countries. Eventually, though, the reciprocating steam feed engine began to lose the battle to the steam “shot gun” sawmill carriage. For nine decades, from 1892 to 1984, Soulé built a total of 6,600 engines – and the name Meridian was cast into every one of them.
Taking pride in their work
As one of Mississippi’s leading small cities, Meridian has long been proud to be home to Soulé Steam Feed Works. “This place represented cutting edge technology at one time,” Jim says. “Many of the men who worked here were at the top of their fields. They had real pride in their work, in their employment.”
Decades ago, those men – proud professionals – wore suits and ties for their trips to and from work, changing into work clothes in onsite locker rooms. “The dirty clothes did not go home,” says the museum’s executive director, Greg Hatcher. “The fellows did not want to burden their wives with filthy laundry.”
One locker room is preserved, complete with a communal shower, 24 individual lockers, and 24 sinks (each with a trap to catch metal shavings). “There was a time when they had hot and cold running water here,” Jim says, “but nowhere else in town even had indoor plumbing.”
That pride endures. Visitors often mention relatives who once worked at Soulé. “Everybody in town must have worked here at some point,” says museum volunteer Bill Ross. For decades, Soulé offered the highest paying jobs in the Meridian area. Between 1922 and 1945, the factory averaged 50 employees working nine hours a day, six days a week.
‘Make anything that would sell’
After engine production waned, Soulé provided mill supplies, machine shop services, foundry casting, custom work, and machine repair. Industrial, railroad, and agricultural customers depended on the Soulé foundry’s skilled patternmakers, machinists, and foundry workers to produce replacement parts for heavy equipment.
During down time, workers produced trivets, andirons, one-of-a-kind pieces; casings, and covers for municipal sewer systems; wagon parts and gears for every imaginable application. “They wanted to maximize the value of power,” says museum volunteer Carlton Young. “They would make anything that would sell. It’s heavy, hard, dirty work. It’s like farming; most people don’t want to do it anymore.”
Farmers routinely brought parts to Soulé for repair. A story is told of a farmer in the next county north. When a critical piece of his plow broke, he removed the part, walked over to the Gulf Mobile & Ohio railroad, and flagged down the southbound train, known locally as “the doodlebug,” and got off near the Soulé shops in Meridian. Workers there used his part to make a sand mold, poured the part, which cooled enough in an hour to be removed, and finish-machined. The farmer settled up with the business office, took his part and flagged a northbound train. On arriving at his field, he hopped off the train, walked to the plow, installed the part, and fetched the mule to resume plowing.
Preserving an authentic experience
Over the years, very few improvements were made to the factory. As long as things were operating correctly, there seemed no need to update the equipment. The belt-driven machine shop saw one major upgrade (in the 1950s) when modern lathes replaced half of the belt-driven units. The foundry was modernized in the late 1970s, but the original cupola furnace and core-making shop remain intact.
“They never threw anything away,” Jim says. “All the records are still here: original company records, including serial numbers and buyers of each engine built; blueprints for each automatic stacker system installed; employee records, advertising, and accounting ledgers. We even have the original dirt!”
Soulé is believed to be one of just three surviving foundry/machine shop/factories (with original fixtures intact) in the U.S. dating to the late 19th/early 20th century. According to the museum’s website, almost all other historic machine shops in the U.S. are recreations. The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum retains about 80 percent of Soulé’s original furnishings and equipment.
And that is a point of considerable pride. “The museum’s board really embraced the idea of an authentic experience,” Jim says. “Visitors come here, and they see something they’ve never seen before. That’s a good thing. We did not want it to be a club just for people in this hobby.”
Maintaining a careful balance
Operated as a non-profit corporation, the museum is now governed by a nine-member board of directors. Some 80 volunteers support museum activities through service and donations. The goal is to make the museum as accessible as possible without damaging the historic feel of the place.
“We don’t want it to feel new,” Greg Hatcher says. “We want it to look like a working factory.”
Mission accomplished. Soulé is a time capsule, one that celebrates an era when highly skilled craftsmen, working without computers, coaxed close tolerances out of primitive-looking machines. It is a relic of a time when varied industries ramped up to meet a need that arrived with little warning. Lumber producers, builders, transporters, and a foundry and machine shop in Meridian, Mississippi, rose to the challenge. “Places like Soulé,” Jim McRae says, “made it possible for America to grow.” FC
Guided tours are available at the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum, 1808 4th St., Meridian, MS 39301, Tuesday through Saturday. The museum also plays host to several events each year. For more information, call (601) 693-9905; email email@example.com or visit Soulé Steam Feed Works.
Machine shop, foundry layout sophisticated for its time
During the decades Soulé Steam Feed Works was in business, parts were cast in the foundry (in what is now known as Building Three) and machined on the main building’s first floor. Parts were transported to and from the second floor assembly area by elevator. A crane was used to move parts to work stations.
There was no assembly line. “One person assembled one engine,” Bill says. “Then the engine went to the test stand and it would be run for 24 hours, nonstop, under varying load conditions. If there was a problem, there was no passing the buck.”
The main building, first floor:
A 106-foot line shaft powered by a large electric motor runs machine shop equipment (lathes, milling machines, drills and shapers).
Soulé never used steam power to build engines. “The city of Meridian had electricity,” says museum volunteer Henry Taves, Peterborough, New Hampshire. “The only time Soulé needed steam was when they tested engines.”
A small rail and crane system allows easy movement of heavy items. The rail runs the length of the building. A turntable allows the cart to be turned 90 degrees to another rail that splits the building. Heavy loads can be moved between the foundry (located in a building just across the alley) and the machine shop, as well as to the elevator serving the second floor. A blacksmith shop with two forges is also located on the first floor.
The main building, second floor:
The factory’s second floor remains largely original, including finished parts and partially completed assemblies seemingly just abandoned at workstations and in shelves. A 25-foot line shaft (driven by the main shaft on the first floor) powers tools and fans used to cool the space in the summer. A belt-driven wooden freight elevator (in original condition) is used to take finished castings to the second floor assembly area and carry finished engines downstairs.
As the technology evolved and machinery was upgraded, some of the old equipment was removed and put into storage. After Jim McRae purchased the property, the old equipment was returned to its original location.
The two-story foundry building was constructed in 1917. Considered a state-of-the-art installation in its day, the foundry was served by an overhead hoist that allowed molten iron to be poured anywhere in the building. The core-making department survives, as does the pattern-making shop and storage.
– Leslie C. McManus
Gaining an Appreciation for Early Technology
MCC students volunteer at Soulé Live Steam Festival
The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum puts a high priority on education. In addition to helping children learn about the world of work and career options, Soulé also creates unique opportunities for local tech students.
During the museum’s annual Live Steam Festival in November, students in the Precision Manufacturing and Machining Technology program at Meridian Community College serve as volunteer operators on 100-year-old machines.
The hands-on experience gives the students a unique perspective. “Textbooks have photos, but the students learn here, too,” says Brian Warren, coordinator of the Precision Manufacturing and Machining Technology program (and a former Soulé employee himself). “Here, they’re actually running these machines – mostly lathes and sharpeners. Even though a lathe was built 100 years ago, it’s still a lathe.”
Museum supporter Bill Friday, Huntsville, Alabama, says the museum’s educational value cannot be over-emphasized. “In the age of computer-controlled machinery,” he says, “when young engineers and technicians are able to witness the manual use of crude-appearing but actually quite precise machine tools, they gain an appreciation of how we got to where we are today.”
– Leslie C. McManus