A Hoosiev Town and Her Engines

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With models by Don Irvin, Dr. Robert T. Rhode built this diorama, ''First Morning of a Hoosier Harvest,'' to accompany his article on the steam-power era in Pine Village, Indiana. Photographed by Terry L. Bond, Jr.

Northern Kentucky University Nunn Drive Highland Heights, KY
41099

Pine Village huddles on the prairie land of Warren County in the
north-west corner of Indiana near the Illinois border. Author Jane
Smiley could have been describing the terrain there: ‘… the
earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed … as
flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land
on the face of the earth..’ The town of two-hundred citizens
has changed little since the early twentieth century- State routes
26 and 55 now wear a coat of blacktop; the railroad has vanished,
leaving only a hump in the road; bams once full of livestock stand
empty; cars and trucks tear along the highways; otherwise, the
hamlet could pass for an older version of itself. An indifferent
person might conclude that Pine Village is merely another among
hundreds of small towns in middle America the kind that slow one
down to thirty-five miles-per-hour while one is on a fast trip the
kind one barely notices. More discerning people, though, recognize
that such towns as Pine Village have enviable legacies. These
villages hosted the predominantly rural way of life during the era
of steam power and merit acclaim for establishing on a strong
agricultural foundation America’s greatness.

To detect this honorable heritage requires slowing down. It
requires concentration and imagination. It requires listening to
those who remember.

Slowing down this means not moving so quickly in one’s
speedy car or in one’s mind, incessantly hunting the pleasures
of today; rather, this means stopping long enough to catch the
faint fragrance of yesterday. One concentrates on a square foot of
water in a ditch in spring and begins to notice a fascinating
universe of life, including frogs’ eggs and larvae. One next
concentrates on the immensity of the black soil stretching like a
table in all directions to a hazy line of treeless horizon. One
concentrates on a barn, perhaps the only object above the level
surface of the land. One imagines that, not so long ago in world
history, near that bam, a steam engine and separator threshed
wheat. Listening this means paying attention to that stray anecdote
woven into the mundane conversation of a farmer who recalls that
threshing rig. The past cannot resist such disciplined effort and
will come out of hiding. Then the bleak landscape flashes into the
brilliant color of yesteryear. The mind is peopled with an
energetic community helping one another with the tremendous task of
harvesting hundreds of acres.

Pine Village provided the center of life, hard work, and promise
for its citizens in the early 1900s. Before television had robbed
people of their hours spent talking together on a porch, before
ease of travel had de-emphasized the importance of visiting with
nearest neighbors, before the ‘fast-food’ mentality of
‘I want and deserve everything now’ had replaced the wisdom
of patience, and before thoughts of self had vanquished concern for
others, townspeople cooperated for mutual well being, especially at
threshing time. In Wheels of Farm Progress, Marvin McKinley states,
”It was a period that demanded total involvement. . . help
was exchanged throughout the neighborhood, as farmers worked
together to keep the huge rig running at full capacity.”
While a plucky sense of self-reliance characterized the individual
farmer, the harvest witnessed a committed inter-dependence a
sharing, a giving greater than anyone had the right to expect. To
dedicate one’s labor to the grand gathering-in of the grain
surpassed mere calculations of financial reward; the understated,
homespun phrase ‘to help out’ speaks volumes about
integrity, dignity, and respect for others. The magnificence of the
threshing dinners, alone, is testimony sufficient to prove the
point that collaboration united rural people.

Dr. Reynold M. Wik reports that, according to Department of
Agriculture figures for 1910, ‘100,000 engineers were operating
self-propelled steam engines for threshing, plowing, grading roads,
grinding feed, hauling freight and moving buildings.’

Within the radius of a few farms from Pine Village, over a dozen
steam engines and separators threshed wheat and oats. Most were
owned by individuals who harvested for loose associations of
farmers living within a narrow geographic area say, down the same
road. A few engines and threshing machines, however, were owned by
companies. People paid for stock in the company and bought the
engine, separator, water, wagon, and other equipment, thereby
jointly purchased and owned. The president of the company hosted
such social events as the spring get-together to predict market
prices, the number of ‘sets’ (placements of the engine and
separator in different locations), the acreage to be harvested, the
pay scales of everyone from the water boy to the engineer and the
‘settle-up day’ when the financial rewards of the threshing
season were divvied up among the farmers and the crew.

At one time presided over by George Hess, one of these companies
worked to the northwest of Pine Village and ran a medium-sized
Huber engine. Joseph C. Rhode was a child in those years; he
remembers how the water supply in the tank on the front of the
Huber would run low and the tank’s wooden framework would begin
to smoke. More than once, the nearly-empty water tank scorched,
scaring young Joe.

Straight north of the town, along the line dividing Warren and
Benton counties, another company also threshed with a Huber.
Perhaps a Huber representative adroitly convinced Warren County
farmers to incorporate companies and buy no engine other than
‘the New Huber. ‘Wik lauds the owners and operators of such
agricultural engines:

Since this nation emerged from a so-called howling wilderness
into an industrialized society within the span of three centuries,
it has long been customary to eulogize those contributing to this
significant achievement. Natty steamboat captains and locomotive
engineers with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks are
glamorized; Casey Jones in his ‘Cannonball’ is immortal;
but unnoticed are the steam engineers who brought power farming to
rural America.

Perhaps it is the fate of these farm engineers that their names
are not famous yet.

To sweep the dust of time from the names of owners of engines in
and around Pine Village is still possible.

Southeast of town, Joe Williams privately owned a lean-contoured
Reeves with gracefully-curved canopy (See July/August 1993 IMA,
pages 18-20). Further south and east, Joe Warbritt on also steamed
up a Reeves; a family connection linked these Reeves owners. Joe
Warbrtt-ton’s father-in-law, Rufus Day, was Joe William’s
great uncle. Rufus helped Mr. Warbritt on to finance the purchase
of the Reeves equipment.

The ubiquitous Case Company did not overlook Pine Village. East
of town, Leonard Mann bought his own Case (likely a 65-horsepower).
Gus Gephart also obtained a Case rig. When he once farmed closer to
Attica than to Pine Village, he enjoyed the distinction of being
quoted in a 1909 Case catalog: ‘The Case coal tender and tank
are convenient, and you never need to wait for water. I would not
be without a 2-wheel tender tank if I owned a dozen
outfits.’

Fred Albright ran the general store in Pine Village. He had
gained experience as a member of a threshing crew in Canada. He
owned two staunch Rumely rigs, the second of them operated by his
brother, Joe. The Albrights threshed here, there, and everywhere
around town usually for farmers who had become dissatisfied with
other threshing crews.

George L. Eberle’s run extended from just south of Pine
Village in acrescent through the town to the east. He owned a
25-horsepower Gaar-Scott which purred more like a contented kitten
than a roaring tiger, the firm’s trademark. South and east of
Leonard Mann’s run, Fletcher Morgan operated a Baker which
‘bit ’em off nicely’ with sharp cut-offs of steam in
the cylinder. Southwest of Pine Village, Jacob St. John ran a
single-cylinder Nichols-Shepard ‘Engine of Economy From Boiler
to Business,’ as the Battle Creek, Michigan, corporation
advertised. Farther southwest of the town, his brother, N. S. St.
John (being called by his initials misled some people into thinking
his name was ‘Ennis’) threshed with a Russell, the logo of
a bull (‘The Boss’) belying its yipping while in the
belt.

With models by Don Irvin, Dr. Robert T. Rhode
built this diorama, ‘First Morning of a Hoosier Harvest,’
to accompany his article on the steam-power era in Pine Village,
Indiana. Photographed by Terry L. Bond, Jr.

An extraordinarily exciting day in Pine Village brought a train
bearing Zack Strickler’s new Baker. Wik might be describing the
scene in town: ‘Folks turned out to watch the unloading of an
engine at the railroad station, curious to get a better view of
these metal beasts with muscles of steel.’ When the flatcar
loomed up with its proud burden, through the crowd a murmur of
admiration passed like a breeze. Silhouetted against the expanse of
sky stood the Baker with jet-black boiler and glistening-red
wheels. Half-embarrassed to be the center of so much attention and
half-daring to let himself bask in the villagers’ combined awe
and envy, Zack fired up his engine and eventually turned its front
wheels toward its threshing destination northwest of Pine Village.
Spectators marveling at the engine’s heavy gearing, its Uniflow
cylinder, and its sharp, percussive exhaust were sorry to see it go
on down the road.

East of the Huber ‘company run’ along the Warren/Benton
County line, the ‘banner boy’ trademark on the smoke box
door of an Advance engine led the victorious charge from farm to
farm on Jay Max’s threshing run. In the same general area north
and east of Pine Village, Travis Stewart Stingle, whose nickname
Windy only Zephyrus could appreciate, belted up a rare
cross-compound Canadian Special Reeves with eight-foot-diameter
driver wheels. Although Windy had operated many engines, he owned
this ‘high-wheeler’ Reeves. Every July, thin columns of
smoke began to interrupt the monotony of the horizon around Pine
Village; the momentous event of threshing with steam engines had
started in earnest. The great communal heart of the farmers
quickened its pulse.

Engines were not used exclusively for threshing wheat and oats.
Clover-hulling also was a job for steam engines. According to Sam
Noland (who resided in Pine Village), a crew was hulling clover
near Monon, Indiana, one autumn, the season when the darkness
descends a little earlier each evening. The grandfather of the
family who owned the farm noticed sparks drifting from the
smokestack of the engine. He grew terribly concerned and soon
ordered the grandchildren to avert disaster. The youngsters
scurried to fill buckets of water to soak gunny sacks in the
buckets, to chase down all the sparks, and to slap them to smother
them out. Of course, sparks had been present all day long, but the
deepening gloom of evening made them visible to the worried
grandfather. That venerable patriarch may have been overly
solicitous, but sparks truly could present some danger. McKinley
states: ‘Despite all precautions, sparks discharged from the
engine smokestack were a constant threat. Straw, a highly
combustible material, was usually nearby and added to the
danger.” Wik notes that the Daily News of Aberdeen, South
Dakota, reported that, in September of 1905, Aberdeen ‘was
nearly surrounded by four fires started by threshing engines’
and that, the next week, fires near Leola, South Dakota, ‘swept
across a 12-mile front burning farm buildings and livestock.’
Catastrophes happened around engines and separators.

Leigh Paris Builta of Pine Village had graduated from law school
but never practiced law and, for a time in the late 1800s, lived in
Kansas, where the following anecdote, as told in Marvin
McKinley’s Wheels of Farm Progress, took place. In those years
(before the advent of automatic feeding and band-cutting devices on
separators),

the man at the feeding table of the threshing machine was the
most important figure in the threshing crew. Feeding was an art.
The bundles [of wheat] were severed by the ‘band cutter,’
and passed on to the ‘feeder,’ who spread them out and fed
them, heads first, into the machine. He did this in such a way that
the stalks were fed gradually, from the top of the bundle downward.
In this manner, the grain flowed into the cylinder in a steady,
uniform stream. This was essential for doing a fast, clean job of
threshing.

The band cutters often were mere lads who had to keep their eyes
and minds on what they were doing, or else calamity might result.
The feeder, an experienced adult, moved quickly not looking toward
the cut bundles but rhythmically reaching for them and grabbing
them while keeping his gaze on the feeding. According to Leigh
Builta, there was a saying which every band-cutting boy was to
impress on his memory ‘Never make a second cut!’ the risk
of whacking the feeder’s hands was too great; thus, if the band
cutter had failed to sever the twine on the first try, he had to
let the bundle go anyway.

On the day in question, one such boy forgot his lesson. He made
a second cut and sliced open the feeder’s hand. The gash was
ugly. Enraged to the point of madness, the feeder turned toward the
boy, snatched him with his spurting hand, and hurled the youth
headfirst into the separator cylinder, which made short work of the
lad. In horror at the murder they had just witnessed, the rest of
the crew seized the feeder, tied a noose around his neck, and
lynched him then and there. As Leigh put it, such was frontier
justice.

Around Pine Village, grisly occurrences and macabre accidents
were infrequent, although the occasional horse too near the belt on
the pulley of the separator chose the wrong moment to switch its
tail at a fly. Ordinarily, the threshing days combined pleasure and
goodwill. For many a one who took part in the harvests of the past,
the commingled scents of the engine’s cylinder oil and coal
smoke, the ‘chuff-chuff-chuff’ of a single-cylinder engine
or the ‘lickety-lickety’ of a double-simple engine, and the
sign of golden wheat cascading into the grain wagons spelled the
utmost happiness, ample reward for the intensive labor.

The times when Mack’s Boiler Compound, Braided Emerald Brand
Agricultural Suction Hose, and Black Beauty Axle Grease were
household names have faded from the recollections of most villages;
however, certain qualities from yesteryear persist unto the present
hour. As Wik observes, ‘… the significance of the farm steam
engineer in American life goes beyond a visceral nostalgia for the
good old days.’ Inherited from the era of steam power is a
spirit of community of helping out as alive today in Pine Village
as it is in the myriad other American towns like it. Perhaps the
greatest legacy of the years when engines ornamented the rural
landscape is expressed most simply and elegantly in the word
‘compassion.’

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