A REEVES RIG IN THE STEAMING TEENS

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Postcard sent to Joseph Williams inside a letter from the Reeves company.
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735 Riddle Road Cincinnati, Ohio 45220

Having grown up during the heyday of agricultural steam power,
my father made annual journeys to the threshing reunions at
Pontiac, Illinois. During those pilgrimages, Dad told stories about
the engine his uncle had operated a Reeves, for which the owner,
Joe Williams, had built a special shed in three compartments
proportioned to shelter not only the engine but also the water
wagon and separator. When Dad later acquired the Williams property,
I tried to picture that gray, tumble-down building as new, the
proud Reeves looming up inside. What follows is a reminiscence.

In his trademark blue jacket, Joe Williams commanded the men of
the threshing crew. He owned the twenty horsepower Reeves engine
but preferred to run the separator, to supervise the stack, and to
give orders to everyone from the engineer to the water boy. He
considered himself something of an expert on separators, and told
farmers not to buy a Hart weigher for their threshing machines, but
to purchase what he knew to be the superior Garden City weigher. No
one minded Joe’s bossing; he was respected and liked.

Joe had masterminded the formation of the threshing circuit in
his corner of Warren County, Indiana, and he had purchased the
water wagon, separator, and engine from the Reeves Company in
Columbus, Indiana. For over a year he shopped around to replace his
portable engine with a more powerful traction engine. On June 21st,
1910, a Mr. J. W. Fee from Clarks Hill, Indiana, wrote to Joe:

‘I received your card and write you stating that I have a
Rumely Ideal Sep 34 x 56 Ruth feeder wind Stacker all in good
Repair or The Best of Repair

‘Rumley Single engine mounted on Eighteen Horse Boiler made
to order one of Rumleys late Style Boiler and Fire Box

‘Jacketed Boiler the paint is not hurt on Seperator. Sixteen
hundred buys this out fit …

‘I would not take that for it. If it was so I could Run the
Rig my Self. But as it is I cant get away I have a General Store
That keeps me here all the Time, and my helth is not good any way
This is Shurley a bargin

‘The Engine is as easy firer as any Body ever put a fire
in

‘I have a large 8 Roll McCormic Shreder and and Bird Sell
huller . . . two Thousand for the whole thing

‘The Shreder has feeder and Blower and the Huller Has Blower
and feeder also

‘This out fit is worth $2,500 if it is worth a Cent. But I
will take $2,000.The whole out fit cost me three years ago $3,700.
if you want a machine you cant Beat this offer …’
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Rhode has chosen to include letter excerpts
and quotes in his article verbatim, that is, with no correction of
misspelled words or erratic grammar, in order to give a glimpse
into the ‘real life of the times.’)

Maybe Joe could not ‘beat this offer,’ but he wanted new
equipment. Correspondence shows that, in early March 1911, Joe
visited the Reeves branch office in Indianapolis. He liked what he
saw. A letter from a dealer for J. I. Case, dated March 15, could
not dissuade Joe from buying Reeves machinery. Nor could the
following letter from a Mr. G. W. Lyons in Attica, Indiana:

‘Now, Mr. Williams, I want to say to you right here that if
you are [going to buy a threshing outfit], I want to talk with you
before you close up your deal. I have a proposition to make you,
that you can not afford to turn down. You will find that the Red
River Special Line excells all other makes, and it is a machine you
can go out and do more and better work with than you can with any
other machine. This is the Guarantee on it. Let me hear from you,
and let me make you my proposition.’

In mid to late March, Joe passed up his opportunity to purchase
Nichols and Shepard machinery and bought his Reeves equipment
instead. The Geiser Manufacturing Company got in on the act far too
late, writing to Joe in February 1912.

Immediately after Joe purchased his machinery, the vultures
descended that is, companies of all descriptions fired off letters
to him to buy their oil, their boiler compound, their suction hose,
their rubber belting (Grizzly brand was particularly appealing,
with an ad featuring a large engraving of a bear), and even their
settlement ledger-books. Joe did buy cylinder oil. grease, and
other lubricants from National Refining Company, whose letter,
dated only days after Joe purchased his rig, stated:

‘We understand through Messrs. Miller & Forden, that you
have recently purchased a new threshing outfit, and we thought we
would come early and avoid the rush and see if we could not get
your order for oil for this season.

‘I would like to say first that we are the oldest
independent oil company doing business in this state, and the best
one among the entire bunch, counting everybody. We have the finest
line of Lubricating Oils made, and we can sell you a half barrel of
our best Cylinder Oil at 32 cents per gallon, and a barrel of our
National Red Engine Oil at 16 cents per gallon.

‘Now, these are close prices, considering the quality we are
offering you, and we will be perfectly willing to furnish you these
goods on sixty days’ time.

‘Of course. I realize that you are not likely to want this
oil now but can you not give us your order to be shipped out at a
little later date?’

Evidently. Joe couldn’t ignore the beseeching tone of this
letter.

His new Reeves outfit ultimately cost Joe $2,773.79. He had
until the 1st of September to pay his note, and Joe would miss that
deadline while dickering over the cost of the machinery. He thought
he was being overcharged. What Joe failed to realize was that, had
he paid the full amount ($2,523.79) on July 1st, he would have
received a discount already subtracted from the purchase price. By
waiting until September, Joe had to pay interest ($250.00), which
effectively eliminated the discount. Mr. W. H. Hodge, Manager of
the Indianapolis Reeves dealership, wrote:

‘Your not understanding in regard to this is likely the
reason you thought you were not entitled to pay interest from July
1st but you are clearly entitled to do so according to the sale
made with you. We don’t doubt but what you want to do the right
thing and we also want to do so …’

Joe eventually did the right thing he paid what Reeves
asked.

Back in March, three months before his equipment was shipped to
him by rail and before the haggling over the price Joe decided to
build a special shed to protect his costly investment. He knew the
size of his engine and of his water wagon, but he asked the Reeves
Company for the exact dimensions of the separator. Hodge replied
with the recommendation that Joe consider the length and width of
the threshing machine and then ‘allow a foot or more at each
end and side in building the shed.’ A close fit for a machine
twenty-six feet long and nine feet, four inches, wide!

At the Reeves Company’s request (and maybe with hopes of a
discount), Joe named two other farmers as likely prospects for
Reeves to approach, but, with regard to the first man, Hodge wrote
that ‘we have tried a great many times in past years to sell
[him] but have never been able to do anything with him, but shall
keep on trying.’ As for the other man, he ‘is pretty light
financially but we will call and see him.’

In early July, Reeves sent a man to help Joe fire up his engine
for the first time. It must have been a tremendously exciting day
for Joe! Now his planning would begin to pay off.

Joe had plenty of vision. He had assembled an association of
farmers agreeing to mutual responsibilities for the fall wheat and
oats harvest. Joe would provide his machinery and his expertise.
Any farmer with forty (or fewer) acres of grain would contribute a
team and wagon to make the round of all the farms on the circuit.
If a farmer were disabled, he would employ a driver. Between forty
and eighty acres also would mean the supplying of a wagon and team,
but the farmer would have to hire a man in addition to the
teamster. One having over eighty acres to thresh would furnish two
wagons and teams and three men. Usually, these wagons would be for
hauling bundles from the fields, but sometimes the farmer would
provide wagons designed to hold the ‘thrashed’ grain.

These arrangements having been agreed upon by all the farmers in
the association, a typical day on one of the farms in Joe’s
circuit featured eleven wagons and teams in the field. The odd
number ensured that, on a staggered schedule, the same man would
not always have to arrive the earliest in the day or leave the
latest at night. Drivers stood on their wagons and masterfully
aligned bundles for the most efficient load; not using the reins,
these skilled teamsters clucked commands to their obedient horses.
Pitchers, many of them high school boys, tossed the bundles up to
these bundle haulers.

Beside the separator were two more wagons having come in from
the field to unload their bundles into the threshing machine. Four
solid-sided wagons carried clean grain from the separator to the
storage bins.

To operate his shiny maroon-and-gold engine, Joe had hired the
best engineer he could find the knowledgeable and careful Charlie
Cobb, my father’s uncle. Charlie had studied James H.
Maggard’s Rough and Tumble Engineering and knew that ‘good
common sense’ and ‘a cool head’ were his best tools,
along with a handful of the cleaning fibers known as
‘waste.’ The chuffing of an engine under load ruled out
vocal communication between the supervisor of the separator and the
engineer, so a code of hand signals was the practice. Joe and
Charlie had polished this non-verbal parlance to an art.

One day, out of the corner of his eye, Charlie glimpsed
Joe’s order to stop the engine. In the length of time it took
Charlie to position the throttle and the reverse lever, Joe had
climbed to the top of the separator and was shinnying up the
wind-stacker toward the pinnacle of the mound of straw. Everyone
watched with baffled curiosity. What lay behind Joe’s strange
antics?

Dr Robert T. Rhode created this oil painting, ‘ Threshing
with Uncle Charlie,1911,’ to accompany his essay, ‘A
Reeeves Rig in the Steaming Teens.’

In one motion, Joe dropped onto the stack and stripped off his
jacket. He smothered a clump of straw inside his coat. Then the
crew began to detect the cause of Joe’s frenzya wisp of smoke
curled from his jacket.

With his sharp eyes, Joe had discerned a red glow in a cluster
of wheat straws. Somewhere inside the thresher, a spark must have
ignited the chaff on its way through the blower toward the
straw-pile. Once Joe was assured he had extinguished the ember, he
slid down the side of the stack, his ruined coat in his hands.

At the end of that season, everyone gathered at Joe’s house
for the ice-cream social held on ‘settle-up day.” The
water boy and the pitchers received two dollars for every day they
had worked. Earning the same pay were the spike pitchers and spike
scoopers, as were called any extra pitchers or grain-shovelers
needed on big farms. Charlie made six dollars for threshing wheat
and five dollars for harvesting oats for each day of labor, as did
Joe. After wages were calculated and disbursed, the farmers in the
association sat back content with their yields and with their ice
cream. Joe smiled; he had enough to buy a new blue jacket.

Farm Collector Magazine
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