As far back as I can remember, steam engines have fascinated me. I was born in south central Missouri, where the only steam engines one was likely to see were in sawmills, flour mills, etc. Not much small grain was raised and as a result, traction engines were very uncommon; all mill engines were of the stationary type. I had to walk a mile through the woods to school, and when I was about 10 years old, a large sawmill was set up right beside the path I had to follow to get to school. I would stop for a brief period each afternoon and watch that big Atlas engine as it pulled the log through the saw, and on numerous occasions, I was in for a severe scolding for arriving home late.
When I was 12 years old, my parents moved to a farm in south central Illinois, in an area where large acreages of wheat and oats were harvested and threshed each year. It was a day I have never forgotten when the thresher pulled in to thresh our crop. The separator was a 33-inch Port Huron, pulled by a 19-horse Port Huron engine with a locomotive type cab. Being a bit young to make a hand in the field, I drew the job of hauling drinking water to the men. This gave me time to drive my horse and buggy up behind the engine and watch the engineer in action; after a few stops and watching from the buggy I ventured close enough to look in at the engineer. The engineer was a friendly man and asked if I wanted to come into the cab and sit on the other side from him. Naturally, I didn't wait for a second invitation; I plied him with question after question, which he answered with patience. I think he saw my enthusiasm, and as they were nearing the finish of one setting, he ask if I would like to stop the engine when they had finished the set. I need not tell you my answer. Under his instruction, I closed the throttle, set the reverse up in center, and opened the cylinder cocks. In my lifetime, I have had the privilege of doing many things that were thrilling and exciting, but never anything to compare with the thrill of stopping that engine. Had I been as big as I felt just then, L. B. Johnson's overcoat wouldn't have made me a vest.
Many and varied were my experiences with steam within the next 12 or 14 years, but in 1925 a man named Meador, who had been a thresherman but had sold his outfit a couple of years before, agreed to go in with me and buy a Port Huron outfit that was for sale about 15 miles from the neighborhood where we lived. The outfit was a good one, and the price was reasonable, and it was right in the middle of a good wheat producing area, and the owners of the rig had threshed this area for a number of years. Naturally, we thought we would do the same, but after the deal was closed and we had signed a note for $1,000.00 to be paid in the fall, and one for the same amount a year later, we discovered to our sorrow that a couple of 'native sons' in the community had bought a new separator and a big gas tractor which meant there would be no coal to be hauled. As I recall it we got two jobs in that area, as everyone came up with the excuse that they didn't want to be bothered with coal hauling.
So, it was two downhearted men who fired up and started down the long road toward home; on the way we decided to try to sell the rig and pay off, but the season was too far gone for that.
But, as the immortal Henry Clay once said, 'There's a Divinity that shapes our ends.' When we arrived home a man from another area in the opposite direction was just driving up. He told us that there was a community that needed a thresher, and he had been sent to try to engage one. Needless to say, we were not difficult to engage, so with only a short stop at home, we headed on toward the 'promised land.' We pulled into the community on Saturday and on Monday we threshed all day steadily without moving. This went on for about three days, with each setting lasting about one full day. We had a separator man named Bassett, who was quite a character. He could always be counted on to furnish a laugh, no matter how serious the situation. My partner was 'Route Man,' and went ahead engaging the jobs, inspecting bridges along the route, etc., and I was on the engine. Since my wife was alone on a farm with our four-year-old daughter I decided to run home one evening, planning to come back to the farm later in the night. We had pulled in at this farm too late in the afternoon to set and get started that evening, so I told the farmer that I was going home, would not be there for supper, so he showed me where me and Bassett would sleep. I went home and returned to the farm about ten o'clock, opened the door, walked through a bed full of kids that were sleeping on the floor. Their wails were loud and long, and aroused the entire household, including a half-dozen hound dogs in the yard. Right about then I could think of a lot of places I would rather have been. Finally the kids and the dogs quieted down, and I laid my head on the pillow, but it was not to sleep. The room had only one small window for ventilation and the room was about the right temperature for a incubator. Finally after many looks at my watch by the light of a match, four o'clock came and I got up, put on my clothes and went outside, being aware of the position of the kids sleeping on the floor. It was a long mile to where the machine was located, and about half way it got light enough for me to see I had made a mistake and put on Bassett's pants, instead of my own. I hastened back, made the switch without being detected. After building a fire in the engine, filling the old Madison Kipp lubricator, and doing all the other thousand and one things I needed to do about the engine, I started back to the farmhouse for breakfast. On the way I met Bassett and asked him if he had had his breakfast. He informed me that he had had his feet under the table, and beyond that, 'no comment'. He went on to say, 'You were fortunate, you ate supper at home, and I had the same for supper that I had for breakfast.' I went on, sat down and they had home cured bacon that was strong enough to have walked across the table and said 'Good Morning' to the coffee, but the coffee was too weak to have replied. Strong meat, fried apples, corn bread and weak coffee made up the menu.
We got under way with plenty of help as soon as the dew was off the shocks. About mid-morning, I left the engine with the water monkey and went to the separator, interested in what comment Bassett would have to make. His only comment was 'They sent that boy to town after some beef for dinner; I surely hope he doesn't fall down with it before he gets back.'
We went in for dinner and about a dozen of the neighbor ladies had come to help prepare the meal. A long table was spread in the dining room and it was loaded with good food. We machine men ate at the first table full, and Bassett really put away the food. We got up from the table as soon as we had finished to hurry back and get the machine ready for a hard evening of threshing. Out in front of the house, a dozen men were sitting under an apple tree, waiting their turn at the table. Bassett walked out, and right before the men he knelt down on the ground, removed his hat and lifted his hands toward heaven; 'OH LORD' he said, 'Please bless the good women who helped to get dinner.'