Bill Lamb’s REMINISCENCES

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This Gaar-Scott was featured on the front cover of July/August 1992s Iron Men Album.

735 Riddle Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45220

This article, ‘Bill Lamb’s Reminiscences,’ has a
story behind it. I met Bill, now 85 years old, at the Ohio Valley
Antique Machinery Show in Georgetown, Ohio, this summer. When he
learned my name, he recognized that I had written the Reeves
feature which appeared in The Iron-Men Album’s
July/August issue, 1993. He invited me to Lexington, Kentucky, to
interview him for an article based on his experiences with steam
engines. Bill has an enviable wealth of knowledge and anecdotes
concerning steam power, and I have attempted to incorporate many of
his ideas and memories in the following essay.

Now to the story:

The words ‘Steamboat Pilot’ make us think of Mark Twain.
In the same way, the words ‘Steam Engineer’ bring to mind
William M. Lamb of Nicholasville, Kentucky. Give Bill a white suit
and a cigar, and he could pass for the author of Tom
Sawyer
. Bill has the same glint in his eye and Twain’s
knack for telling a true story with enough salt to preserve it for
future reference.

‘Never put a price on it!’ says Bill, his hand tracing
the exclamation point on the air. ‘I knew a fellow who had an
engine. Now, he didn’t want to sell that engine. He loved that
engine! But along came a man to buy it. Figuring he could scare
this man off, the fellow set what he thought was a high price, but
the man said he’d pay it. Then the fellow confessed he
didn’t want to sell his engine. This man, though, had friends
with him, and he said, ‘I have witnesses. They heard you name
your price, and they heard me agree to pay.’ The fellow felt he
had no choice but to sell. He was a man of honor. And he lost his
engine to keep his integrity. Never put a price on it!’

When I have talked with Bill about his considerable knowledge of
steam engines, he has worn Liberty overalls not a white suit. The
overalls recall his years as the engineer for an agricultural
traction engine near Lexington, Kentucky. He also has worn a cap
recalling his distinguished military career. Retired out a First
Sergeant in the Army, Bill saw action in the European Theater in
World War II in the Fifth Armored Division and served with a Combat
Engineer outfit in Korea in 1952 and 1953; but it was back on the
4th of February in the year 1930 that he was sworn into the Army.
He was twenty-one years of age and would turn twenty-two in July.
For one so young, Bill already had knowledge of steam power greater
than anyone had the right to expect. Born in Athens, near
Lexington, Bill had apprenticed on locomotives of the Southern
Railway.

‘They started you out by teaching you to fire
locomotives,’ Bill explains. ‘Typically, a first-time
engineer had spent four years learning to fire. You had to pass
several tests as a fireman. You’d go out on trips with a
different engineer each time. The engineer scored you. Sometimes,
there in the yard before the trip, you could take one look at the
engineer and know what kind of a score he was going to give you. It
depended on whether he liked you, you see. I passed seven out of
ten trips.’ Bill sets his jaw, straightens his watch chain, and
peers into the distance. Then he states, ‘Firing is an art. You
don’t learn it overnight.’

The Stock Market Crash and ensuing Depression, however,
interrupted Bill’s progress toward becoming an engineer.
‘The Southern was laying off men,’ Bill says regretfully.
‘I joined the Army.’

First, Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then Randolph Field in
Texas were Bill’s new addresses. Eventually, he returned to
Kentucky to serve in the First Cavalry Mechanized Division, which
was begun at Camp Knox (as Fort Knox was known before permanent
barracks and headquarters were built). Bill’s background in
practical mechanical engineering paid dividends in helping him
establish his military career.

Today, the cap he wears symbolizes years of achievement.

‘One time during the war,’ Bill mentions, ‘we were
stationed in California, and we’d just acquired a bunch of new
recruits. And they were green! Well, one of these recruits came up
to me one night and said, ‘Can I talk to you? I ain’t no
soldier. All I’ve done my whole life is mechanical work. I like
engines. I like tearing them down and fixing them up again.’ I
could see that he would be useful in Ordnance, so I filled out the
papers and got him transferred over to Ordnance.’

Bill’s eagle eyes flash, and the hint of a smile lurks
beneath his mustache. ‘A few years ago, I was attending the
steam-engine show at Mount Pleasant, Iowa. A fellow had a
25-horsepower Advance on the giant sawmill, and I was watching that
Advance work. Pretty soon, that fellow got my attention and
motioned for me to step up on the platform. So I did.
‘Sergeant,’ he said, ‘I don’t remember your name,
but you did me a big favor once.’ It was that same recruit. His
name is Dean Shellhouse, and he’s from Devonia, Michigan.
He’d seen my cap, and then he’d recognized my
face.’

Bill laughs, ‘Dean’s a good engineer, but he
couldn’t figure out why his injector was so slow at picking up
the water. Of course, he had practically a hundred feet of hose
with one end coming from the supply and the other end going to the
injector! I happened to have a pipe with a check valve in my van,
so I installed it at the supply end for him. That check valve held
the water up next to the injector, and it worked fine after
that.’

Bill’s engine background would stir up envy in a newcomer to
the field of steam power. Bill’s uncle, Ed Gerhard, in Saline
County, Missouri (linked by State Route 24 to Twain’s
Hannibal), owned and operated the largest double-cylinder
Nichols-Shepard engine ever built one of only three which the
Nichols & Shepard Company constructed on such a massive scale
as to be referred to as a ’50/150-horsepower engine.’ Bill
recalls, ‘On furlough, I’d always go to visit my uncle just
to run that big engine! That was the biggest engine I’d ever
seen!’

Uncle Ed threshed the whole township with a 42-inch separator to
match the colossal traction engine. While Bill’s uncle also
owned a 65-horsepower Case to run the sawmill, the monstrous
Nichols-Shepard captured and held Bill’s fascination. Operated
through the 1930s, the Nichols-Shepard required the constant
attention of five men: during the plowing season, two men on the
engine, a third named the ‘plow-walker’ whose job it was to
keep all the plows at the proper depth, a full-time blacksmith, and
a water boy; during thresher season, a supervisor of the separator
replaced the plow-walker.

Like the dinosaurs, such mammoth engines lumbered across the
earth in the twilight of an era, for big tractors, followed by
smaller tractors, soon spelled a new, if less exciting, day in
agriculture. In a fence corner, the Nichols-Shepard was parked for
the last time. Later, Bill was riding in Uncle Ed’s truck when
they passed a junkyard with its tall gates swung open. From the
corner of his eye, Uncle Ed glimpsed something he recognized. He
put on his brakes. ‘Goll dern, if that isn’t the flywheel
off my Nichols-Shepard!’ Uncle Ed exclaimed.

Bill goes on, ‘He was mad as a hornet, and he had every
right to be. It was World War II, and somebody had commandeered his
engine and sold it for scrap.’ Bill clenches his teeth and
shakes his head slowly. ‘Whoever it was, junked his sawmill,
too.’ One corner of Bill’s mustache arches up in a
nostalgic grin. ‘That was a beautiful big engine!’

‘I’ve seen some mighty big engines,’ Bill continues.
‘I saw a 25/80-horsepower double-tandem-compound high-wheeler
Port Huron.’ That engine was owned by W. M. Jones and H.
Hoskins of Winchester, Kentucky. ‘Harry Woodman see rebuilt a
140-horsepower Avery. And a Mr. Solmon bought one of those
high-wheeler Reeves engines.’ To hear Bill describe Mr. Solmon
reminds the listener that the term familiar to operators of steam
engines eccentric has two meanings. Also, Bill tells a horror story
involving a gigantic Peerless, the boiler of which was sandblasted
without removing the engine. The rest can be left to the
imagination.

Bill adds, ‘And I’ve seen some big locomotives.’ He
recalls the locomotive engineers with whom he has chatted at steam
engine showsmen like J. D. Roberts, an engineer on the
Alton-Chicago road who hailed from the mountains of Kentucky and
who served as Vice President of the Central States
Threshermen’s Reunion in the 1950s and 1960s, and Loran
Hampsmire, an engineer for the Wabash Railroad whose Aultman-Taylor
agricultural traction engine appeared on the cover of the Central
States program for 1959. ‘The locomotives those fellows drove
would carry upwards of three-hundred pounds per square inch of
pressure in the boiler. Some of those engines were not equipped
with a trap door between the cylinder and the stack. When those
engines would be coasting downhill, they’d pull cinders back
into the cylinders.’

Bill pauses reflectively, then cautions, ‘These farm engines
you see at the shows are getting old and dangerous, and engineers
should not be too quick to take unnecessary risks. The rivet heads
in the ash-pan may be rusted away. Oftentimes, water has lime in
it, and the lime’ll form a crust on the tubes. The metal inside
that crust will get red hot, and, if a chunk of that crust flies
off, the cooler water hits that spot, and BAM! I helped a man sell
a 13-horsepower Gaar-Scott boiler to a fellow who used it to steam
tobacco. One day, he was pretty well barreled up on whiskey. I was
within three to four-hundred yards of the boiler and saw him run
over to put water in. I knew he must’ve been low, and I knew
what was about to happen, so I stayed back. When that cold water
hit that hot metal, it blew the crown-sheet down to where it was
even with the floor of the firebox. The front door and the back
door of the boiler blew clear off, and a wagon behind the boiler
was blown backwards across the field. If that fellow had been
standing just a few inches to his right, he wouldn’t have
survived. That took place on Leestown Pike.’

Bill slips a pair of glasses from the pocket of his overalls and
wields a pen and a pad of paper to sketch a firebox and boiler.
‘As I say, you can’t let cold water or cold air come into
contact with that hot metal. The vent in the firebox door, here,
has an air-spreader inside to prevent the cold air from hitting the
flue-sheet. Up here, in the smokebox, is a little drain hole. I
used to put mud over that hole to keep the cold air out so as to
protect the life of the engine and improve efficiency.

‘Now, you have to know you have enough water here in the
boiler. The water glass won’t always tell you the truth. It
could be that somebody’s come along and screwed down the valves
on the water glass, then it’d look like you have water when you
don’t! That’s why you have try-cocks to make sure where you
water level is. Now, look how many square inches are in that
boiler! When you have 150 pounds per square inch, that’s 150
pounds on each square inch all over the boiler. Some of these
engineers today like to put a locomotive whistle on a farm engine.
The inside diameter of the whistle pipe might be three inches, and
they’ll tap that three-inch pipe right into the steam-pipe from
the dome to the cylinder, as you see.’ Bill draws a big
whistle.

‘That whistle won’t sound like much. It’ll make a
real low spitting noise, that’s about all. It was intended for
a locomotive carrying three-hundred p.s.i. Now, if that three-inch
pipe were stepped down to, say, one-inch in diameter before tapping
into the steam-pipe, it would improve the sound. And it’d
improve the safety] Firebox steel is a special kind of steel.
It’s bendable. That means it’s soft. When an engineer blows
one of these locomotive whistles with a three-inch-diameter pipe on
a farm engine, what I call a surge of water goes all the way up in
that boiler. That’s because it’s all under the same
pressure both the steam and the water. So the water surges straight
up. Then the engineer won’t shut the whistle off slowly. No, he
cuts her right off again. And all that water comes straight down.
It’s like a huge hammer pounding on that soft firebox steel.
The stay-bolts could easily pull out of the firebox, and the
firebox would implode.’

Bill rests his pen. ‘I’ve never seen an old-timer with a
big whistle on a farm engine.’ He folds his glasses and puts
them back in his pocket. ‘They know better.’

In terms of respect and admiration, Bill speaks of the gifted
engineers with whom he has been acquainted: men like ‘Big
John’ Limmer; Raymond Fork, ‘a Baker man’; and Percy
Sherman, ‘He was a Russell man. Thought a Russell was the only
engine made!’ Like them, Bill has a treasury of steam-era
experience, from knowing how early cylinder-oils were derived from
sheep hides to understanding Frick’s special process of
creating rust-proof charcoal steel. He notices details others miss,
such as the fact that only one engine was built in between Ray
Wenger’s Advance-Rumely and Fred Staton’s Advance-Rumely.
Bill has repaired valves, re-tubed boilers, and recognized subtle
clues, like knocks, so as to get to the heart of fixing an engine
without wasting time and effort in guessing what might be wrong. We
might ask, ‘When and where did he acquire such a hoard of
wisdom about steam engines?’ The question has a ready
answer.

Before Bill apprenticed with the Southern Railroad, he spent
half a dozen years threshing and steaming tobacco beds. In Fayette
County, Kentucky, Bill Davidson and John McKinney co-owned an
18-horsepower double-cylinder Gaar Scott engine (built in 1917) and
a 32-inch separator. Bill worked for them as their engineer.
Eventually, one of the co-owners moved to a farm on Shannon Run
Road in Woodford County, and it fell to Bill to guide the engine
from Athens in Fayette County to Woodford County.

‘That meant I had to go through Lexington,’ Bill begins.
‘You couldn’t take a traction engine on an asphalt road
because the weight would break up the pavement. I was going to have
to hop that Gaar-Scott up on the streetcar tracks. I started when
the last streetcar operator of the day assured me he was the last.
As it turned out, the skid-rings on the front wheels of the engine
fit so perfectly on the streetcar rails that I didn’t even have
to steer. Everything was going along fine, when here came a
streetcar toward me! That other streetcar operator wasn’t the
last, after all! I had to back the engine off the tracks and onto a
side road.’

Bill chuckles, ‘Just my luck, here came the sheriff. Well,
he put me in jail, but they called the owner of the engine. He
explained the situation, and they let me go. The water boy had
stayed with the engine, and I’d given him instructions about
keeping the fire going and looking after the water. He was pretty
scared, though.’

Bill drove the Gaar-Scott the rest of the way without incident.
John McKinney sold that engine to a Mr. Carson in Scott County, and
he sold it to a Mr. Kinney’Not McKinney but Kinney,’ says
Bill. In turn, Mr. Kinney sold it to the Holp family, and, from
them, it made its way to its present owner, Ken Knowlton of Milan,
Indiana. In mint restoration, that same Gaar-Scott which Bill
guided along the streetcar tracks so late that night in Lexington
has been featured on the cover of The Iron-Men Album. (July/August
1992see photograph at beginning of story.)

This evening, from the sitting room of Bill’s daughter
Patricia Ellis’s Victorian mansion in historic Madison Place in
Lexington, Bill gazes through the window, and, were it not for the
houses across the street blocking his view, he could see just
beyond them where he piloted the Gaar-Scott on the rails through
the city. He checks his pocket watch. It is late, and others of
Bill’s stories of the legendary epoch when steam was king await
another time to tell.

Bill Lamb’s List of ‘Some Good Engineers I Have
Known’

(As Bill puts it, ‘These men could run engines and also
fix them. When they couldn’t fix them, they junked
them.’)

Harry Woodmansee; Percy Sherman; ‘Big John’ Limmer; Jack
Eckberg; Ken Lewis; Bill Smallie; Frank Miller; Ray Wenger; Raymond
Fork; Ed Gerhard; Frank Thomas; Jennings Barker; Charles
‘Icky’ Barker (Jennings’ son); Lawrence Porter; Henry
‘Doc’ Davis; Ben Slaughter from Versailles, Kentucky;
George Slaughter from Versailles, Kentucky; LeRoy Blaker (began
Montpelier, Ohio, show); Hamp Hoskins; J. D. Roberts; Jack Tucker
(undertaker in Georgetown, Kentucky); Tom Buller; and Pearl
Thompson from Marshall, Missouri.

Everything was going along fine, when here came a streetcar
toward me! That other streetcar operator wasn’t the last, after
all!

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment