Can Steam Come Back?

The following article is reprinted from the October 1931 edition
of American Thresherman and Farm Equipment. It was submitted to I M
A by W. E. Neal of 613 8th Avenue, Charles City, Iowa 50616.

Tis but human to cling to the old things. The old swimming hole,
the long walk to school through the snow drifts of winter and the
almost bottomless roads of spring and fall bring back boyhood
recollections. Getting the mail once a week after perhaps a five or
even a 10-mile drive, brings back pleasant memories.

Isolation had its keen compensations in that it brought in the
news from the outside through the peddler, the salesman, the stock
buyer and the casual call of a neighbor.

How we boys liked to see the pack peddler come for an overnight
stay. The mysteries that pack contained will never be forgotten. It
mattered not that the merchandise was soiled through much handling.
In our eagerness to see every article which the canvas-wrapped pack
contained, we crowded in to the point where our parents became
annoyed and we were fortunate if we were not sent off to bed, much
to our disappointment. That pack was a veritable ‘Pandora’s
box,’ and the peddler was a personage of considerable note in
our estimation.

There was no telephone over which we could gossip or call the
hands at threshing time, but how we boys enjoyed riding horseback
from neighbor to neighbor, advising each of the fact that the
thresher was coming and would they be on hand with as many empty
grain sacks as they could possibly bring. The day or two of
threshing was in the same class as the county fair, the Sunday
School picnic or the circus an event which came but once a

There was no radio to give us the news of the day even before it
appeared in the newspapers, and the present-day radio program to
which we have now grown so accustomed, as a matter of course, would
have satisfied our imagination beyond our wildest dreams.

Hard work was the order of the day, and even we boys made our
play stunts as difficult as possible. It was the boy who could do
the hardest thing who set the standard for the others, and it is
those hard things which we now look back upon with fond memories
rather than the easy idle hours we whiled away.

There is always a romantic halo about something old. Old
paintings, old furniture, old roads, old gnarled and weather-beaten
trees. We place them in our memory book to be referred to at
fireside reveries or when mental palliatives are needed as a relief
from the stress and hustle of modern times.

Grandma’s day was a wonderful day, to hear her tell it, and
we ourselves like to believe it and do, especially if we have
passed middle age.

A considerable number of the readers of American Thresherman and
Farm Equipment, if I am to judge from the correspondence which is
received from them, view with regret, not unmixed with sorrow, the
changes which are taking place in farm power equipment and the
efficient adoption of modern methods in farming.

One reader says: ‘I have been a continuous reader of your
magazine since 1898, and I want to tell you how good it seemed to
me to see a picture of a steam engine in one of your recent

‘Such pictures as the one referred to, look good to
thousands of we older men who stood by your magazine in the good
old days when threshing was a business lasting from 30 to 90 days,
which now, thanks to the gas tractor and the ‘toy’
thresher, lasts only about 10 days.

‘We threshermen don’t care much about the combine in
this section of the country (Minnesota). It isn’t a success,
and I doubt if it will ever become popular in our climate. I
don’t object to your giving space to the combine and tractor,
but why is it that we threshermen who are ‘still sticking to
steam’ can’t have some consideration too? Every farm paper
in the country boosts the combine. Even the Sunday School papers
show pictures of this machine at work.

‘The fact is plain. The builders of threshing machinery have
us pretty well sold on threshers, and they must change the trend in
some manner so it will be possible to sell us again. They want the
older methods to be forgotten, so the farm papers of today
‘soft pedal’ on threshers and steam engines, and if they
dare to show a steam engine cut at all, it is usually labeled as
obsolete or out-of-date power.

‘In Minnesota and Iowa alone, there are hundreds of the old
reliable ‘steam engines’ threshing the golden grain, and
their owners are going to stay with them just as long as those
engines can be made to go. Many of them have been in use 20, 25 and
even 30 years, and they are still going strong and steady.

‘I am a steam man, and I am not ashamed of the fact. I have
been called upon several times to step in with steam and take the
place of a disabled gas tractor while it is being overhauled in
harvest time, and the crew always took off their hats to steam when
I did it.’

Here is another letter written at about the same time from a
Kentucky subscriber, down in the country of fine horses and blue
grass. He says:

‘I believe you did the right thing by rebuilding our
magazine and am especially glad that you incorporated the old name
so well with the new. I am beginning to feel that within a few
short years we will have a big and much wanted and needed farm
machinery publication with as many pages as it contained around 20
years ago.

‘By the way, I would like to state the fact that I began as
a subscriber with the May, 1910 issue, and have preserved every
copy from that time. So you see, I am especially interested in its
welfare and you can count on me as permanent on your mailing

‘I am a steam man 100 per cent, and it was the steamer days
that made our journal but now as conditions have forced us to
change, as I said at first, you did well by rebuilding, as you have
greatly improved it and now I believe it will be more wanted than
ever since the big steamer days.

‘Now I feel you can truly advertise it as ‘Here’s
what you are looking for,’ and make this impression on farmers
most especially.’

I am fully in sympathy with the feelings of the Minnesota
subscriber. I operated a steam traction engine for a number of
falls on threshers and corn shredders, and the thrill that one gets
out of a steam throttle is one never to be forgotten. The odor of
lubricating oil on a hot boiler is perfume and consciousness of
power, as the steam is released into the cylinder, is one to make
any man feel that it is good to be alive.

For the purpose for which it was intended, steam power on the
farm will never have an equal, at least not until our engineers
devise something about which we know nothing at present.

Farm power requirements in those old steam engine days were
simple. There was no thought of using steam for anything but the
heaviest belt jobs. As a matter of fact, many threshermen went
broke before they realized that steam required a higher price per
bushel for threshing than did the sweep horse power driven outfit.
Interest and depreciation had to be figured on a much higher
investment and repair bills were often-times a considerable

It was steam that taught the thresherman he must charge a
reasonable rate per bushel and stick to it. I well remember when
the first steam outfit pulled into our neighborhood. It charged one
cent per bushel more than did the old horse power outfit which had
been doing the jobs for years.

Some of the farmers accepted the new rig because it looked as if
the work could be done more quickly and there would be some saving
in horse feed, as the fuel used in the steam engine was wood of
which there was an abundance picked up about the farm.

There was also the steam whistle to call the hands to work early
in the morning, thus insuring an earlier start and a longer
day’s work, and as humanity in those days differed little from
what it is today, there was the added glamour of being

The responsibility for the change which has taken place in the
farm power situation is one that rests upon the shoulders of no one
in particular. It is true that gas tractors were first manufactured
without any real demand on the part of the farmer or thresherman.
Manufacturers, however, are continually on the watch for something
new, and the fact that those first tractors met with a ready sale,
encouraged others to go into the business.

The development of the automobile perhaps did more than any
other one thing to speed up the gas tractor industry by developing
motors, bearings, lubrication, ignition, and lighter and stronger
materials. The sales of gas tractors soon passed those of steam,
and as quantity production always makes for lower costs, the price
of steam engines per horse power soon became very high as compared
with gas tractors.

Today there are only three concerns which make any pretense of
building steam engines for threshing purposes, and their outputs
are so small as to be negligible when compared with farm power
requirements. It would take some stretch of the imagination to
believe that steam traction engines for farm use would ever again
be thought of.

I know it is hard for old-time threshermen to think of forsaking
their old steam tractors, and I do not blame them for hanging on as
long as possible, which will in many cases be for several years
yet, because those old steam engines, used as they are for only a
few days in a year, will last an incredibly long time.

But the change has come from steam to gas, and the introduction
of the general purpose tractor is strengthening the position of the
gas tractor more and more every day. There is no turning back, and
it is quite safe to say that the thresherman of the near future
will not be able to buy a new steam traction engine at anything
like a reasonable price no matter how badly he wants one.

All honor to those old-time threshermen who pioneered the
business through poor roads and bridges, cut-throat prices and with
equipment that was not always the best insofar as construction was
concerned. They are the ones who made the threshing industry
possible. They are the ones who finished the grain crops in order
that the world might be fed. May they rest in peace, secure in the
thought of a work well done through difficulties and hardships, but
with compensations by way of thrills that the present-day
thresherman is not privileged to experience.

Farm Collector Magazine
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