Canadian Baker Steam Traction Engines

The Decker line of steam engines

| November/December 2004

On a lovely autumn day early in October 1876, an auction sale was in progress on the farm of James MacDonald, 5 miles south of Clinton, Ontario, Canada. While the father's stock and implements went to the highest bidders, a 13-year-old boy stood wistfully, regarding the model threshing machine he had painstakingly constructed from a wooden box and odds-and-ends found around the farm. The little machine was complete down to the straw-carrier and was operated by a belt from the grindstone. Now, the family was moving and it had to be left behind. Realizing the situation, a neighbor boy, Michael Whitmore, came over and offered him 15 cents ... Peter MacDonald had built and sold his first machine in a lifetime devoted to the manufacture of threshing machinery.

The year before, Alex Macpherson, mechanic, and John P. MacDonald, bookkeeper from the firm of Glasgow, Macpherson and Co., of Clinton, Ontario, decided to start a threshing machine business of their own and chose Stratford, a railway center 50 miles east, as the site of their business venture.

Running shy of capital to complete their factory, they appealed to John P. MacDonald's brother James to sell his farm and go into partnership with them. The firm, known as MacDonald and MacPherson Co., built and sold without difficulty the 30 threshers they planned for 1877 and the success of their machines from the start assured increasing sales and prosperity for the company. These threshers were of the conventional apron or canvas type with side-shake shoe.

About 1880, an end-shake shoe was adopted, and four years later, they placed on the market the first of their deck-type separators. This machine was remarkably simple in design. The straw deck was hung on arms below the cylinder and was attached to a revolving crank at the back end. The resulting motion tossed the straw upwards and back with each revolution. In later years the deck was lengthened to replace the tail rakes, but so efficient and easy-running were the early models that the general design was never changed. Wind stackers, self feeders, baggers, weighers and rear cutting attachments were added as they came into general use.

The canvas-type machines were called the 'Standard' and were built as long as demand for this type lasted. While the first deck-type machine was being built, a workman casually referred to it as the 'Decker.' The name caught on and was adopted for the new type separator. The use of the name grew, and for many years the firm's output was advertised as the 'Decker' line of threshing machinery.

Alex MacPherson did not live many years, and after his death, the two MacDonald brothers carried on the business as the MacDonald Mfg. Co. Young Peter attended school in Stratford for two years then entered the Grand Trunk Railway Shops as an apprentice machinist. In addition to learning his trade, Peter's work on locomotives developed a deep and lasting interest in steam engines. A few years later, he and his brother, John K. MacDonald, joined their father and uncle in the threshing machine business where Peter's training and interest was directed towards the mechanical end, while his brother just as naturally favored working with wood.