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.
In the early 1890s, John P MacDonald's health and other interest resulted in his withdrawal, leaving James and his two sons to carry on the business. James MacDonald died in December 1911. Born in Scotland, he was only a few months old when his family crossed the ocean to Nova Scotia in 1831. John P was the first child born during the 14 years the MacDonald family remained in Nova Scotia before moving on to the vicinity of Brucefield, in what is now the province of Ontario. Following the death of James MacDonald, the firm was reorganized as The MacDonald Thresher Co. Ltd., and a modern factory was built at the eastern outskirts of Stratford to take care of their increasing output.
No engines were built by the MacDonald firm in the early years, but horsepower of the Pitts type, both down and mounted, up to the 12 HP size were built and the company sold John Abell and C. Norsworthy portable engines to customers who wanted complete outfits. The demand for traction engines finally persuaded the firm to begin their manufacture, and in 1905 arrangements were made with the A. D. Baker Co. of Swanton, Ohio, to build the well-known Baker traction engines in Canada. The first of these engines in the 18 HP size were built the next year. The 20 and 22 HP sizes followed, and in 1914, a special 25 HP engine was developed to meet the demand for heavier engines from western Canada.
Early 'Decker' engines were built the same as the 1906 models of A. D. Baker engines. Later ones had minor changes, including a longer connecting rod and Decker valve gear. In this reverse gear, the eccentric rod was lengthened and the valve motion taken from the extreme end through the angle rocker arm placed ahead towards the steam chest, an arrangement requiring only a short valve stem rod. In 1913, the first piston valve engine was built, making the Decker one of the few, if not the only, piston valve traction engine built in Canada.
All Decker engines were rear-mounted without springs, on round, closed-bottom boilers with the exception of the 25 HP plowing engine, which had an open-bottom-type boiler and a full-width intermediate gear shaft above the boiler. An old employee tells with amusement about the time the first big plowing engine was completed and ready to be taken out into the yard for testing under steam, only to find it was an 1-1/2 inches too wide to go through the door. The MacDonald firm had no boiler shop. Their first boilers were built by the Clinton Thresher Co., and after the Clinton foundry burned in 1907, the majority of their boilers were built by the John Inglis Co., of Toronto, Ont.
During World War I, the firm used much of its equipment for the manufacture of artillery shells. After the war, they dropped the manufacture of steam engines and concentrated on gasoline tractors. The unfortunate choice of a variable-speed friction drive that was excellent in theory but would not stand up to hard usage, proved a serious financial hardship, and in 1923 the firm sold out to the Brooks Steam Car Co., who considered the plant and location ideal for their requirements.
Peter Macdonald lived until Nov. 22, 1950, and remained one of the old school of steam lovers who never could reconcile himself to the gas age. He was a great admirer of the Walschart valve gear used on locomotives, and in his spare time constructed a reverse gear of this type for use on traction engines. Unfortunately, the fate of the farm steamer had been sealed and his valve gear never had a trial.
The text of this article was originally published in the September/October 1952 issue of Iron-Men Album. We'd like to know more about the MacDonald Thresher Co.'s Decker engines and other products. If you have photos, literature or information, please send it along to us here at Steam Traction. Please note if we need to return materials provided.