Goderich, Ontario, Can.
On a lovely autumn day early in October, 1876, an auction sale
was in progress on the farm of James Macdonald five miles south of
Clinton, Ontario. While the father’s stock and implements went
to the highest bidders a thirteen 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 to straw-carrier and was
operated by a belt from the grindstone. Now, the family were moving
and it had to be left behind. Realizing the situation, a neighbor
boy, Michael Whitmore, came over and offered him fifteen 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, book-keeper 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 fifty
miles east, as the site of their business venture.
Running shy of capital to complete their factory they appealed
to John P. Macdanald’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 thirty
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 backwards with each revolutions. 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
The canvas type machines were called the ‘Standard’ and
were built as long as the 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 before
many years the firm’ 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
Manufacturing Company. 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 1890’s 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 fourteen years the Macdonald family remained
in Nova Scotia before moving on to the vicinity of Bruce field in
what is now the Province of Ontario. Following the death of James
Macdonald the firm was reorganized as The Macdonald Thresher
Company Limited 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 horse-powers of the Pitts type, both down and mounted, up to
the 12 H. P. 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. Boker Company of Swanton, Ohio, to build the well known
‘Baker’ traction engines in Canada. The first of these
engines in the 18 H. P. size were built the next year. The 20 and
22 H. P. sizes followed and in 1914 a special 25 H. P. engine was
developed to meet the demand for heavier engines from Western
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 Devker 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 engines were
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 H. P.
ploughing 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 ploughing engine
was completed and ready to be taken out into the yard for testing
under steam only to find it was an inch and a half 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 Company who considered the plant and location
ideal for their requirements.
Peter Macdonald lived until Nov. 22nd 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 as
used on locomotives and in his spare time in later years
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.