Steam Threshing in the 1880s and 1890s

Firsthand account of working threshing rigs in Iowa

| November/December 1955

After being at the scene of the bridge accident in 1882 and told about the boiler explosion in 1884, what indescribable thing was there about a steam engine which caused me to have a desire to operate or go near one? Those accidents seemed not to dampen my enthusiasm.

10 hp Gaar-Scott traction engine

In 1884, two years after the bridge accident, I walked two miles to see Jas. Bruce thresh with his 10 hp Gaar-Scott traction engine. That was a homely little brute with drive wheels about 8 inches wide, large stack and short smoke box. The only attractive things about it were the copper latch on the reverse lever and the throttle lever which was trimmed in copper. Mr. Bruce traded that engine within a few days from the time I was there for a portable engine. It proved a bad trade but he lived to return to Illinois.

The day I saw Mr. Bruce thresh, I did not even dream, five or six years later, I would be firing, operating and riding that engine over bridges which Mr. Bruce feared to drive, and the part that the engine was to play in my life.

That engine put me into the field 14 seasons with 11 engines of six different makes and into the employ of Advance Thresher Co. in 1902. It caused me to wade through wet weeds to fire a boiler at 4 in the morning, squeeze through the fire-box door opening, into the fire-box of a 10 hp Nichols & Shepard engine at 3 in the morning, expand and bead flues, using kerosene lantern, wash a boiler at that early hour, drive engines over bridges across the Big Rock and operate them in both torrid and frigid temperatures.

10 hp Advance engine

Crops were good in O’Brien County, Iowa, in 1891. Threshing was not finished until a few days before Christmas and cold weather was encountered in December. I operated a 10 hp Advance engine, No. 1676. It was without a jacket and cab.

We threshed flax one extremely cold day. The sun shone brightly but it was so cold the air was blue and a brisk wind blew from the northwest. The flax stacks were partly covered with ice and snow. The water tank was covered with ice, and every time the injector was shut off, it was necessary to drain the hose to prevent its freezing. The drive wheels screeched loudly, as the engine traveled through the snow. Heat could be felt in no place around the engine but in front of the smoke-box, and under-clothes and three pairs of trousers did not prevent my getting cold.

12 hp A.W. Stevens & Sons engine

In 1892 I operated a 12 hp A.W. Stevens & Sons engine, No. 1552, in Lyon County, Iowa. Water was hard there and the engine was belted to an 1892 Minneapolis separator – a heavy draft machine. The boiler was the open bottom fire-box type, with wagon top, dome over the crown sheet, short water legs and grates low. The heat was intense, where the mud settled, giving the boiler a tendency to foam easily.

Mud began showing in the bottom of the glass the evening of the third day generally, not later than the fourth, and it was time to clean the boiler. Nothing else would do, and if not promptly done, the engine primed and mud moved from the bottom to the top of the glass. Lubrication was washed from the cylinder and valve, and trouble was experienced with injectors and lubricators. The engine was well balanced and with a clean boiler; no other engine operated more smoothly, and the operator forgot the rising and falling of the mud in the glass.

A close friend, Leonard Lewis, with whom I grew up at Aurelia, came to Lyon County in 1892 to get work with a threshing crew and came to see me. His training taught him to drive and take care of horses. He was not large but active enough to play short-stop on a small town baseball team. The owner of the Stevens engine hired him to haul water.


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