3501 Bristol Highway, Kingsport, Tennessee
The purpose of this humble article is not to give a history of, nor to explain the working, operation and care of a steam engine. I look forward to the time when someone will make such interesting and needed contribution. In this, permit me, please, to be more personal and, sentimental.
NO PICTURES OF THE PAST are more vivid in my mind than are those of steam engines, steam threshers and steam saw mills. 'I thought I heard a whistle toot away off somewhere this morning,' says someone. Well, yes you did,' says another, 'I heard it myself, and they say the steam thresher is coming to Nelse Brown's.' And sure enough, the threshing season has opened up in old East Tennessee!
Don't speak. Just a minute, be quiet. I'm listening to music of long ago. I hear those steam whistles as the sound echoes through my soul to this day, and I see those slowly moving wonders of beauty and power; I hear their rumbling wheels, whirring belts, tattooing sprockets, and grinding gears as they roll again across the picture-tube of my mind.
One of my first impressions was when with two older sisters, Flora and Bertha, we inspected a steam saw mill on the farm of grandfather, Robert Hale Gray, where I was born and lived. The crew was absent; the big steam portable was cold. After looking the situation over, turning a few try cocks from which water drained we came to the unanimous conclusion that the thing might 'explode' and quietly abandoned the idea of further exploration, leaving the big giant in mystery and stillness.
At another time I ran over to grandfather's big barn where they were threshing and before getting inside the barn lot, a dangerous boar called 'the biting hog' attacked me, got me down and was biting at my shoulder when my aunt Rebecca ran to my rescue and clubbed off the vicious beast, cutting short what might have been for me a tragic experience, as well as my anticipated pleasurable experience with the threshers. After cleaning my clothes, cleansing my shoulder and treating it, I soon passed into a boyhood haven, for this was the day of hoop skirts and bustles and seated on my aunt's bustle, my arms clinging to her shoulders and my legs wrapped around her waist, we sailed around the house again and again, onto the front porch, through the hallway, and being a split-level house, dropped down into the kitchen, with, it seemed to me, the speed of Citation or Nashau and banqueted on butter bread and jam.
With grandfather's death, the rather large farm was divided, more marriages took place, more houses built, which meant more machinery and more boyish fun. I remember when Uncle Sam employed a little steam outfit, powered by a little 6 hp. Geiser to do some ripping and planning, and this portable sat on the side of the same Cedar Creek, but farther down than the big portable I mentioned before. I can hear that shrill whistle right now, it seems. I have seen the blue wood smoke from that little boiler extend down the valley nearly to the Holston River and hang suspended there like some celestial thoroughfare over which angelic chariots might move in iridescent splendor.
Soon our family moved from the little log house on the grandfather estate, to father's share of that same farm which meant more building and more machinery. There I saw my first horse-power. We had used steam power, but this outfit got the job and to me it was a novelty to see the eight horses move around and around, each horse stepping with expert precision over the 'tumbling rod' and to hear the yelling and popping whip-lash of the driver. Yet, with all the animation, poetry of motion of those circling horses, something was lacking the smoke, the sizzling steam, the pop valve and the whistle.
In our community, if one would say 'Mahlon Susong' he would bring to the mind of the listener stallions. When you saw him, he was always on a stallion. That was his business. So, when you speak the name 'Harrison Wexler', steam engines come to mind, and threshers. Always on his place you would see three or four steam engines, one of which was of vertical type. We called them 'tub engines'. This type was propelled by steam but steered by oxen. I do not need to comment on the roads of that day. It was all fun to the kids, just to see the traction engine slip and slide. We would help cut cedars or raid a roadside fence for rails to aid traction. If all this was a headache to the crew, it was a picnic to our crowd of little sinners.
Think then of 'setting' in unthinkable places separator in hallway of the barn, engine up on a hillside above the barn. You who have threshed only over prairie and plain do not know what I am talking about. To level this engine it required a stack of cord wood to bolster up the front wheels. You of the plains imagine this, only with us it was not imagination. As we slept we did not dream, we had nightmares. Great fun though.
Never to be forgotten was the time when Henry Little of Bluff City, pulled the first J. I. Case traction engine I ever saw into our place. It was brand new, a beautiful center crank with an 'Independent pump' on the left side. The basket weave and circular design of the guard grills, I could never forget. Nor Henry who was so good to let me ride with him from set to set. He was in my audience as an old man, once as I spoke, but now has passed from us.
I remember too, the first complete Aultman-Taylor outfit. This model transmitted the power through a rod, bevel gears, the clutch near the crank shaft. For our country, it was-geared a bit high. Some called this the 'sunflower' drive.