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.


Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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