From the Days of the Steam Plowing Age
Innisfail, Alberta, Canada
(This is Part IV)
The cross compound engine was very good in summer months but we used only the double simple. This was more economical in a whole year and more snappy in a hole. The cross compound was a little slow in the load and if the intercepting valve was used, often the result was a broken engine frame or stripped gears. The tandem compound did not give results and in most cases in a year or so the engine was changed back to a simple single cylinder, as the center head packing would leak or some other fault would develop under high pressure on continuous heavy load. One of the best single side crank engines used was a Robert Bell. In this engine the boiler was suspended in a heavy steel frame and the engine and all gearing was entirely free of the boiler. It worked very well and was easy to handle.
With the coming of steam or power steering, which some contractors used, it did relieve a lot of work on the engineer or steer man. When a steerman was used the engineer did his own firing. However, on any engine operated, we always put on a heavier set of steering chains than was supplied. When on rough ground, if a chain snapped you had to be either very quick on the throttle or have good luck by not having the wheels come around under. Quite a few boilers were very badly bent by wheels coming around striking a teriffic blow under the barrel.
The plows generally favored were of the independent type. Each beam separate which made them more flexible on uneven ground, also they seemed to be easier to raise at the end of a furrow, and in case of striking a soft spot or old loose sod they were a lot easier to get out. If an operator got in too bad all pins could be drawn and the platform pulled away. Of course that meant a half-day lost generally. The engine and chain had to be used to drag the beams clear and then all re-assembled. Just try it once and you would never take a chance again.
If you were plowing sod and a spot with no grass or very dark green grass came up suddenly you would stop and see what it meant, for in most instances there was plenty of trouble under those spots, either soft or black quick sand. If an operator once enters a spot like this with a big engine tied to a string of plows he will be a lot wiser after. That is where experience only can teach. . . However, there was always a way out and we always carried two railway ties on each plow platform. They could be laid cross ways of the face of the rear engine wheels and by canning them on could generally raise out of a bad spot by leaving the plow or load uncoupled, then move around and pull the load out backwards. With all the different trouble that one could get into, there was usually one main reason just plain carelessness or lack of experience.
The season for breaking from the time frost was out deep enough to be dry on top till about mid-July. Ground broken after that never seemed to grow crops the same. From then on till harvest started or about a month, back setting five inches deep was the general system. In back setting, or, properly speaking, second plowing after two crops disc and packers or harrows were attached. This often required extensive work in making proper hitches to allow for turning.
As a general practice flax was sown on sod freshly turned and sometimes by discing the next two years flax was the main crop. Wheat especially, the Old Red Fyffe variety never yielded till after the second plowing mainly because the grass turned down formed an insulator between the top and bottom of the furrow and did not let moisture come up.
One of the most beautiful sights could be seen on the prairies in those days. Sometimes one could see two solid square miles of waving blue flowers from the flax in the mornings. At noon the flowers always close up and then it looked like a great lake of dark green billowing water which later turned to the lovely chocolate brown of mature flax. Then in a couple of years it would be replaced by wheat. Never could there be be a sight to be more thankful for than a section of wheat all in stooks with a thresher working in it. It always seemed sad to see all that in its glory and then in winter such a sight of cold loneliness such as the prairie could give especially in the day of large farms with few buildings.
It was in these days that great respect goes to the women who did without necessary things in the home but carried on. One could and often did see a young mother come to the door and shading her eyes by her hand, look across the great prairies with a lonely look but never complained. They always did their part.
By 1912 we could all see the sign of the great steam engine being permanently replaced. Each morning the steady thump, thump of the Oil Pull, both Hart Parr and Rumely was more evident and then came the steady rhythm of the four cylinder gas engine in large sizes, the Twin City, Kinnard Haines, Big Four with its 8 foot diameter drivers and the Pioneer and Universal. Sales were increasing, but none of them could ever match the steady exhaust from the double steam engine or the sharp even bark of the single engine. Of all the engines the old 'Queen Ann American Abell' was the dearest. What a real thrill to stand and listen to those great machines coming down a furrow with a load. The mounting cost of properly licensed engineers and trouble with water gave the advantage to the gas engine owners and so the end was not far ahead for the finest machine man ever had.
Through all this one might say, 'Is that all you did'. No, we had our week at the fairs, there was always time to hunt or fish, and when we came back we started where we left off. Sunday was always respected and a day of rest. People met and enjoyed simple companionship by being in their own homes or church.
I have been asked by younger men 'what was in life in those days that makes you older men hold it with such pleasure in memory'. I like to put my answer this way. We did not have nearly as much as of today but we were satisfied with life and, life in those days was at a pace that one could travel and enjoy and have time enough to see the beauty in things around us all.
Now we have passed those years and in closing this little story I hope it may bring some pleasure to those who were through them, and keep fresh some of the memories that do bring comfort and pleasure, and above all, to each one, both men and women who were 'pioneers' which spelled out perseverance and fortitude and set an example that is always respected. To the pioneer in any industry goes historical respect, and thanks from all who follow. May all these memories be kept alive for the effort is worthwhile.