In nisfail, Alberta, Canada
From the Days of the Steam Plowing Age
(This is Part III)
There were some of the best engines for all around hard slugging which never entered the competition, but those makers had all their head engineers and designers follow every detail. Again, a number of times a Gold Medal winner in the competitions could not, over a period of five years, stand the hard usage of prairie plowing compared to a lower class winner and so, in the end as far as I could see, the great good that came from the whole thing was more perfect design both in engines, boilers and gearing, and more accessibility for making repairs. This was borne out by the attitude of all the gas engine operators. For the first two years an entry never knew whether he would complete the run or not. In four years this had disappeared and was replaced by complete confidence in whatever unit was in operation. The Internal Combustion engine had been developed and was now pushing the grand old steam engine back further each year. One thing all the steam men had satisfaction with was the Brake test. Was it ever grand to see the steam there.
Case 25-75 steamer of 1909 and Case38x58 thresher. The engine is a straw burner.
We turn now for a little, to the experiences of plowing. The more commonly used plows were the Cock-shutt, Parlin and Orendorff, Case Saterley and Reeves steam hoist plows. There were others, but in the Canadian fields these were more commonly seen in the large sizes. In the heavy gumbo we could never use mould boards, but had to use rod bottoms as nothing made would clean as well in black soil. In the third plowing after breaking, the swing was to disc plows from 15 to 20 bottoms. The average load pulled in breaking was 12 to 14 plows cutting 14 inches. If the season was dry, that had to be cut down. The average life of a plow share with 2 new points layed on was 40 days. We used to change shares every 24 hours and always had three sets on hand. Of course a blacksmith had steady work where two engines were going.
As to engines, the writer has used and operated almost all makes of the heavy type. We had a Sawyer Massey, and I believe however, that if this firm had made a double simple or a cross compound, they would have been unable to supply the demand. I know of no better boiler and gears and as a steamer it was one of the best. However, in the end the Reeves was the engine that we kept and liked. The others were good but gave more trouble. One make of a lovely engine to thresh with, but under heavy load, by its type of rear mount, a great strain developed on the sides of the fire box and very seldom would one be seen that had done heavy plowing but what the fire box was bulged outward and gave a lot of flue trouble by vibration. Others were too high and on rough ground would weave and either crack the frame or break a crankshaft. One thing that gave considerable trouble in cold weather was the wet bottom boiler, but on our engine we insulated the whole bottom with two inches of air cell asbestos sheets and covered it with a sheet of metal 1/8 thick. This was bolted to brackets that we put on the sides and each end to hold it up. When the boiler was washed on a cold day and refilled we always put a couple of armfuls of wood under the grates laying on the bottom and set fire to it so the water would not freeze till it was all hot.
I think the greatest expense on the steam engine was the proper lubrication of the gearing of the earlier types where the gears were all exposed. We tried everything from washing them with a steam jet to the use of common buttermilk. Probably the best luck we had was using mica axle grease to which we added three pounds of black graphite and one pound of sulphur to every fifteen pound pail of grease, and used a paint brush to brush it on the gear face each time we stopped to refuel or oil the engine and plows. Generally however, the bull gears and pinions had to be renewed every three years at the longest time. In plowing prairie sod the short wiry prairie wool would cut as bad as dust and often the gearing had to be washed with hot water taken from the feed line with an injector. Water gave a great deal of trouble for it mostly all had either potash or alkili. We found one of the best things to use was a continuous small amount of three pounds of ordinary blue stone (copper sulphate) to every 14 barrels of water. It seemed to form a layer of copper on the sides of the boiler and helped shed the scale. In very bad water we always carried castor oil, and by using it to stop the forming was quite a help, but you had to be very careful; when anything is used one has to increase the oil feed to the cylinder and valves. In threshing with big engines, it was found that coal was better than straw. Although with a small engine up to 25 hp. straw was perfectly successful, especially flax straw. Flax straw in several cases almost caused fire. In a 44 inch Avery thresher the Ixl picker would often wind tight and all we could do would be to clean the thresher out and then run slowly, open the top and wet it; then stop and clean it out. If you stopped first it generally broke into fire and the dust would explode.
In the plowing season it was of course a 24 hour day, changing crews at midday and midnight, so each crew had part of the heat and part of the cooler night. Plowing at night always seemed to have a greater interest, for an engine always ran easier and there was something about it an engineer could not resist. Just one of those things that one has to feel the spell of to know. It gave you a pride and certainty an engineer was wrapped up in his work. What I would give to be able once again to be back in those years.
The work of course, had its hardships. Like the dust kicked off the wheels by wind, or the fine grass whipped around you, along with the heat during the day and the engine heat. The one thing that was a real discomfort was the mosquitoes either just before or after a rain. It was helped some by burning grass off each land before plowing. Each land for power plowing was set to a width of 200 feet to have more room for turning and always a wide head land. The cook car, shop and bunkhouse were set on the head lands so smudges could be made at night to keep flies and mosquitoes away. The run from 9 P. M. to 5 A. M., was always good unless it rained. If that happened you had to stop and wait till the top of the ground dried.
I think that the need for good water and the long distances it had to be hauled was mainly responsible for the turn to the Internal Combustion engine for plowing. There were times when we had to have two four-horse teams on large tanks to haul water 4 to 5 miles which made more expense. In most of the contracting plowing outfits by 1912 it required two tanks for water, one team and man for hauling coal, a cook, and a blacksmith, along with sleeping bunkhouse, cook car, and shop on skids. With two engines running two engineers, two firemen, two plowmen, and everyone had plenty to do in a 12 hour shift. When washing boilers it was done on half of each crews time; if possible in the daytime.
The experiences were many and varied. In part of the prairie heavy land area, hammocks or high knowles were common, and at times it meant going over them with plows set to take the tops off, and these would drop into the depressions. These mounds were generally 12 to 16 inches high. Often extra extension rims were needed on the drive wheels wind pressure at times was quite a factor and made excessive wear on bearings on the main axles.