Pioneers in Rural America

| July/August 1980

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Since this nation emerged from a so-called howling wilderness into an industrialized society within the span of three centuries, it has long been customary to eulogize those contributing to this significant achievement. Natty steamboat captains and locomotive engineers with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks are glamorized; Casey Jones in his 'Cannonball' is immortal; but unnoticed are the steam engineers who brought power farming to rural America.

Here were ingenious men, tough and resourceful, who in greasy overalls coaxed their rusty engines around straw piles or sighted their puffing dreadnoughts down the long furrows of the plains. They were engaged in one of the most dramatic enterprises of frontier life. As mechanical pioneers they were often ahead of the times. Long before the appearance of tractors or automobiles, these farm engineers had already demonstrated their independence. They brought self-propelled steam engines which could climb hills, reverse themselves, crawl out of mud holes and after a long day's work in the field could carry their master home for supper.

When the wealthy aristocrat in the city was still confined to the horse and buggy, the common farmer was chuffing across the fields and roads of the countryside in a private, self-propelled machine.

Who were these barnyard mechanics? Why is their work worthy of recollection?

Historically, the early farm engineers predate the railroad engineers. In England, George Stephenson's first locomotive ran in 1813; in America, the 'Stourbridge Lion' made the first successful run in 1829. The following year Peter Cooper's 'Tom Thumb' gained fame on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. But meanwhile, steam engines had been installed on several Southern plantations as early as 1807, the year in which Robert Fulton made his historic trip up the Hudson River in the 'Claremont.' While Stephenson, Cooper and Fulton received world renown for bringing steam power to transportation and commerce, apparently no one noticed that rural Americans had already started a revolution of their own by applying steam power to agriculture. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, issued a report in 1838 revealing that prior to 1830 it had become rather common place for planters to purchase stationary steam engines for threshing rice, sawing wood, ginning cotton and grinding cane in the sugar mills. Niles Weekly Register in 1836 predicted that 'in a few years, steam power will be applied to such a variety of purposes that the horse, or the ox will be no longer required.'

The first farm steam engineers worked in the South where the rapidly expanding rural economy encouraged planters to purchase the most modern machinery on the market. Frederick Law Olmsted once described these plantation owners as 'the most intelligent, enterprising and wealthy men of business in the United States.' When water, wind and mule power proved inadequate, these men imported 16-horsepower Fawcett engines from Liverpool which cost $7000 each. Bolted down to solid foundations and belted to line shafts, they drove the various plantation machines. Chimneys as high as 50 feet provided draft for the fireboxes where wood, coal or dried bagasse were used for fuel. Overseers and negro slaves supervised the engines.


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