1511 Iglehart, St. Paul, Minn. 55104
I enjoy hearing people relate their experiences with steam
engines and steam threshing. So it is always a pleasure to drop in
for a visit with Mr. Ralph C. Truax of 2214 Marshall Avenue, St.
In 1914, he became employed as a steam engineer at the Truax and
Thayer lignite coal mine at Noonan, North Dakota.
During the summer fallowing season it was the custom to plow
strips around fields of grain as a safeguard against prairie fires.
Large gas tractor outfits were used. He ran an Aultman and Taylor
When the threshing season came, it was sometimes interrupted by
40 mile per hour winds, causing them to quit threshing. Sometimes
on these occasions, the crew would get into town. No liquor was
allowed in North Dakota, although much was bootlegged. So when the
crew arrived in town, they found hard cider on tap at the pool
halls. If they drank too much, they were soon laying on the floor,
Rain or snow as well as the winds that came strong enough to
take a man off his feet, were at least favorable to the pool hall
operators who kept a supply of hard cider on tap, which had been
shipped in from the Twin Cities.
Mr. Truax recalls one occasion when he set the threshing rig in
a position requested by the farmer so that the straw blew into a
ravine; the object was that the straw would accumulate and prevent
land from washing away. The wind came up strong but the men still
could keep a bundle of grain on a pitch fork so they kept on.
Suddenly, the straw pile caught on fire. Luckily it was blown far
enough from the machine and held back by the high wind so that it
didn’t endanger the separator.
Spark arrestors were always kept installed in the smoke stack on
the engine but a spark had escaped resulting in the fire.
Speaking of spark arrestors, extra arrestors were part of the
engine equipment. They were buried in straw, then burned to clear
out the oil and soot accumulation
Mr. Truax recalled moving the 27 H. P. Huber engine and big
advance separator about four miles one forenoon across fields,
dodging pot holes and over a rough terrain.
The grain to be threshed was flax; the last job of the season.
It was late in the fall and a chilly wind hinted of the long winter
that comes early and stays late in northwestern North Dakota.
Arriving at the farm place just at noon, everyone went in for
dinner except Mr. Truax who had a minor repair job to do. Going
back to the separator for something he needed he found shaff
smoldering, ready to blaze up along the sills of the machine.
When the threshing season was ended, Mr. Truax was employed
running a steam engine at the Truax-Thayer lignite coal mine.
‘Lignite’, he says, ‘was good fuel, usually mined about
twenty-five feet underground’. It burned much like briquettes,
and was somewhat similar to anthracite coal. When threshing
operations were within six or seven miles of the mine, lignite was
often used, but if they were threshing farther away, straw was the
Lignite, described as a wood converted into an imperfect kind of
coal, had its place commercially, but it furnished heat for
hundreds of families in North Dakota. It sold for 1.75 per ton.
From spring until late in the fall, he responded to calls
requesting repair as well as trouble shooting jobs on steam
engines. A good share of the trouble, he says, was caused by
inexperienced men who hired out as engineers when they were not
capable of running an engine. Most of them did not have a license
as the law did not require it.
He mentioned one instance where a new engine being operated with
low water in the boiler and the engine nowhere new level, needed
stay bolts replaced.
Dumits were used to stop leaky flues. This gadget fitted into
the flue on each end. A rod ran through the plugs and the length of
the flue. Nuts were tightened on the rod and the leak was stopped.
It was an emergency repair that lasted until a flue could be
It seems that knowledge gained by experience stays with a
person, and comes in handy on most unlooked for occasions. Last
fall, September 1971, he was looking over the engine exhibit at a
Minnesota show. He stopped to look at a fine model Case engine. The
owner said the steam gauge never showed over forty pounds pressure
even if the safety valve was ready to blow. Mr. Truax removed the
steam gauge found water causing the trouble. Replaced, the hand
went up to the actual pressure.