UNION CITY, INDIANA.
'My steam engine'll beat those astronauts a-walkin' on the Moon anytime,' said Frank Cornish, fetching us a Sunday dinner of genuine Kentucky fried chicken which he handed through our trailer door. (You were expecting Colonel Saunders?)
Frank was in a hurry. Couldn't get back to his 20-horsepower Minneapolis, it seemed, fast enough to stir up the fires and send the black smoke billowing up through the tall stack to entertain the crowds that had gathered 'round at the peak of the Blue Grass Engine Show at the Harrodsburg, Ky., 'fire grounds.' We won't say that Frank Cornish was 'excited as a little boy', climbing on the deck of his Minneapolis Engine, being the grown man he is. But it certainly looked like it.
Frank Cornish represents the typical southern gentleman type of steam engineer, his subtle wit, the soft Kentucky drawl and easy mannerisms betraying an affluence for good living and fastidious interests, coming from ' 'way back.'
'Steam threshing's been a long time in your family, hasn't it, Frank?', said I.
' 'Bout a hundred years,' answered Frank. 'My Grandfather, George D. Cornish, started it all. Then my father, Lud Cornish, and Uncle Rome Cornish carried it on through the late 1800's and early 1900's. They had an Aultman-Taylor Portable Steam Engine that they pulled with oxen.'
'We still have the original yoke, made of poplar, which they used to pull it around with, from one place to another,' said Frank. 'They had what they called the Groundhog Separator. They had no feeder and no blower. They cut the strings by hand, unless they were using grapevines, which they sometimes did when they couldn't afford twine. They put it in, a few straws at a time, then forked it out the back. All wheat was cradled in those days. That was before the binder came into bein'.'
'Most of the time a good cradler tied it with the straws, if he knew how to tuck it under and make a good bind of it. It would hold 'til they got it to the machine, then they'd unbind it and run a few straws which beat the stick all to pieces,' explained Frank. 'They pulled that rig around and threshed all over Mercer County here. But it didn't take the engineers long to figure out that the engine could be pulling itself.'
'When they put gears on the engine, they started calling it a traction engine,' continued Cornish. 'They bought one of those and my Uncle Rome Cornish took it to Oklahoma to do threshing, while my folks bought another one to thresh with in this area.'
The early engines the Cornish family threshed with were small power, being only six to eight horsepower, sufficient unto the day, of course. But one of the amusing events that Frank likes to relate pertains to that far-distant day when the rig would be moving across to new territory. Grandfather Cornish had to go to town in his buggy, to fetch some resin or molasses, whatever was available, to dress the belts. But before he left, he warned the crew that they'd be going past a pond on the way and advised them to stop and fetch a couple buckets of water to slake the thirst of the tired and overheated oxen. But the warning must've gone in one ear and out the other without leaving an impression.
'They just didn't listen to Grandfather, ' says Frank. 'Or at least they didn't understand. So, the oxen just pulled the engine right out into that muddy half-acre pond and proceeded to get their own drink.'
'Of course the engine submerged and sunk into the mud. It didn't hurt the engine particularly, but they had to make them a winch by cutting a post and setting it loosely into the ground,' chuckled Cornish, which probably wasn't so funny to the crew during the hot harvest season. 'Someone loaned them an inch rope off an old well drill which they secured to the post, then they got a long twenty or thirty-foot locust pole and fastened it onto that post, then let the oxen walk 'round 'n 'round and wound the winch up which eventually pulled the engine out on dry land.'
'It took them the better part of three days,' says Frank. 'The oxen had pulled the engine way out into the middle of that pond and were enjoying the cool water. But cooling off the engine so quick, when it hit the water, caused some of the stay-bolts to loosen. Then they had to get their big hammer and what they called a swedgin' tool and beat 'em back so they'd hold water again.'
'I don't think Grandfather ever forgot that making his livin' at threshin' and losing three days,' mused Cornish with a sly grin. 'I suppose he made from eight to ten dollars in those days.'
'My father took over the threshing then, using a twin-cylinder Frick Engine a mighty good one,' says Frank. 'We kept it for several years, then we went to gas power a twenty-forty-two Nichols and Shepard tractor, but didn't like it. It was a big fellow, as large as one of my small steam engines and used seventy-five gallons of gasoline a day. It was a monster. It had no crank-case, but pumped its oil just like a steam engine. Oil went over the bearing one time and right out onto the ground. That's a fact it used the oil one trip. It was two-cylinders, and had one pump for each main and one for each rod very powerful, but not smooth power like steam.'
'We were used to steam and didn't like it, so we got rid of it,' 'minds Cornish. 'The old separators with riddles and straw-racks, when you had jerky power, they tended to loosen them and tear 'em up where the old steam had been smooth and steady power all our life. Steam's still the best power yet. Most people don't realize it, but most railroad wrecking crews still use a big steam wrecker. The Southern Railroad keeps its steam wrecker steamed up three-hundred and sixty-five days a year.'
'I finished up my threshin' in 1950. After Dad quit, I used nothing but steam,' recalls Frank. 'I got a big Nichols and Shepard twin-cylinder engine, rear-mounted, 25-horsepower, then later a little 16 horse Garr-Scott. I've had Russells and Rumelys, and now have this Minneapolis and Aultman-Taylor. We've had steam engines in our family for a hundred years. I've had most every kind not all though. Never had a Peerless or Geiser, but I like them all.'
'Steam's in your blood, isn't it Frank,' said I.
'I'm 'fraid it is,' quoth he.
For the past twelve years Frank Cornish has served his hometown area as Mercer County Engineer.
'I got so poor tryin' to run this old-time machinery,' says Frank, 'I had to go to work for the county to keep from starvin'.'
Born fifty-seven years ago in the farm home that's been the Cornish homestead for a century, says Frank Cornish with a sly, southern drawl, 'I still live there-it's beginnin' to feel like home to me. My Grandfather owned it, then my father, and now we've lived in the same place all these years. Feel like I know my way around the place.'
Frank Cornish's first love, of course, is for his lovely wife, Anna. To Frank, no one can cook like Anna whose southern fried ham and special biscuits have unusual powers of whetting the hungry appetite far beyond recall. To this we can heartily testify even 'us northerners' who partook of some of Anna's choice culinary arts along with the afore-mentioned Kentucky 'fra'd chicken.'
Second only to Anna, comes his love for his steam engines.
'I feel awful lucky to have a son-in-law and a grandson that's both interested in steam. That little boy, Travis, only four years old, can tell you every part of a steam engine already.'
It's always a picturesque sight, one not to be soon forgotten, seeing Frank Cornish throttle his big Minneapolis or Aultman-Taylor steam engine, past the ancient, historic Harrodsburg Fort with his little grandson, Travis Wheeler, sharing the swaying deck as the twain head for the Blue Grass Engine Show at the Mercer County 'Firegrounds'.
'I told my son-in-law, Bill Wheeler, to run my Minneapolis Engine this year at the show,' mused Frank. 'I let him know that this time he'd be on his own, runnin' it, while I'd be over on the Aultman-Taylor.'
But in between the threshing jags at the Blue Grass Engine Shows, there were the times that both Frank Cornish and son-in-law, Bill Wheeler, had to climb down off their steam engine 'thrones', long enough to exhibit other old-time and historic equipment they had fetched from the Cornish paternal homestead.
More than once young Bill Wheeler just didn't possess enough brawn to get the big flywheel turning on his 25-horse-power Patton Gas Engine-the largest of the Blue Grass Gasoline Alley exhibits. And of course there would be Frank Cornish lending a little muscle and encouragement till the big thing began to fire.
And there are always Frank's special contributions to the Blue Grass Antique Auto exhibits-a 1927 Willys Knight and a 1918 Nash Truck of World War I, solid-tire vintage.
'My old Willys-Knight was the 'Cadillac' of its era,' chortles Frank. 'It has no valve-tappets or springs to make noise. It has two crank-shafts instead of one, six cylinder-heads, two manifolds and eighteen connecting rods three to each cylinder. Twelve of those connecting rods ran the sleeve valves.'
Frank let me drive his Willys-Knight over the Mercer County Fairgrounds. It ran as smoothly as when it was out-shopped back in '27. There were no valves to grind-each valve being a sort of small piston running in its own cylinder, actuated by the valve crank-shaft. The Willys-Knight engine being almost as quiet and smooth as a Stanley Steamer.
Then there is Frank's 1918 Nash Truck with flat-stake bed, and sign that reads, 'Local and Long Distance Hauling.'
'The guarantee says you void your warrantee if you drive this truck over eighteen miles an hour,' chuckles Cornish. 'So no one's goin' to do any long distance hauling, less he's got plenty o' time.'
After this year's Blue Grass Show, Frank Cornish was looking to new adventures. At one time, prior to the war, he was stationed on the old battleship Arizona which later went down in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese air attack there.
'I've been wanting to fly out and see how many of my old buddies' names are among the eleven-hundred listed as missing when the Arizona was bombed,' speculates Frank. 'That Japanese bomb hit right in the boiler room, where my department was at one time. Only two men survived. They were blown out into the sea and managed to swim away before the fire spread. Many are still buried under that hulk.'
'I'd much rather go by steam boat or steam engine,' chuckles Cornish.
' 'Bout every time I muster up enough courage to think I could fly, then one of them big planes crashes and kills a lot o' people then it takes me another year to get up enough nerve again to fly.'
After the Blue Grass Engine Show comes to a close each year, it's back to the county engineer drafting boards for Iron Man Frank Cornish. And there's the farming to oversee, which, though small, nevertheless provides that old-time rural atmosphere so dear to any steam thresherman's heart.
'We farm just about as little as we can,' laughs Cornish. 'Couple acres o' tobacco, and we always manage to have a big garden. The rest is all pasture for our stock cows 'n calves'n to pasture the old Iron Horses in.'
We doff our damnyankee hat to ye, 'Cunnel' Cornish for preserving the Iron Horses the Mighty Minneapolis, the Aultman-Taylor 20, as well as the grand old cars 'n trucks 'n gas engines you always embellish the up-and-coming
Blue Grass Engines Shows with each year. May your vaunted steam horses ever thrive on the Cornish Kentucky Blue Grass, out hind the Cornish Homestead barns.
And who knows, Frank may be when you take your seat in our honored Hall of Iron Man Fame, there is that slight possibility that President Carl Secchi might award you with a special Champion Whistle-Tooter's Plaque for all those years o' tootin' yer own whistle.
We've already been tootin' our whistle over that Kentucky 'fra'd' chicken, 'Cunnel' Cornish. (You were expecting us to say, 'Cunnel' Saunders No?)