Iron-Man, Joe Harlan, operates some engines for Francis Bell at the Platte City, Missouri show. Wherever steam doth blow there's Harlan Joe''. Picture from Joe Harlan. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390
Union City, Indiana
Coming into this world around the turn of the century might well have portended a very bleak life, indeed, for the average Missouri farm lad even at the very most. News of what happened in the big, wide world beyond the line fence barely trickled through. And even if it did, it was at best a week or two late. But nobody cared, for there were the manly chores a little boy had to face up to, such as helping Dad milk the cows, chopping kindling and lugging it in for Mom's big wood range to boil the coffee and fry the bacon 'n eggs in time for breakfast with just enough time to run back and crank the DeLaval cream separator and wash up in time for breakfast. And then, with lunch pail in one hand and bookstrap over shoulder, it was off to the one-room school, down the mud road, trekking 'cross field 'n glen and fording 'cricks' to lug in the fire wood and stroke the classroom fire and yank on the belfry rope in time for teacher to begin the morning class.
It was a long time before the era of the fabulous luxury of rapid communication known as the crystal radio. Only a few of the more affluent boasted investment in such cultural extravagances as a tin-horn crank Edison talking machine or foot-pedal reed organ to entertain their guests with an Uncle Josh cylinder record or gather round and sing hymns in the front parlor. Certainly there were no such things as daily newspapers, for the mails barely trickled through, fetching at best only a weekly gossip column from the country seat and a farm magazine or seed catalog or two. Indeed, the only efficient and rapid 'news editing' was done around the pot-bellied stove down at the country store with a generous spicing of florid accounts and personal opinions tossed in for good measure. Nobody ever heard of an A.P. or U.P.I. by-line. And who cared anyhow what with the constant relay of village gossips dropping by, grinding out their verbal 'newsprint' from morn till night, world without end Amen?
Oh yes, someone had mentioned that, in the big cities, there were such contraptions called 'telephones'. But it was a long time before the country store would up-grade its news-gathering media and editorial potential by having one of the new-fangled hand-cranked models installed on the center post, over by the gossip bench beside the pot-bellied stove.
'I was born back in 1901, and that was really back in the horse and buggy days,' says J. W. Harlan of Independence, Mo. 'By the year of 1972, I think I have seen more so-called progress than since the beginning of time.' (And who's to doubt your claim, Joe? Not I.)
'The rural mail routes had just been established and our only contact with the outside world was a weekly newspaper, or some farm magazines,' says J. W. 'I recall the first gasoline engines that came out, but the steam engine - the only power except man and horsepower was just getting a good start.'
When young Joe Harlan was 'borned into this old world', the steam engine still had many of its best and finest years ahead of it. For instance, the Baker engine was still being experimented on by its designer and chief engineer, Abner Baker, at the Baker Factor in Swanton, Ohio. Old Baker No. 1 had been pretty well perfected back in '98. But it was only a horse-drawn portable, and yet to follow would be the moble line of Baker self-propelled steam traction engines with such innovations as the distinguished Baker Valve Gear, the Uniflow principle and many others. All of which lent that well-known sharp cut-off which has endeared the Baker engines to the men who owned and ran them, and to the many fans who now hear them with delight at the numerous steam threshing shows throughout our land. Not to mention the fact that the efficiency of the Baker Engine Valve Gear was later adapted over to some fifteen thousand railroad locomotives throughout the United States and Mexico, hauling both freight and passenger trains to their daily destinations.
'I can recall the upright engines and the hand-fed separators and horsepower feed grinders,' recalls Joe Harlan. (Being from Missouri, maybe Joe meant mule power.)
But power it was whether mule or horse. And it and manpower were the only forces of energy available to man to get his work done on the American farm until the advent of King Steam.
'The few small gas engines that came out in the teens were for wood saws and other farm chores,' says Harlan. 'By the time I was ten or twelve years of age, I was doing a man's work in the field with a team of horses. We cut and stored ice for summer use, when I was a teenager. The first automobiles came to our community about 1910 or 1912. We bought our first car in 1918 a Model-T Ford, during the First World War.'
'Our fuel was wood or coal, and I remember the first kerosene (better known as coal-oil) stoves,' 'minds Iron Man, Joe Harlan. 'We had no bath tubs, no running water, in fact, we had to haul water for washing for miles in dry winters, and it would freeze in the barrels.'
'There were no hospitals, no dentists, (OUCH!) and no undertakers,' says Harlan, 'Until about 1920.' (Feller didn't dare to get a toothache, or even die, eh Joe?) 'Of course the cities had electric lights, and some of these services, but none of these were in the rural districts.' recalls J. W.
'Trucks with solid rubber tires followed shortly after the cars,' says Harlan, 'And the small steel-wheeled tractors also came along. But they were not very practical for some time.'
After Joe Harlan finished his stint in high school, being mechanically inclined he enrolled in a mechanic's course at the Rahe Auto School at Kansas City, Mo. Feeling he'd had enough of farming in his young years, he decided to settle there rather than return to the farm.
'I entered the postal service at Kansas City in 1922 and retired there in 1964,' says he.
But that's only a part of his story. For the great evolution of power, both on the farm and in the city left its indelible mark on his memory.
Along with the early crystal sets and radios the electric iron soon followed, as well as sweepers and washers, powered by electric motors. But these modern refinements were still mainly confined to the cities far away.
'My wife, 'Lib' was teaching in the country schoolhouse,' says Joe Harlan. 'Along with her school work and my serving as deacon and teacher in our Southern Baptist Church circles, as well as repairing old-time cars and gas engines, her house work and my garage shop were still being run without benefits of electricity. Everything was by hand the hard way.'
'It wasn't until the REA came along that we purchased our first electric washer, in 1929,' recalls Harlan. 'That was my first electric motor and I would change it back and forth from washer to work bench. Now I probably have twenty-five such motors in my shop.'
With the new-fangled washer came such other modern refinements as an electric refrigerator to help 'Lib' with her household chores, while the both of them enjoyed the early farm radio programs without the radio batteries always running down just as Lum 'n Abner or Amos 'n Andy were coming on.
But, during the influx of the new electrical innovations and the inroads being made throughout the rural areas, out Missouri-way, Joe Harlan still thought that steam was the best power regardless of the new tractors and gas engines that were replacing it on the American farm. Despite the fact that, living in Independence, Mo., he and his family often rubbed elbows with a certain Harry Truman, who would someday be President of the United States, the 'Glory Days When Steam Was King' kept nudging him for that backward glance. Joe Harlan had steam in his veins!
And the steam pressure wasn't reduced a bit in Joe's boiler-head by taking those nine trips out to Mt. Pleasant over the years. In fact it blew the safety-valve right off his steam dome when Del Seuser let him run his 45-Case at the McLouth, Kansas, steam show every year and then started him on the big engines at Mt. Pleasant. (Now we know, Joe.)
Then it was that all those boyhood memories, when Joe was a twelve-year old lad, helping his 'Uncle Sam' Broaddus on his threshing engine at Huntsville, Mo., returned with a full head of steam to haunt him. Along with his bee-keeping, and his preoccupation at gobbling up two and three-wheel garden tractors, including a stint at selling the Indianapolis-made Unitractors and/or repairing gas-powered lawnmowers, our Iron Man just wasn't satisfied at all. Joe Harlan just had to have his own steam engine. So he made one.
Locating a 24' by 20' upright steam boiler, Joe Harlan mounted it onto a steel frame, piped in a 4-Horse, 4' by 5' Case Engine which he chained by sprockets to the rear wheels, added some power shafts for buzzing wood and running the cement mixer, and topped it all with a neat canopy to cool his dome in the summer's sun. It all sounds like making a 'tossed-up salad'. But it's a steam engine, instead. And Joe Harlan uses it for about any kind of chore requiring power down on the Harlan Family Farm, near Versailles, Missouri. In fact it's really his steam-powered version of the fabled Missouri Mule. (Too bad old Harry Truman didn't get to see this one.)
'I've pulled this engine about five-hundred miles behind my car, but it has no springs and it's sort of rough on it,' says Joe, who's been taking it to such local shows as Boonville, Stover, the town fair at Versailles and the like all in the 'Show Me State' of Missouri. But the most showing that Joe Harlan's steam engine gets is right out at the farm buzzing firewood, yanking belt on the cement mixer, over by the family privy, or just giving off the pungent aroma of cylinder-oil and coal-smoke while lending sweet stack-music to engineer Joe Harlan, sitting in his easy chair. Which, if we know anything, is about the best show of all.
'Whenever we take the engine out 'Lib' always likes to go along, but she goes more for the fancy work,' pines Iron Man Joe. 'We have three 'children and eight grandchildren who are all proud of it, but especially my little grandson, Mike Lamb, likes to pull the whistle,' fawns Grandpa.
'We are both Southern Baptists. My wife has been active in women's organizations and a teacher most all of her life,' says Joe Harlan. 'And I have served as teacher and deacon for many years.'
'I think we, as a generation, have lived through the most wonderful and wasteful generation of all time and I think we are going to suffer for such waste,' says Joe Harlan. 'I often think of these words, 'Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths'.'
But throughout the many changes that Joe Harlan has witnessed over his long and experienced life, along with the wisdom he's gleaned from scripture, there remains that river of honey that's flowed through it all.
'I still keep bees, and have for thirty years,' says he. 'And I think honey is the best and most natural sweet of all.'
It must be, Joe. It's kept you and 'Lib' 'n all the kids and grandkids sweet over the years. And the thoughts of it, on our breakfast toast, sort of sweetens us, too. For life, without honey, can be just 'one sting after another'.
Three toots on the Iron Horse whistle make 'er really blow for Iron Man Joe from the State of Mo. Throttle-jerker, friend of a President, too. Really his name should be page one in 'THE TOOT TOOT WHO'S WHO.'
And now a whistle-toot from 'Little Mo', Joe?