UNION CITY, INDIANA.
‘Better say ‘Hello’ to the Lord while you’re up
there, Harry,’ shouted the voice of Jay Gould over the WOWO
Fort Wayne mikes as the crowds whooped ‘n hollered.
A pair o.’ oily old overalls and red polka-dot cap, a
well-smoked, straight-stemmed briar pipe and old Case No. 9 -that
and a hill to climb and a crowd to thrill is all it takes for Harry
Woodmansee to do his stuff. And, as one watches breathlessly from
his earthbound position this daring engineer ascend upwards into
the cloud-bedecked sky-blue yonder, he is not a little hard-pressed
to wonder which is out-smoking the other Harry’s old pipe or
the stack o’ old No. 9.
‘Yes, I always git a little scared when I’m going up
there – so many things can happen,’ confided the hill-climbing
Harry Woodmansee in his soft Michigan brogue as I queried him
beside his puffing 12-horse Case, just descended from his heavenly
sojourn that Sunday Afternoon.
It’s always one of the main highlights of the day’s
agenda at the big Old-Time Threshers and Sawmillers Reunion on the
Jim Whitby farm at Ft. Wayne, Ind. – the announcement that the
veteran Harry Woodmansee is going to climb the steep incline,
offering all the accoutrements and contraptions of a spinetingling
extravaganza sufficient to send the crowds scurrying.
With Woodmansee, the climbing of the big hill at the throttle of
a steam engine is just part of the daily dozen that an engineer of
his capacity and know how goes through to keep the folks
entertained. Yet, routine as it may become for even him at the
numerous steam reunions throughout the midwest where he daily
performs, each show has a different kind of incline, each day
brings different kinds of weather, and Harry, his pipe and old No.
9 must be always in fine fettle to keep the folks happy and coming
back, year after year.
But little wonder to me that the Woodmansee-Case performance
always comes off on a high-note, as scheduled. For whatever the
agenda calls for -whether it’s plowing out in the field,
throttling the governor on the big Ft.
Wayne sawmill where clock-like precision is the rule of thumb,
or ascending the big hill – there’s always a strict routine
that precedes the action, often unnoticed by the average eye, which
Harry performs to get him, his pipe and old No. 9 properly and
adequately synchronized just prior to the big event. For long
before the announcement of his performance is forthcoming, Ol’
Harry, his pipe and red polka-dot cap can be seen somewhere up
among the ‘innards’ of his engine, oil can in hand,
lubricating, polishing, adjusting the vital parts of old No. 9.
Because Harry Woodmansee is not just a so-called
‘throttle-jerker and whistle-puller’ in the popular notion
of steam engine terminology. Rather, like the quiet, devoted type
of railroad engineer, so much admired in years past, and as much a
part of steam engine lore as the locomotive itself, Woodmansee
almost caresses his beloved 12-horse Case with the same devotion
and personal attachment as does a 4-H lad his prize pet calf. It if
was indeed proper for an engineer to kiss his engine, Harry would
do just that — the love affair ‘twixt man and engine having
gone that far. But with boilers being hot, and with that pipe
clamped in Harry’s teeth — we’ve yet to see it.
Harry got a funny feeling, next morning, when he awoke and read
his own epitaph.
However, to stress the point further, one event remains
noteworthy in my memory. Harold Gay had just begun making the
announcement that plowing was to be done in the back field of the
Old-Time Threshers and Sawmillers’ reunion grounds. While the
usual fanfare of whistle blowing and bell-ringing was calling the
crowds to the main arena, the clatter of heavy chains and the
snapping of hitches, the yelling of the men back and forth betwixt
engines and gang plows – there was Ol’ Harry up there quietly
oiling up and giving engine talk to old No. 9, like a jockey about
to enter a race with his favorite steed. In the midst of the fray
the time arrived for Harry Woodmansee and old No. 9 to be hitched
to the plows. Up to the very instant of taking off with the plows,
Harry was all over the top of that boiler, adjusting this ‘n
that, thence back on the deck and down at the side then up again.
Timing his performance to the second, Harry’s hand was right
where it should be and ready, while checking his draft, adjusting
his quadrant and quietly giving orders and instructions to his
fireman, Phil Liechty.
When the order came to pull the plows, Iron Man Harry Woodmansee
merely eased the throttle, then gradually old Case No. 9 mustered
all her twelve horsepower, and all twelve of those horses weer
leaning against the load. The big tall stack belched its defiance
against all the over-turning furrows of that hard, Hoosier land
soil. Came the slight rise in the field, the exhaust slowed to a
fearful steadiness, but old No. 9 kept right on going. Harry
Woodmansee’s Case never faltered. His thorough engineer’s
knowledge and devotion to duty was paying off in tractive effort
that could well have been envied by those running much larger
machines of locomotion. It was a thrill, not unlike seeing the
steam passenger locomotive get under way with the evening express
at the village depot.