UNION CITY, INDIANA.
Welcome to our Blue Grass Engine Show,' he said, coming up and extending his right arm for a long handshake. 'We're mighty glad to have you folks.'
He was the first man we met after setting foot onto the Blue Grass Engine Show soil at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that July day back in 1970a perfect gentleman, typifying the old-time southern hospitality we read about in books.
'I like to poke in the fires,' chuckled Forrest Cunningham, tall and erect with a physique belying his seventy-seven years. 'I began pumping water and cutting wood for the steam engines when I was twelve for the sawmill man, a Mr. Will Stevens & Sons of Mercer County, Kentucky. Later I helped him with the threshing.'
'I like to shovel coal', says Forrest, looking back over his many years of steam threshing, interrupted by several years preceding and following World War One when he handled the scoop on the left-hand side of the cabs of L & N steam locomotives on the 140-mile Knoxville Division running from Louisville to Livingston, Kentucky. 'I've lived here in Mercer County, Kentucky, all my life, excepting those years I boarded in Louisville and hired out as fireman on the L. & N.
To Forrest Cunningham, the mighty bark of a steam thresh engine became even mightier from the stack of those husky L. & N. Mikao steam locomotives with the 2-8-2 American railroad classification, listed in the Wytte System of wheel arrangement as two leading truck wheels, eight drivers and two on the trailing truck.
His memories of shoveling black diamonds of 'company coal' into the gaping infernos of steam railway locomotion, hustling eighty to ninety 80-ton coal hoppers to their destinations during the war years must be many indeed. His was the job of not only feeding the firebox, but watching the steam and water gages, keeping the draft open and/or banking the fires when necessity dictated, calling the red, green and amber signals across to the engineer's right side as they rolled along the high iron, and crawling up on the tender to fill the water tank at run's end.
Those were the days before the three and four-unit diesels, when one big steam locomotive could handle the entire train, save for a pusher required to get the load over a 'hump' along the way. It was a part of that great and colorful era when freight locomotives bearing the nomenclatures of Baldwin and Alco made fast schedules apace with the many steam passenger trains running 'on the advertised' and arriving 'on time' at the numerous village railroad stations and city terminals throughout America. Ours was the leading railway nation of the world, and a nation at war and Forrest Cunningham was doing his part on the fireman's scoop, getting the goods there on the clock. His was the world of fast-flashing driving rods and pounding drivers, hand scoops, steam and air gages, water glasses, injectors and Elesco Feed-water Heatersand the rapid staccato of rail-joints clickety-clacking in his ears as the mighty steam locomotives thundered to a thousand destinations in obeisance to his shovelling. All except for an intervening stint he did for Uncle Sam, overseas, during The First Great War, when he went to get the Kaiser's beard but didn't.
'I spent ten months in France, during World War One, in the 327th Field Artillery,' explained Cunningham who didn't quite make it to the front but could hear the big bombs a-bursting, throughout the duration, not far away. 'After that I came back for several more years as fireman on the L. & N.
'I never tried to make it to the right-side of the cab as engineer,' quoth he. 'I was happiest shovelling coal and poking the fires.'
'I really loved those steam locomotives, and I surely miss seeing them today,' says Cunningham.
But the one thing in common he could have in steam, with that of the railroad locomotive, was handling the throttle of a steam thresh engine on the farm. It was for some years, following World War One and his post-war firing on the L. & N. that Forrest Cunningham went back to steam threshing. After that he bought his own rig, in partnership with another fellow, doing custom threshing in northern Kentucky and southern Indiana from 1934 to 1944.
'In Kentucky we threshed mostly in Mercer and Boyle Counties, in Indiana we threshed in Shelby County. At the time we had two steam rigs, using the Minneapolis Engine up there and a Keck Gonnerman Separator and 20-horse Aultman-Taylor Engine down here.'
Forrest Cunningham remembers the days of the old-fashioned threshermen's cook shack.
'Oh yes, we had a cook shack and our cook could make unusually good biscuits,' 'minds he.
Cunningham well recalls many a fine threshing dinner the kind that exercised an engine man's throttle arm into reaching clear across festive board. Were there memories of fried chicken heaped on huge platters, mashed 'taters, gravy and dressing? We asked him.
'Much of our food was bacon, delicious beans. It was so restful and good when we came in tired and hungry,' recollects Forrest.
'What no Kentucky corn bread?' parried his inquisitor.
'No but the finest biscuits you ever ate,' was his emphatic reply.
During their years of steam threshing, Forrest Cunningham and his partner gradually ceased operating in the Hoos-ier State, selling first their Minneapolis Engine, bringing their Keck-Gonnerman Separator back across the Ohio River into Kentucky where they continued pulling it with their Aultman-Taylor Engine. As the combine gradually replaced steam threshing, they ceased operations in 1944, selling both separator and Aultman-Taylor Engine.
'But I still have my old 32 X 56 Minneapolis wooden body threshing machine, and it's right here on the grounds,' confided our Iron Man, happy to have salvaged that much of his steam threshing memories.
Asking him which engine he liked best the Minneapolis or Aultman-Taylor, replied Cunningham, 'I liked them both. They were mighty fine engines, but I prefer double-cylinder engines, as you can throttle them down more uniformly and they're a little smoother on the belt.'
If he had to choose between working on a steam locomotive or thresh engine, Forrest Cunningham replied, 'I loved them both. Of course, the locomotives of my day did have mechanical stokers, but still you had to keep your fire level and use your scoop and poker now and then. I'm just as happy as I can be if I could be on either a steam locomotive or a thresh engine.'
In speaking of engines any engine, be it steam locomotive or steam traction-Forrest Cunningham can rattle off the serial numbers involved with each quite as well as the manufacturer's specifications. While most engine men are satisfied with arguing over such foibles as mere horsepower, both draw-bar and belt, piston diameters, cylinder dimensions and length of strokes Iron Man Cunningham always sees them as a particular number that signifies much pertaining to the historical importance of each.
'The L. & N. locomotives that I fired on were in the late 1700's and early 1800's in that road's classifications,' he explained.
All of which reminded me to say this, 'Angerreau McConnell tells me that you always take note of the serial numbers on any engine you look over.' 'Yes, that's true,' retorted Cunningham. 'I've copied the serial numbers of all the engines I've ever examined or been around, both steam locomotives and threshing engines.' (Imagine a fireman, scooping black diamonds into the gaping jaws of a steam locomotive racing along at fifty-per with ninety hoppers of coal and taking time out to scribble the serial number on a faded pad, then tucking it back into his overall bib!)
But it's all true Forrest Cunningham has list upon list of those long serial numbers all tucked away in the little corner cells of his computer-brain. (Bet he doesn't know the serial number of the Joe Dear-which is 00000001. And I'm not telling him either.)
Carrying on in the great tradition of steam, Forrest Cunningham, along with his partner, Elmer Gibson of Mercer County, brought the 22-65 Case Steam Engine they own which affords one of the big attractions at the annual Blue Grass Engine Shows at Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The stately Case is always kept in the strictest code of the Iron Man's spit 'n polish by Messrs. Cunningham and Gibson. And any moment that Forrest Cunningham isn't busy with some of his official duties at helping Carl Secchi, Frank Cornish, Angerreau McConnell et al run the growing show, our Iron Man can be seen over by the lovely ivy-tower silo at the far end of the Mercer County Highway grounds, his hand full of engineer's wadding, polishing governor balls and water glass or wiping steam gage, piston and valve-rods free of coal dust and steam engine oil.
'And what do you do with your Case Engine at these shows?' was my question.
'Oh, we do a little threshing each day, pulling my 32 X 56 Minneapolis Separator with serial number of 17, 969,' quoth he.
'You would remember the serial number on the separator,' I retorted. 'Can you call the serial number of your Case?'
'The Case is 33, 299,' he fired back. 'You can't fool me. And if I owned your Joe Dear I'd know the serial number on that old Delco Engine, believe me. I've got a book full of them.' (Better than Frank Cornish on those serial numbers, eh?)
Being a director of The Blue Grass Show makes Forrest Cunningham more than just a mere Iron Man. In fact he's a big wheel as big and tall as that drive wheel on his mighty Case.
Tall and erect and astute of mind at seventy-seven with all the facts 'n figures stashed away in his alert brain, Forrest Cunningham epitomizes the true gentleman of the romantic southland. More than just a steam engineer, he is also superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School at Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
'I was born and raised a Presbyterian but when I married a Methodist girl that changed things,' laughed Forrest.
'Is Irene the boss, or are you?' parried I.
To which Forrest fired back (like a tried 'n true fireman) 'Oh she's the boss. I wouldn't dare say otherwise or I might have to pay up for it.'
But, being superintendent of the Methodist Adult Division in his local town does allow Forrest to be 'boss of the Sunday School' even if he isn't boss at home.
'Being Sunday School superintendent, has your preacher ever called in sick at the last moment and asked you to preach the Sunday Morning sermon in his stead?' I asked.
'No,' said Forrest. 'But if he had, I'd preach on steam engines. And I think the congregation would listen too. We've got lots of steam fans (not Baker Fans) at church.'
Just then a short, overalled and heavy-bearded figure sauntered up long-side the big Case and began chatting with Iron Man Forrest Cunningham.
'May I introduce you to Mr. Earl Edward Holmes from Chestnut, Ill.,' said Forrest, turning in my direction. 'He's a smart fellow on steam engines and I've had some nice visits with him here. He's been a Sunday School teacher in the Methodist Church in his town and hasn't missed more than three days in over thirty years. But he cusses like a trouper,' confided Cunningham, hiding a grin behind his engineer's paw.
'In that case, since you're a Sunday School Superintendent, you ought to pin a medal on his chest,' I replied.
'YesI guess I had better do that,' laughed Forrest Ccausing Holmes to grin from ear to ear a-hind that beard o' his'n too.
An honored seat in our growing Hall of Iron Man Fame, Forrest Cunninghamfor helping us to re-live the great days of steam, both on the rails and out in the fields 'Threshing The Wheat From The Chaff-like the tried 'n true thresherman you've always been. And, oh yes an all-day sucker to boot, for calling off all those serial numbers from the far reaches of your computer-brain, even if you didn't know the Joe Dear serial (of 00000001).