Of DAYTON DAILY NEWS AND RADIO’S ‘JOES’
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
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
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
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
‘Much of our food was bacon, delicious beans. It was so
restful and good when we came in tired and hungry,’ recollects
‘What no Kentucky corn bread?’ parried his
‘No but the finest biscuits you ever ate,’ was his
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
‘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
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
‘You would remember the serial number on the separator,’
I retorted. ‘Can you call the serial number of your
‘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
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
Just then a short, overalled and heavy-bearded figure sauntered
up long-side the big Case and began chatting with Iron Man Forrest
‘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
‘In that case, since you’re a Sunday School
Superintendent, you ought to pin a medal on his chest,’ I
‘YesI guess I had better do that,’ laughed Forrest
Ccausing Holmes to grin from ear to ear a-hind that beard o’
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).