Jim Gerow

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10845 E. Adams Road Beaverton, Michigan 48612

Mose Gerow lived three miles north of Clare, Michigan, at what
is now the junction of old US-27 and Beaverton Road. A large pine
tree stump in front of the log house was said to have been the
largest tree in this area. It was over seven feet across the stump.
Mose was a foreman at a lumber camp. Jim, Moses son, was a young
barefoot boy in the summer of about 1891. Three miles east of where
they lived, at what is now the corner of Rogers and Beaverton Road,
Jim saw a 16 horse hitch hauling a little four-wheel drive Brooks
steam locomotive on a large steel wheeled wagon. They were coming
from the south. The turn east was too sharp. So they tore down the
rail fence on the southeast corner, made the turn, and put the
fence back in place. The little logging engine was on its way to
Section 35, Arthur Township, where I now live. A track was laid
from the east side of Section 34 across 35 and 36 to the backwater
of a logging dam at the Clare/Gladwin County line on the middle
branch of the Tobacco. This little rail track was only around two
miles long. Very little grading was done for the track. With all of
these crooks and turns on up and down grades, probably no more than
two or three log cars were pulled at any time. It was used for
around three years, then hauled back to Clare the way it was hauled
in. The fact that it was considered worthwhile to build this little
railroad to move logs seemed unrealistic for such a small area. It
can only stagger a person’s imagination as to the amount of
good timber that was logged off. We still occasionally find one of
the little handmade rail spikes in the fields.

This picture is Jim Gerow sawing lumber with the last steam
engine he owned in the fall of 1955 north of Loomis, Michigan. Jim
saw the engine out back of the Ford Sales at Houghton Lake on his
way home from deer hunting in the fall of 1953.

He told me about seeing the engine and we went to look at it and
I bought it. This old Port Huron has the same size boiler as a 24
except it is shorter. The boiler had been used for hot water heat
in Ford Sales and Service until the fall of 1953. Before that, the
engine was used to run a stone crusher somewhere north of Houghton
Lake. There was stone damage to the front of the engine to prove
it. The engine number plate on the smoke box door was broken off
and gone. A brass plate on the smoke box indicated the engine had
gone back to Port Huron for a factory rebuild. I sold the engine to
Jim after buying it. Jim sawed lumber with it for several years,
then sold the engine. The new owner from Saginaw bought the steam
engine to heat his greenhouse. The engine back in the left side of
the picture is a Port Huron-19 7594.

One of Jim Gerow’s lifelong friends was Joe McFarlane.
Joe’s father owned a sawmill and Joe learned to fire the boiler
when he was a young boy. In the 1890s it was not easy to find
someone who knew how to operate a steam engine. Joe was hired when
he was a teenager, around 16 years old, to run an Advance steam
traction engine used for the threshing run in the Dover and Eagle
area.

Joe got a patent on a sawmill carriage block. He did a lot of
traveling around to mills, selling and installing his mill block.
He always took his anvil and hammer with him to hammer mill saws,
and he was still hammering saws when he was over eighty years old
at Falmouth, where he lived in later years.

One of Jim’s early experiences of running a steam engine
came when he was hired to run a return flue 12 horsepower Huber. At
a farm near Clare, where they pulled in to thresh, a crib of corn
had been shelled. Jim was asked if he could fire with the pile of
corncobs. The cobs were damp from being rained on. When Jim got the
firebox packed full of cobs, the fire took off. He said, ‘It
was a good thing I had lot of water! That return flue boiler was
making steam as fast as it could take on water.’ During the
Great Depression Jim bought the old 12 horsepower Huber and a
rotted down sawmill that had been sitting idle for years, for $12,
to scrap out.

A man near Clare, by the name of Joe Stevens, owned a Port Huron
32. It was the largest steam engine in this area. Jim ran it for
him sometimes, sawing lumber and threshing. It was a good sawmill
engine, but Jim did not like it for the threshing. It was too big
and heavy. A 32 inch grain thresher was a big machine for this
area.

At the end of Dover Road, at the Gladwin County line, there was
a swamp. A narrow one-way corduroy road was built through the
swamp. Jim was driving the big Port Huron on this road, but it was
just too big and heavy for the corduroy in the swamp. The roadway
settled down in the soft ground on the south side. The engine slid
sideways. The drive wheel went off the edge into the mud. The
engine tipped over on its side in the swamp. Jim was a very
resourceful man. It took him three and a half days with jacks,
timbers and a half dozen men helping, to set the engine upright
again.

At this time of Jim’s life, he was living about four miles
north of Loomis. There was a steam engine in that area with a
wildcat whistle on it that gave out a terrifying screech. One day
the owner of this engine blew this whistle when he was very close
to a house where an old man lived alone. About three days later he
was found dead in the house. He died the day the whistle blew. Many
people thought the wildcat whistle scared him to death.

Jim was threshing in an area where he had never threshed before.
One of the men asked him to stop at his place and do his threshing.
Where the set was to be made, there was a clothesline full of
clothes downwind from the engine. Jim took a little extra time
getting ready to thresh, hoping the lady would come out and take
the clothes off the line, but she did not. He knew that those
clothes were in for trouble when the engine started laboring.
Keeping one eye on the clothesline, it was not long before he saw
smoke coming up from the back line. He dipped a bucket of water
from the water barrel on the engine and went to the clothesline,
stepping behind the front line to where the fire was on the back
line. A spark lit right in the middle of the lady’s underpants,
burning like a smoldering ember. By now there was a large round
hole burned out in the center. The other thing that about floored
Jim was the size of the underpants. Just as he was ready to douse
the fire, he saw the face of the lady of the house look at him
through the burning hole. She stepped out of the way. Jim doused
the fire with a bucket of water. Then she told him what she thought
of his old steam engine, using language that is very unbecoming of
a lady. Jim said, ‘I think she was the largest woman that I
ever saw in my life!’

The 20 Horsepower Buffalo Pitts Engine

This engine was behind the barn where the Isabella County
Fairgrounds is now. This engine was equipped with an exhaust water
heater. Water was leaking into the exhaust. When the engine was
running, water was blowing out of the smokestack. The owner of the
engine cut the price down, allowing for what he thought would be a
big repair job on the water heater. Jim bought the Buffalo Pitts
engine. It was bigger, newer and in better condition than any
engine he had owned before. One of Jim’s sons went with him to
help drive the engine home. While getting up steam, Jim fixed the
water heater. As they were going out of the driveway by the house
onto old US-27, the man who sold the engine was watching. He could
not understand why no water was blowing out of the smokestack.

On the way home, Jim’s son was steering the engine. Three
women in a touring car were passing and the driver cut back in too
quickly and the back bumper caught on the front wheel of the
engine. This swung the car around crosswise in the road. Jim
stopped the engine. The front wheels of the engine were against the
running board of the car.

Three years later, it was late in the fall and the weather was
shaping up for a cold spell. Jim went out and took all of the plugs
out to drain the boiler. It turned extremely cold that night,
freezing up hard. This cold spell lasted for a week. Then it turned
nice and warm again. Walking by the engine, he noticed water
dripping from the plug hole in the bottom of the water leg on the
boiler. He knew the boiler had not completely drained. Jim promptly
looked to see what happened. A piece of scale covered the drain
hole. He then took all of the remaining plugs and hand hole plates
in the firebox area out. A good inspection of the boiler showed
that the water level was even with the grates when it froze up.

Jim was a good engine man. He could put in new flues and
staybolts, doing any other repair work necessary to make an engine
safe and working right. When spring came, he would check for broken
stay-bolts and replace them.

He was also a wheeler-dealer and would sell anything if the
price was right. In January a man from Marion, Michigan, came along
looking for an engine he could buy to run his sawmill. He said his
sawmill was set up and ready to go and logs were piling up. As he
was looking the engine over, Jim told him about the boiler leg
freezing up and that the boiler should be considered unsafe until
checked for broken staybolts and replaced if any broken staybolts
were found. He liked the looks of the Buffalo Pitts engine, saying
it was a fine looking engine and could see nothing wrong with it.
Jim was asked to put a price on the engine and it was sold. The
engine was fired up as-is with no checking for possible boiler
damage. It was driven forty-some miles on frozen roads to the
sawmill near Marion. Some two or three years later, Jim heard that
this man had gone to the house for dinner. Returning to the engine,
he jerked the firebox door open to put more wood in. When he did,
the firebox below the grates blew out. The grates came out the
door, hitting him in the chest. He probably never told anyone in
his area that the boiler had frozen up before he got it. This would
leave it a mystery to other steam men around his area as to why the
boiler blew out. Anyone who would use a boiler that may be unsafe
would probably be careless in other ways too. For instance, blowing
the mud off the bottom of the boiler probably was not done. In this
case, a mud buildup in the boiler that had frozen up is a good way
to add up to a disaster.

Now let’s go back and take a good look at what happened
here. How many of us are guilty of waiting until the last day, in
the afternoon, to do something that should have already been done?
In this case, a steam engine boiler should be drained before it
starts to freeze up. If Jim had not seen water dripping from the
boiler of the Buffalo Pitts, he probably would not have known that
the boiler had frozen up. If it happened once, could it have
happened to other boilers? What was thought to be a good engine
blows up and no one knew of a reason why.

During the late ’20s and early ’30s, Jim was using an
old Rumely engine to saw lumber with. One day he saw a wet spot on
a staybolt down on the water leg of the boiler. The boiler shell
had rusted from the inside out around the staybolt. A good
inspection of the old boiler showed all of the short stay-bolts in
the fire box area to be the same way, with no more than one thread
left holding on the outside of the boiler shell. Jim said,
‘This old engine could have blown up on me!’

When work began to pick up in the 1930s, Jim went to work at the
Wilson Foundry at Pontiac, Michigan, until he retired. Then he came
back to the place that he called home, north of Loomis.

In January of 1953 I bought a Port Huron steam engine, No. 7594,
south of Sturgis, Michigan, then another engine in November of
’53 that Jim saw at Houghton Lake when he was deer hunting.
This was an old short boiler Port Huron engine. Jim bought a
sawmill and set it up at his home, using my steam engine after
being away from sawing lumber for 35 years. When Jim was old enough
to work in the lumber woods, he worked at a camp near Temple. At
heart he was always a lumberjack. In the 1950s Jim Gerow could be
seen on Main Street in Clare as a neat, well dressed lumberjack and
proud of it.

Ed. Note: Leo Fitzpatrick has been a long-time IMA subscriber.
He introduced his story by saying, ‘After a 44-year
subscription to the Album, it is high time to send a story in.’
We agree, and hope you enjoyed his contribution. He says there is
more to come!

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