Around 1980, I wrote two stories for The Iron-Men Album magazine. First one was about my father, “A Story of a 20th Century Iron Man,” and the second about an old friend, Mr. Sherman Cooper, “A Old Gent and The Wheels of Progress.” I have had so many experiences of my own that I feel I should share them with the Iron Men all over the country, so here’s an article of my memories of steam engines.
My first experience with steam started on the stern end of an old steam pile driver, fishing for catfish in the Wicomico River at the old ship yard at Whitehaven, Maryland. My father worked for a very kind and talented gentleman from Salisbury, Maryland, Captain Otis Lloyd. One day Capt. Lloyd said to my father, “Why not bring John to work with you and let him learn some of your talents?” I was about eight years old at the time. Capt. Lloyd explained to me how the pile driver worked, lifting heavy timbers and beams, as well as the driving head that drove the piling in the water and mud bottoms. The pile driver was named Hercules. Capt. Lloyd had a small tugboat he had built to tow the Hercules around with. The tug’s name was Bulldog. The engine was out of an old Model T Fordson tractor; you had to crank the engine to start it, of course. Capt. Lloyd played a tenor banjo and Capt. Lloyd’s son, Otis Lloyd Jr., played a violin. I soon started to play a harmonica. By twelve years old I was pretty good. My father, Eddie L. Goslee, worked for him about twelve years. After he stopped working for Capt. Lloyd we would often visit him on Saturday nights. He was an expert ship builder; Capt. Lloyd could build anything he wanted to (one fine gentleman).
About 1936 my father and his brother-in-law, Samuel W. Owens, went into the lumber business. They started out with a 16 HP Aultman-Taylor traction engine. They rented it from Ernest Culver from Hebron, Maryland. He had bought the engine new when he was 16 years old, along with a thresher. When the gas tractor came along he stopped threshing and bought a Knight sawmill. Shortly after that my father started full time in the lumber business. This engine was small but smart governors opened up about six inches in the log and the stack sang a tune until the carriage started back. Dad was always the sawyer and could get more lumber from a tree than anyone I have ever seen. He used this engine for years until about 1946, when some boys went in the woods one weekend and stole everything of cast iron on it. It was finally junked.
One day they moved the mill and engine from a tract of timber down on the Elliot’s Island Road, not too far from the Chesapeake Bay, close to Vienna, Maryland. We stopped about noon alongside a ditch; took the hose attached to the injector and filled the boiler and two spare barrels. There was a large pine by the ditch and we sat down to eat lunch. About that time, at least six or eight little black kids came out of a house and wanted to know if they could sing for us. Dad said yes. I was about thirteen, and my eleven-year-old brother was along. We rode on the seat or tool box, or in an old 1927 Buick sedan looking for water and wood. The little black kids, in a short time, had taken two planks 3 x 10 from under the house and rolled an old piano down the steps, out under the old pine (still standing today), and started to play and sing. Mr. Culver, the fireman and owner of the engine, always had a harmonica with him, so he played a few songs with them as long as it was in the key of C. After they had played awhile, Mr. Culver said, “Play Jesus Loves Me.” One of the kids said, “No, we can’t. If we don’t get this piano in the house quick, Jesus won’t love us and Mommy will kick our butts when she gets home from work.” She worked in a tomato cannery up the road (steam powered), and would be home in an hour. Dad told them we would help them get it into the house, but they said no, it would take too long and would be in each other’s way. They were about ten minutes planking it across the yard, up the steps, and in the house. How they managed it, I don’t know, but with the speed they did it, you can bet your boots it was not the first time.
Soon after this day my folks bought a big 32 HP Reeves. It was a powerhouse out of this world! The seller only used it about two weeks and had to carry it back to where he bought it, as the boiler leaked down in the firebox so bad it would almost put the fire out.
In 1938 they bought a 25 HP Case. It had only threshed wheat about two years and then was put in a shed. What a nice engine it was. Everyone who fired it remarked how easy it was to fire. All of the firemen would sit on the toolbox seat and play a harmonica in tune with the governors and stack; what beautiful music to listen to! I think that is the reason that I am musically talented. I can play nine different instruments. The Case engine pulled the 54-inch saw (always had big timber, pine and hardwood), a double edger, and an automatic slab saw that cut and loaded the slabs on a truck to be sold for firewood.
Our engines all burned green pine and green oak slabs that the birds were whistling in the trees an hour before. Also, many times there was a line shaft from the double edger to a big 6′ x 24′ four-sided planer. The Case performed like a champ. Sometimes the firebox door would open, pop valves blowing at 150 pounds pressure. This outfit could cut up to 18,000 square feet of lumber a day when cutting big timber with a lot of it going through the planer with all babbitt bearings that made it pull as hard as an Army mule pushing a load up a hill, backwards, if you know how tough that is.
In 1941 World War II started and we had a lot of government orders. Heavy timbers and long ones for shipping tanks, big guns, etc. We carried much of this to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Baldwin Loco motive when steam trains were in their heyday. Westinghouse used a lot of timber for shipping. All three of these places were within forty miles of each other. The Navy Department gave us a permit to get a new 12 HP two-man Henry Diston chain saw and a new 1944 Chevrolet truck. We hauled most of the lumber to the places, about 125 miles each way. We also hired a man with two trucks to help out, Mr. Harold Shiles. Harold was later drafted and he was seriously wounded at St. Lo, France.
Along about this time I was drafted, along with most all of the young boys in the town of Sharp-town, Maryland. Population was about 650. At one time this little town was home for the Marine Rail way where they built sailboats from 125 tons and one mast, two mast, three mast, and four masts mostly 350 to 400 tons. All were wooden ships built near where I live on the Nanticoke River tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, about 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. They had a huge Geiser sawmill with a thirty-inch saw above a sixty-inch one. They used to cut timber from eight feet up to ninety feet for the keels of these large ships. All of this left years ago with the wheels of progress.
We had one of the largest basket factories there was anywhere around. Both the shipyard and basket factory were run by very large stationary steam engines. All or most all of the timber grew around here in the local area. Several hotels, garages, two churches; all but the churches closed after World War II.
As I mentioned before, I was drafted and sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, to the horse cavalry. There my music talents paid off, I thought. I spent two weeks in the post band and then they pulled me out and put me in a class of about twelve to help train buglers. The time it took to train them was about fifteen weeks. During this period of time they started to do away with the horse cavalry. I was transferred over to the 3rd and 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squad and put in the Third Army under General Patton. There I was in four campaigns, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, and Germany. I never used a bugle after I went overseas. While overseas somewhere in Germany my troop had a tank fall in a large cesspool in a schoolyard. We only had five left and we needed it. We hooked onto it with a cable and another tank. No deal, it would not move. When we came into this little town, guess what, a large cable steam plow engine was sitting along the road pulling big trees that had been felled by artillery and bombs. The old German driving it soon agreed to come up the road and pull the tank out. Again I was in my glory; steam was king, what power that engine had.
When the war ended I was sent home to train for Japan but Old Harry Truman put a stop to that journey fast, and was I ever glad! I had not been home long when I had to go in a veterans’ hospital with a broken back. From then on I was in and out of hospitals many times. As of now I have had 60 operations. I was burned badly Christmas of 1995 when a gallon of K-1 kerosene blew up in my hand. It burned both hands mostly, my left and right ankle to my knee. I was in my workshop alone when this happened. Who can you call on when you are alone, clothes on fire, burned legs, burned hands? Well, I soon found out there was only one to call on, and that was the good Lord. There was no time to waste, as I knew my time was short. I said a quick prayer asking the Lord to help me. The fire was out in an instant. I went by helicopter to the Johns Hopkins Burn Center in Baltimore, Maryland. I had 22 operations as an inpatient and five more as an outpatient. The first night in the hospital while in the Critical Care Room two angels appeared at my bedside. I did not see their faces but I knew their voices, my father and father-in-law. They both spoke at the same time, “John, that was a foolish thing you did but you will be okay.” One week after I was home and my angels appeared again. They both said, “John, we want you to witness for the Lord by telling your experiences.” I did and still do. I don’t know of a better way than in the Iron-Men Album, as there are many Christians in this great family of steam engine men. I was worried that I could not go to the nursing homes and blow my horns as it took both of my hands besides my lips. My lips were damaged a little also. Well, I started in with my harmonica, then I had an old E flat mellophone that you hold under the left arm leaving the right hand free to work the valves. Then 1 soon was using a baritone horn, which I could still hold under my left arm. After much therapy, about a year, I was able to hold and blow my trumpet. Thanks to a good Christian friend and musician, Norman Smith, who played the baritone for four years in the Fifth Army Band and could cover my blunders. I am now back in the groove again. I have played in nursing homes for about 30 years and it has been a great blessing.
At the time of my injury, I had a good clock repair business which is back in full swing now.
I have built many boats. The first one was a 14-foot skiff, built when I was 12 years old. I have built them from 14 feet to 32 feet long. I had one specialty, a 22-foot to 24-foot long boat used by commercial fishermen to fish with drift gill nets. We still have a small mill that was Dad’s. We run it with a four cylinder semi-diesel engine. That’s how I cut all my boat lumber, walnut, and cherry for my grandfather clocks.
In my lifetime I have built 189 boats of different lengths and sizes. I am enclosing a picture of next to the last one I built. It uses an outboard engine or sail. Just remove the rudder and mast (in about five minutes) and put the outboard on and it’s ready to go.
Before I retired in 1983 I had put in 22 years running a large crane on a floating barge that loaded pulp wood onto another barge that took it to a pulp mill about 90 miles away. All of that is gone, past history.
In 1993 I started restoring a 1923 Model T Ford Touring Car. I finished it the day before I was burned, December 23, 1996. I spent nine weeks in the hospital. After coming home, I continued with physical therapy three times a week for a year. After this I started doing a little clock repair and started to take my 1926 Model T apart and restore it to near mint condition. At least one half of this was done with one hand. Sometimes I had to push myself to do what I have accomplished. I could not have done it without God’s help. I never labored on Sunday and made out just as well with six days. Now, in the summer of 1999, I have just finished restoring my father-in-law’s 1939 kerosene burning International tractor. I know he would love it.
I am sending pictures along of the steam pile driver my father worked on. (Notice the steam tugboat in the picture.) Another one of a boat I built. I have one like it in the Maritime Museum at St. Michael’s, Maryland.
Another is a picture of the 25 Case engine we used for years and I am searching for it now. Another picture of the Farquhar #9 sawmill that my brother still has. We are sawing Atlantic white cedar (boat lumber) some of it is 30 feet long, 24 feet shorter. We sawed with three men helpers. When we ran my father’s mill with the Case, we had Mr. Ernest Culver as fireman, and my father, Eddie Goslee, was the sawyer (the best).
We had several different carriage men over the years, one of which was Albert Pinkett. He stood in a pit and rolled the logs over his head with a cant hook or log wrench (nickname). Off bearers, it took two most of the time. One was Norman Thomas, a World War II veteran. Double edger, my father-in-law, John Stevens. He was the handy man. He was a blacksmith, good mechanic, could sharpen the saws, circular, two man crosscut saws and axes. He could always find a small chestnut white oak to make ax handles. A good one had to bend almost a third of the way to either end and stay there. It then would have to be bent back to straighten. I have one I made at least 35 years ago and it is still flexible. If it won’t bend, the ax does not cut well. We had one man on the slab saw, one to haul the slabs away to firewood customers. About six timber cutters with crosscut saws, from one to two men with a mule each to pile the timber in piles so the men with the timber carts could haul it out of the woods up to the mill and dump the logs on the log-way. We had one black man that never ever used a whip or reins on horses or mules; all he had to do was talk to them, almost in a whisper. His name was Lonna Burrs, the best with a team. Everyone always said my father was the best man they ever worked for. Easy going, no quarreling, no swearing, or getting mad.
One time a man a short way out of town came to see if my father could possibly go saw for him, as his sawyer had broken his leg. They had about two weeks sawing of large red oak. It was a mess. It had been in a fire, it was smutty. The mill was not cutting fast enough for him, so he talked to the fireman, Mr. Sherman Cooper, and he told him Mr. Norman Dickerson kept the governors cut back. So Dad got up on the engine, about an 18 HP Frick traction, and turned the steam up some more. The old engine was barking and the saw was humming. Mr. Dickerson had gone home to sit on his porch. He was getting old. He heard the engine, so he got in his old truck and went straight to the engine, stopped it and closed the valve some, got down, went home, and never said a word to anyone. Every chance they had they opened her up. Nearly always Mr. Dickerson would be there in a short time and turn her back. He said it was hard on one to run them fast. Dad told him it was hard to run them slow or in a bind. He was glad when that two weeks was up.
I am sure all are glad I am done now, especially the editors. I still love to saw and be around a steam mill or steam engine. General MacArthur said “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Well I can tell you, old steam engine men never die, they just steam away.