R. R. 5, Box 47, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
(In three parts), (This is Part I)
I HAVE FREQUENTLY thought, as I would be reading the IRON-MEN ALBUM, that I might sometime write my own experiences ; hoping they would be as interesting to others as those of old threshers and steam users have been to me. But I never quite got started at it until now that I see in the March-April issue of the magazine the account of the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion of 1958 by Pete Wattach. In this account he calls attention to the 40 under mounted Avery, with picture, that we brought out of Oklahoma last April and rebuilt and showed at the reunion with the 19 hp. we already had. It created a lot of questions by the visitors, so I thought It might be of interest to others as well who were not there.
But first let me say that I do not remember when a steam traction engine did not fascinate me. The first one I ever saw came by the school house at morning recess in 1888. I was eight years old. I remember that the smoke stack was at the back, return flue, and that a man sat on a seat on front of the boiler driving a team hitched to a tongue attached to the front axle. It was a chain drive engine. The engineer stood up at the back on a platform made of planks and with no coal box or anything to sit on. It was held up by chains that ran diagonally up to brackets on the boiler. The engine pulled a small four wheeled wooden water tank, in the front end of which was built a coal bunker, that would hold perhaps two or three bushels of coal. The tank was coupled close to the engine so the engineer could reach his coal with his scoop. On top of the tank were a couple of barrels. While I did not then know it, I later learned they were used to supply water for the boiler while the tank was away being filled. A few rods behind came the separator drawn by four horses.
About this time a neighbor who had operated his separator by horse power sent his son to the Rumely Company at LaPort, Indiana, to learn how to operate a steam traction engine. They bought a Rumely 12 hp. It has locomotive boiler water tank and coal box on engine and was guided by steering wheel. One fall when we started to school I discovered a large pile of wood on the school ground to feed the old cannon stove. And 'oh joy!' one morning when I got to school that engine was sitting just outside the window beside my desk as they used it to saw up that pile of wood. For a couple of hours I could not study a bit. However, the teacher must have understood for I don't remember being scolded. Another time late in the fall, on a cold frosty clear morning while still in bed, I heard it whistle coming by our house. I did not wait to dress but jumped out of bed, night gown, bare feet and all, and ran to the road to watch it go by. I never felt the cold frost on my bare feet until it was gone. Another time my brother and I were playing on the road when it came over the hill. When we ran to meet it the engine men took my brother on for a ride. He rode about mile while I walked forlornly behind the tank wagon hoping against hope they would ask me. They didn't ask me to ride. They came to thresh on my grandfather's farm late one evening. That night it rained and for several days the rig sat there. Every chance I got I was on that engine studying the levers, valves, gauges, etc.
On another occasion, while we were visiting relatives in Pennsylvania, the threshers came one morning at two o'clock. They had started late the evening before and had been caught while on the road in a violent thunder storm. Their engine was a brand new 10 hp. Frick. As most folks know Pennsylvania is hilly, and the next morning when they attempted to drive that rig into my uncle's lot where the grain was stacked it was quite an undertaking. They finally got a team of horses to place the separator between the stacks. But how to get that engine lined up. They had it all over the lot. Backed it against the granary. Showered us all with sooty water when the engine carried over. About mid afternoon they got started to threshing.
The Nichols-Shepard engines had quite a run here in our territory in an early day. The first two or three were 6 hp. and so small one could almost step over them. Ray Ernst has reclaimed and rebuilt two of them. They were mighty nice little engines. They brought one into father's barn to saw wood one muddy February. When they had finished the engineer undertook to move it near a creek to pick up his tank wagon. In doing so he struck a stump with his front wheel, knocked the front axle our from under it, and as the front end of the boiler plunged down, the one wheel broke off the boiler feed water pipe at the boiler. Of course there was pandemonium. The engineer with an oath, started pulling his fire. Steamed filled the woods and my brother and I, who were standing near, started running and never stopped until we reached home almost mile away. Later that evening father wanted to know if we would like to go with him to look it over. We took the lantern, but I would not go near it until he had gone up and laid his hand on the boiler. It was still just a little warm.
As I grew older I decided that the life for me would be piloting a locomotive. In fact I was quite determined I would go on the railroad. My father was just as determined I would not. In fact, when I was 17 years old, he bought me a stationary steam engine and boiler with which we ground feed, corn meal, graham, buckwheat, and rye flour. I did not learn until years later that he bought it in hope it would keep me off the railroad.
Joining our farm was a brick and tile factory. Soon after we fitted up our feed mill, they replaced the old 20 hp. stationary boiler and engine with a 40 hp. Boiler was bricked in, return tubular engine plain slide valve. They asked me to run the engine. I did for two weeks. When I started in I found there was no flue cleaner. I asked the boss to get me one, but he didn't get around to it. I fired that boiler for three days on cheap coal before the flues got so filled up that in the afternoon of the third day she laid down and would not go any more. I scurried around and found a long stick, tied some ok1 sacks on the end of it and had her going again in about an hour. Nope. I was not fired.
Until I was 15 or 16 years old, I would run a couple of miles to meet a threshing rig just to get to ride on the engine. One day I asked the owner of a Huber 12 hp. if he cared if I tried to guide it. He said no and climbed back on the front of the separator. In a few rods I ditched his whole rig. The ditch was shallow and no harm done. When he got it back in the road he said, 'Now turn it the way you want to go.' I never had any trouble after that. In 1901 I was given charge of my first traction engine. It was a 10 hp. Nichols-Shepard. We first had to move it four or five miles to the home of the owner. Somehow the boiler foamed badly, and I frequently had to close down the throttle and open the cylinder cocks. Once when I pulled them open one of the cocks stuck and broke off. It was surprising how much more fuel and water that engine used to make the rest of the trip home.
That fall we started threshing pulling a 32x54 Case separator with Hawk-eye feeder and slat stacker. The stacker was pulled behind the separator on its own trucks. I was in heaven that morning firing that little engine. At noon a neighbor who had been helping came to me and said 'Robie', why in the world are you running that old engine? Why do you want to run an engine anyhow? I said, 'I like it. I have always wanted to run an engine.' He said, 'Just wait till you get a set of leaky flues.' I said, 'Leaky flues are the fault of the engineer,' He said, 'You'll see.'1 I did. Next morning when I came to fire up the water was running out of the ash pit, and was out of sight in the glass. I soon found that the flues in it were old and had been beaded and rolled several times. Another thing we had in those days was poor coal. If you could get a few old rails to mix in with it you could get along fairly well. But many a morning I had to take out the grates before I would start a fire and chisel the clinkers off them. Every once in a while you would find a man who thought big blocks of wood that he could split down small enough to get in his heating stove would be just the thing for you to fire the engine on. After the water boy and I both had wrestled with them for a while the owner of the rig told our customers to get coal or he would pass them up. It worked.
After a couple of years with the Nichols & Shepard engine, they never did reflue it, I was hired to run a 15 hp. Port Huron compound. It pulled a 36x60 Port Huron separator. I fell completely in love with that engine. It was an easy steamer, and easy to handle. So I bought the rig, including a Marsailles cylinder corn shelter. After threshing, there was shelling to do. On the first job everything went fine. We finished it and pulled to another, and set that evening. The farmers in the run really got up early. We were shelling the next morning by lantern light. After about an hour the chain in the ear corn elevator caught. By the time we got stopped it was in several pieces, and some sprockets were broken, and the upright shaft that the top of the elevator set on was bent. I got the chain together again, we repaired the sprockets, took out the shaft and straightened it, and the next morning started up again. We hadn't run long, 4 or 5 loads, when it happened all over again. Only this time, before it blew up, I noticed we were grinding the corn instead of shelling it, and the cobs as well, and they were coming into the wagons with the corn. We found that the bolts in the front section of the cylinder casting attached to the cylinder shaft had broken allowing that section to stop turning the shaft. Another bad day of no more shelling done. That evening the owner of the corn asked me to pull the sheller into another lot, so he could get his cows in the lot where we sat so they could get to water. So just about dusk I hitched my team to the sheller. I had laid keys, bolts, and other parts around over it, and started to pull it to where he said. As I stopped to shut the gate the team became frightened at something and ran until they crashed into a fence at the other side of the lot. We spent some time next day gathering up pieces, he had hogs in that lot. Somehow we got the sheller together again and I shelled several jobs with it before I junked it. I have gotten up at 2 a. m., drove a team 3 or 4 miles after milking 2 or 3 cows, fired up the engine in freezing weather, and shelled all day. I wonder now why I liked it. However, I never shelled as much corn as several other sheller men hereabouts did.
I did my first steam plowing with this 15 hp. Port Huron engine. I first rigged three 2 bottom gang plows behind it with a wide drawbar, using a method to make them follow correctly that I had read about in the old American Thresherman. It worked very well. I had no trouble pulling them 5 or 6 inches deep, except in black sticky gumbo, some of which we had in some of our fields.
After I had run the Port Huron separator 4 or 5 years I decided to change to something else. I had almost constant toothache. The cylinder teeth were keyed into the cylinder bars with small keys, and also they broke easily. Also, the bevel gears that drove the blower fan would not last out a season. And we pulled the front axle out from under it 2 or 3 times. We didn't have welders then so had to wait for repairs.