Farm Collector


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

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

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 32×54 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

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 36×60 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

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.

  • Published on Jul 1, 1959
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