Museum Receives Significant Gift

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Curator of Collections Ontario Agricultural Museum P. O. Box 38
Milton, Ontario, Canada L9T 2Y3

Every donation a museum receives is greeted with excitement and
enthusiasm by the museum’s curator, but occasionally a donation
comes along which creates a tremendous sense of awe and admiration
among everyone associated with the institution.

Such an occasion arose in the summer of 1991 when Mrs. Lois
Stapley of Stirling, Ontario, donated a 1906 10 H.P. Robert Bell
steam tractor engine to the Ontario Agricultural Museum in Milton.
Purchased new for $1,550.00, on February 7, 1907 by Frank Stapley
of Campbell ford in east central Ontario, this unique engine
remained in the Stapley family for over 84 years, working for over
half a century powering sawmills and threshing machines, before
being ‘reborn’ as a hobby engine, travelling to steam shows
and ploughing matches ’til the mid-1980s.

Frank Stapley was a custom thresherman in his home county of
Hastings, eventually having 65 clients and running three steam
threshing rigs. The Bell engine was immediately put to work serving
these clients upon receipt in 1907. The engine was shipped by rail
from the factory of the Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company in
Sea forth, Ontario, to Belleville, Ontario, where Stapley met it.
He drove the engine home, some 30 miles to the northwest, stopping
at a number of clients enroute to do some threshing. Travel became
a way of life for the Stapleys with this engine; in addition to
their threshing circuit, they ran a sawmill near the community of
Bancroft, over 75 miles to the north. The engine was driven to the
sawmill each fall, and back to Campbell ford every spring until the
1940s, for a total distance travelled in excess of 5,000 miles, not
to mention the travelling required to serve their many threshing
customers!

By the 1960s, steam threshing had become a thing of the past in
Ontario and ‘steam reunions’ were beginning to spring up in
various areas of the province. Frank Stapley’s son Wallace took
over the old Bell, restored it and began to take it to some of
these shows, including the Steam-Era event held every Labour Day in
Milton, Ontario. Wallace would sleep in his truck, and many can
remember him getting steam up early in the morning, and shaving at
the side of the engine with a mug full of hot water in hand taken
from the boiler. Unfortunately, ill health caused Wallace to stop
attending most shows, and the Bell was operated only occasionally
and in their local area during its last few years in the Stapley
family.

The Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company was founded in 1899
and incorporated in 1903 with a large factory in Seaforth. Very
early, Bell reached an agreement with the Port Huron Engine and
Thresher Company of Port Huron, Michigan, to build their engines in
Canada. These well-proportioned side mounted engines with long
smoke box and corrugated rear wheels were built in various sizes,
but the original design was little altered. Both tandem compounds
and simple engines were built.

A distinctive option which both Port Huron and Bell offered was
the ‘Loco-Cab,’ a locomotive-type cab offering a great deal
of protection to the operation. Stapley’s Bell featured this
cab, along with optional canopy roof, and remains the only known
engine in Ontario today with a full cab.

One of the unusual features on the Bell traction engine is a
dual steering system, useful for the many road miles this engine
travelled.

The Bell factory remains active today, as the home for
‘Boiler Smith,’ a manufacturer of package boilers. They
still work on traction engines as well, building new welded boilers
for those hobbyists with the wherewithal to save engines condemned
due to weak boilers.

In 1991, Wallace’s wife and two sons, Ed and Rob, chose to
donate the ‘Old 20,’ as they affectionately called it, to
the Ontario Agricultural Museum. With full respect for its history
of one-family ownership and its rebirth as a hobby engine, the
Museum chose to restore the engine not to ‘when new’
condition, but rather to its appearance immediately after the
family restored it as a parade and show engine in the 1960s. Now
completed, the Bell will join the museum’s 15 other restored
portable and traction engines in their ‘Steam On the Farm’
exhibit, a must for any steam enthusiast travelling in southern
Ontario. The museum, a branch of the Ontario Ministry of
Agriculture and Food, is situated on an 80 acre site just west of
Toronto, and will be open seven days a week from June 5 to
September 26, 1993. For more information, contact the museum’s
Public Relations Department, P.O. Box 38, Milton, Ontario L9T 2Y3,
(416) 878-8151.

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