5001 Shiland Drive, Greensboro, North Carolina 27406
In the spring of 1902 the hardworking farm family of Mr. Arelius Vest of White Gate, Virginia purchased a 6 horsepower 'Peerless portable steam engine. It was pulled with oxen over the rough country back roads of southwest Virginia for over a decade threshing in the summer and cutting cord wood in the fall. The territory ranged from Mechanicsburg to Eggleston and at times shortcuts were taken through Big Walker's Creek during dry summer droughts.
The family also had an undertaking business which was self-contained from making their own custom-made caskets to the other necessities of the business. During the hard winter months the engine was put in one end of a large two-story shop and used to pull several woodworking machines connected by line-shafts and flat belts. Intricate special molding was cut by hand and at times special bevel blades were ground for hand planes. The end product seemed to have design, luster and a quality just not found in production work of today.
There are many, many stories that go along with this old engine when it was in its 'hay' day. Here are two that come to mind that were told by one of the sons, Mr. Bob Vest, now 78 years old.
This photo was taken in 1910 on a threshing site on Big Walker Mountain at White Gate, Virginia. The engine was only 8 years old and the old mechanical water pump was still in service. Years later the engine was equipped with a Penberthy injector.
One fall, Mr. A Vest pulled his engine, with oxen, about four miles to my grandfather's farm, Mr. W. T. Miller, to saw hard wood for the winter. The engine was set, leveled and the saw was hand sharpened and belted. The oxen were put in a lot back of the barn and fed and the Vest men folk chose to ride horses home for the night. Bob recalls the whole family being awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a loud disturbance outside their home. After checking, both oxen were back home. To retrack their journey it was found that they had laid down three rail fences (using their horns), opened at least one gate, crossed Big Walker Creek (during high water) at least twice, and climbed a narrow winding mountain trail to return home the same day.
This photo was taken Labor Day weekend 1977 where the engine still sat rusting and slowly sinking into the ground on the side of Walker Mountain. I am pictured on the right and my father on the left.
This photo was taken after restoration one year later at a steam show in North Carolina. The event was the sixth annual 'Yesteryear in Motion' steam show at Jamestown, North Carolina, held September 23, 1978. The engine was used to power a Case straw baler during the show. My father, Joe S. Miller, St., is pictured with me.
The second story centers around a near disaster when a brother, anxious to return to work after lunch one day, didn't wait on a brakeman but undertook to drive the oxen up a steep roadway close to the house. As fate would have it, the wooden tongue pulled out leaving the driver holding the lines to the oxen and the 4,400 pound steam engine rolled several hundred feet before ending up on its side with damages to the front yoke and dog-leg flywheel. It is needless to say this was an expensive lesson to learn, but one not to ever surface again.
I did almost all of the work myself with help at times from a friend. The wooden wheels were the biggest challenge I first gathered information from some old Geiser parts books and then made a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, and talked to a registered wheel rite that makes the carriage and wagon wheels for Colonial Williamsburg. The next hurdle was finding a dry kiln company that would take my Hickory lumber and hold it until only 10% moisture. After the three tapers were cut on each spoke they had to be individually fitted in the hub. I found that I had to cut all the fellers by hand and sand rather than setting up with a jig on a shaper. The last hurdle was figuring the percent of shrinkage of the metal tire or band so it would be tight enough to hold but not so tight as to split the feller.
The only two metal working operations needed were replacing the smoke box and the 16 - 2' flues.