626 North Minden Avenue, Minden, Nebraska
LeRoy Blaker was a childhood playmate of mine. After leaving our community the family moved out of the state. I lost track of the Blakers. One day looking through our daily paper I noticed an article that LeRoy Blaker had been elected National Thresher President of a Threshers Association. Since then we have kept track of each other. Mr. Blaker and his wife and sister, who was also a schoolmate, visited us last fall. I trust this article will be of interest to your publication
I WAS AWAKENED BY A hissing noise. Looking through the attic window where I had been asleep I saw a black monster, which proved to be a steam traction engine. It seemed so large to me but I was just a boy of nine or ten years. It was too early for me to get up so I sat by the window until it was my usual time to arise. Here before my very eyes was a steam engine. Now what do you suppose makes that thing run? Somehow I was determined to find out.
Being summer and no school I could spend the day watching this engine at work. I had heard of some of the boilers blowing up. One water hauler had been killed. That sort of scared me but I would be cautious so I found myself standing about 100 yards away. I was careful that nothing was in back of me, if that boiler should blow up it would give me a better chance to take off. The engineer in my opinion was a brave man. He seemed to have lots of faith in the boiler. The engine was laboring heavily under its load. The exhaust was very exciting. But why did it have to make that puffing noise? Without any warning the safety valve popped off which made considerable noise. I thought that must be the boiler blowing up so I took off. A farmer's horses hitched to a wagon had been frightened and were running away. The crew stayed around the machine and no one ran away or seemed to be concerned so I started back to the engine.
I was now close to the engine. I was getting more courage. At last I had one of my hands on the drive wheel. The engine was laboring quite heavily as it was rocking back and forth. It seemed to be determined to pull its load. Some time the exhaust was very loud, then a soft exhaust but it was music to my ears. I pretty much decided when I grew up I was going to be an engineer. By this time I had gotten acquainted with the engineer who appeared to be a nice fellow, so I began to ask questions. What makes it run? He said, 'putting water in the boiler and heating it to a point when it would turn to steam would cause a tremendous pressure. There is a pipe leading the steam to a cylinder and a plunger or piston as it is called fitted in the cylinder. The pressure forces the piston back and forth.' What regulates the steam to the cylinder? He said, 'I don't know, all I know is the steam forces the piston to one end. After the steam has done its job it is exhausted into the smoke stack where it helps to create a draft.' Well, that was something, but what causes the steam to do the thing at the right time?
During the next four or five years I asked a lot of questions but I never got what was a complete answer. One day I decided to build a little steam engine. I mentioned this to my brothers but they did not think much of the idea. What could a boy my age know about an engine and I was told I had better keep out of the blacksmith shop. Since I was the youngest of four boys it seemed I would have to obey the order but I planned to work on the sly. I told my two youngest sisters what my plans were but they must tell no one to which they agreed. I had decided to build a small steam engine 1 1/8' diameter by 2 inch stroke, single action. The valve had to be worked out as there was no place to buy small parts, then too my trouble was no money, which was no different than any boy at my age.
I did not have a lathe. Our blacksmith shop consisted of a forge, an anvil, vise and post drill. The big problem was the valve which had been partly developed but to prove my theory was right I would have to build an engine. I do not know just how I happened to work it out. I will attempt to describe the valve. It was made from a steam cock or ' shut-off. When the valve was wide open I drilled two three-sixteenth inch holes through the body into the one side of the spindle. Now when I turned the spindle one-half turn this would be the position for a full inlet to the cylinder as the engine turned, then a rocker arm set up would cause the steam to be shut off from the cylinder. The exhaust steam would pass out of the cylinder into the valve where it passed into the spindle, then up through the body and out in the open. The valve on a Corliss steam engine is very much the same as on my engine. I was fourteen years old when I completed the engine, having taken me two years.
Just how was I going to test it out? I did not want any one around because there was a possibility that I could be wrong. One day I painted it and it really did look like a steam engine. Will it run? That was the big question. I had built sort of a water tube boiler. This arrangement I set on the forge and placed the engine in the vise. All the folks had gone to the County Fair so I had the shop to myself. The engine and boiler were piped together. I did not have a steam gauge, no safety valve, no throttle and one pet cock on the boiler. This I used for testing the pressure. I had placed the engine on dead center. After what I thought should be plenty of water in the boiler, I started the fire in the forge. Then trying the pet cock a few times I decided there was ample pressure.
The big moment was now here. I pushed it off center, the engine started turning over slowly. It was exhausting mostly water. I remember I was getting pretty excited and was just a little disappointed that it did not turn faster. The water was not coming out like it did at the start. I guess the engine was turning over about 150 RPM but it was increasing its speed and was now exhausting steam instead of water. I could no longer see the spokes in the flywheel. It then dawned on me that I had no throttle and could not slow it down. It was now running about 2000 RPM and still gaining speed. By this time I had left the building because no thought had been given to balance of the engine. The entire shop was trembling from the engine vibration. I was pretty much bewildered. The engine was still gaining speed. Finally the crank shaft broke next to the flywheel and the engine stopped. I had proven my point what makes a steam engine operate. I replaced the crankshaft, painted it and hid it in an old trunk where my brothers kept their fly nets for the horses.
One nice warm Sunday my brothers got the fly nets for the driving team. I knew then that they had found my engine. Most of us got into the carriage to go to church, myself and two of my brothers in the front seat. We were on our way down the road, no one seemed to have anything to say. Finally one of my brothers turned to mother and said, 'We will never make a farmer out of Lud. We found something,' and proceeded to tell about my engine. After that experience I was given more leeway in the shop. In the next two years I built three more engines. I also built a 2 horsepower engine. I designed a new valve action which was a rotary valve. I started for a patent and finally decided I had better learn a little more about engines. This valve really performs nice. There is no reciprocating motion as it is driven off the crank shaft by bevel gears which was to be enclosed and would run in grease.
I am a steam engine enthusiast and have practically spent my entire life time with machinery. I have, however, changed my vocation several times. Fifteen years were spent with steam which I thought I had mastered quite well. I spent a great deal of time in valve setting and the machinists trade. In 1917 I joined the regular Navy as 2nd class machinist. Ten months later I was promoted to Chief Machinist. This is where I got my marine engine experience. I spent some time working in railroad shops. In 1928 I started building dies and jigs. I have spent about 60 years with machinery.
I suppose some of you readers probably might wonder what I am doing today. I own and operate a manufacturing plant where we manufacture automotive tools and some electronic parts. We have also designed and built some automatic machines. The work has been very interesting. Some of the most interesting problems came from the steam traction engine.
Engines and machinery have always provided me with work. Some one once said, 'I can't help but admire the one who enjoys doing what he has to do the most of.'