Tobacco Plant Bed Steamin' in Old Kentuck
204 East Melbourne Avenue Silver Spring, Maryland 20901
Thomas G. 'Tommy' Lee and his dad, Stewart W. Lee, flank the boiler of the 65 HP J. I. Case Company steam traction engine # 35635 at the end of a day steaming tobacco plant beds on April 19, 1961.
When Stewart W. Lee died in 1984 at the age of 81, the last word to leave his lips was 'Case.' He was paying final homage to the J. I. Case Company's steam engines, which were one of the great loves of his life and served him well in almost a half-century of work as a custom 'steamer' of tobacco plant beds in northwestern Kentucky.
'Steaming' was a practice started in this region of Kentucky during the early 1900s by tobacco growers who found it an ideal way to rid their plant beds of insects, molds, diseases and weed seeds all bitter enemies of young tobacco plants.
'Plant bed steaming was the last stand for steam engines on the American farm,' Thomas G. 'Tommy' Lee, a farmer in Mc Clean County and Stewart Lee's only son, explained as he discussed the basics of an occupation which kept him working shoulder-to-shoulder with his dad and with Case engines for more than four decades.
'When the hobby of collecting steam engines started, that's why collectors flocked to Kentucky's tobacco country,' Tommy noted. 'Steaming tobacco was the last job on the farm for the steam engine.'
Tommy Lee and his dad made their last steaming runs together in 1975 when Stewart Lee was 73 years old. They stopped at a time when chemicals had taken over as a faster, cheaper (but 'definitely not better,' Tommy says) way to sterilize the plant beds. In spite of the Kentucky invasion by collectors, Tommy and his dad held onto their principal workhorse, a 1923 65 HP Case steam traction engine (#35,635) which is still based at the Lee family farm.
'It was a late model Case,' Tommy point out, 'because the last engine produced at the J. I. Case Company was #35,838 there must have been 35,634 before it and only 203 came after it. In 1945, when I was about six years old, our pastor Brother Rice E. Gregory told my dad about a good steam engine over in Daviess County that was for sale. It was a 65 HP Case owned by Mr. Len Coots, who lived at Sorgho, Kentucky.
'Mr. Coots agreed to steam it up for my dad,' Tommy recalled. 'He let Daddy drive it around the barnyard. I remember that Saturday morning in 1945 as clearly as if it was yesterday. When we arrived at Mr. Coots' place, he already had a good fire in her. Before long, he told me to get into the right coal bunker, as he was going to move it up to fill the contractor with water.
'Once the tank was filled, Mr. Coots turned the engine over to Dad,' Tommy said in a voice tinged with still-lingering excitement. 'Needless to say, Daddy fell in love with the 65 HP Case right then and there; and so did I. I was so afraid Dad wouldn't buy it, because Mr. Coots was asking $750 a pretty hefty price at that time (before the hobbyists and collectors came along to push prices up!). But, the following week, my dad, his brother and brother-in-law drove the engine home a run of about 20 miles. I was so happy!'
Stewart Lee previously had owned a Peerless steam engine, but he sold it before he ever moved it home. Acquisition of the 65 HP Case started his love affair with an engine that lasted to the very end of his life on earth and has been memorialized in a gravestone, ordered and placed at his burial site by a thoughtful, grateful son.
Born in 1902 at Nuchols in McLean County, Stewart Lee 'worked around wheat threshers, but was never a custom thresher, himself,' his son explained.
'After graduating from high school at (nearby) Livermore in 1920,' Tommy added, 'Daddy worked for the New York Central Railroad and had jobs with the Dodge Brothers Motor Company and the Ozark Pipeline Company. Upon returning to his home base, he worked on steam-powered drilling rigs in local oil fields.'
Tommy believes the first use, anywhere, of steam engines for the sterilization of tobacco plant beds occurred in Daviess County around 1900, while his dad was growing up. After World War I, steaming really spread as the 'state-of-the-art' way to sterilize the plant beds.
Stewart Lee, who had developed experience with steam engines, drove other people's engines for steaming, threshing wheat, hulling clover and pulling sawmills. According to his son, the list of his 'credits' as a steam engine operator in northwestern Kentucky included 'Bill Mitchell's 15 HP Case, Angus Tanner's 20 HP Case, Ben Johnson's 15 HP Case and Marvin Bennett's 15 HP Case.'
Since Tommy went tobacco bed steaming with his Dad for so many years, he's a logical source of information about how the process worked and what it accomplished.
'Steaming sterilizes the weed seeds, so they won't germinate,' he pointed out. 'It also knocks out mold and keeps diseases out of the ground.'
As described by Tommy, the steaming 'pan' is nine feet wide by 16 2/3 feet long, covering 16 2/3 square yards. It's eight inches deep and made of sheet metal spread over a rigid frame, which is equipped with wheels to facilitate moving it from one steaming 'set' to another and levers to provide for raising and lowering of the rig. Pipes connected to the engine's supply of steam feed the heated vapor under the pan to concentrate and reflect heat over and into the grounds.
'The bed is prepared ahead of time by plowing or disking, then the steaming,' Tommy explained. 'Since transplanting is usually scheduled in late May, we usually tried to steam and sow the beds between March 10 and 15. However, when weather permitted, the beds were steamed the previous fall. This was preferred, due to the fact the ground was drier and there was less danger of miring-down the heavy engine while moving through the fields. Over the years, my Dad mired his 65 Case at least three times while steaming in the spring and it took a winch to get her unstuck each time.
'Due to the autumn harvest season,' he continued, 'many farmers did not have the time to steam their plant beds in the fall and would wait until the spring season. When we had a late spring and the steaming would be thrown off schedule, we would steam beds into the wee hours of the morning. Night steaming required two kerosene lanterns for the engine alone one sitting on the running board beside the water glass and the other hanging from a nail under the cab so the fireman could see the water glass and the steam gauge.'
According to Tommy, it takes about three hours to complete the steaming of six pans, which would treat about 100 square yards. He listed the following steps from start to finish in the plant bed steaming process:
1) moving onto the steaming site and lowering the pan over the section of plant bed to be sterilized;
2) banking dirt around the sides of the pan to keep the steam corralled under the pan;
3) piping steam (at boiler pressure of 150 psi) probably more under the pan for 30 minutes (some 'steamers' contend 15 minutes is enough, but 'we always gave it 30,' Tommy says);
4) removing the pan, raking down the bed and letting it cool down (Tommy says the treated bed stays 'really hot' to the touch 'for over an hour' after the pan is lifted and moved);
5) in the spring of the year, the treated bed was fertilized and sown, then covered with cotton canvass; with fall steaming, the treated bed lay dormant until spring sowing time. In later years, after fall steaming, the beds were covered with plastic in order to prevent contamination of the sterilized soil with airborne weed seeds, mold spores, insects and diseases.
Stewart Lee and his son operated the 65 HP Case traction engine on annual steaming runs in McLean County, occasionally making short runs into neighboring Daviess and Ohio Counties, for many years up to and including the 1963-64 season, when they started using a 1924 65 HP Case portable boiler, removing its iron wheels and putting it on rubber truck tires to improve its mobility. It could be 'roaded' behind a gas tractor or truck. They used this rig until the Lees quit steaming tobacco beds at the end of the 1974-75 season.
When Tommy Lee speaks of his father, it is always in a voice which is obviously filled with the respect and admiration of a son who had great love for his dad.
'In addition to being an outstanding fireman and engineer, he was one of the best blacksmiths and woodworkers I've ever seen,' Tommy stated proudly, adding: 'My daddy always kept his engine in good repair. He never started an engine to play with it. He was strictly business and not much for foolishness.
'It wasn't until 1956, when he was 54 years of age, that we went to our first steam engine show,' Tommy recalled. 'We went to a lot of shows together after that, and Daddy even increased his Case collection by buying a 40 HP Case traction engine for $1,000 in 1971. At the time of his death, he also owned a Case threshing machine and a Case grain binder.'
Tommy Lee recently completed restoration of the 40 HP engine in his shop on the home farm, exhibiting the talents of the well-organized and skilled craftsman his dad must have been.
On July 17,1982, Stewart Lee was named 'Old Steam Man of the Year' by the Tennessee-Kentucky Threshers Association. It was an honor he shared that year with his close friend, veteran sawmill operated Elza 'Dodge' Taylor, of McLean County.
Even though steaming tobacco is no longer a way to make a living in Kentucky, Tommy still grows 'a little tobacco' along with soy beans, corn and other crops on his farm; and 'one of these days,' he promises, 'I'm going to fire up one of these engines and steam our tobacco beds.'
Tommy recently acquired an operating 80 HP Case steam traction engine for his farm; but, if he does head out 'to do a little steaming',' he'd better darn site do some of that work with a 65 HP Case or look for rumbles from heaven. His dad might not think it was very smart or businesslike to use anything but his favorite 'Case 65.'
'Although he loved all steam engines,' Tommy said with the firmness of a son who was reminded of a father's belief many times, 'his favorite by far was the 65 HP Case. He always considered it to be the best all-around traction engine ever built.'
Stewart Lee's recollections of Case steam power took him back to the days when he was growing up on the family farm in McLean County, where his grandfather owned a 15 HP Case (purchased in 1910, when Stewart was only eight years old) used to power a wheat thresher and sawmill, plus a 6 HP Case 'center crank' direct flue traction engine which was used primarily for shredding corn.
'Every chance he got as a young boy, Daddy would be around his grandfather's two Case steam engines,' Tommy said. 'While attending the one-room Buck Creek grade school, whenever his grandfather would drive by the school-house with one of his engines, Daddy's teacher would permit him to run out and get a short ride down the road on the steam engine.
'The little 6 HP Case 'center crank', direct flue traction engine was a rare jewel,' Tommy stated. 'My Dad remembered it well, and I sure wish we still had it around in the family today.' (By the way Stewart's grandfather also owned the first all-steel Case threshing machine' a self-feeder with wind stacker' in his part of Kentucky.)
All of this is to say that Tommy Lee is in the fourth generation of Lees to fire-up Case steam traction engines, and his dad probably would be pleased and proud to know his son is one of eight people who serve on the International J. I. Case Heritage Steering Committee, a group formed to make sure that the Case traditions of hard work, square-dealing, reliable performance and agricultural progress are preserved for generations to come.
'I know he'd be tickled to know about this,' Tommy commented. 'He was such a Case man, he'd want me to carry on. Why, when Daddy was on his deathbed and I was doing everything I could to gain a spark of recognition from him, I asked him: 'What's the best engine ever made, Daddy?' '
Stewart Lee was in a coma and hadn't recognized anybody or answered any questions for quite a while; but, Tommy remembers well, 'Daddy seemed to summon all the strength he could muster to show recognition of my question in his face, and he answered just as clear as could be: 'Case!'
That was Stewart Lee's last word as the mantle of allegiance to his Case steam engines was passed from one 'Case Man' to another-... from father to his son.