One of the South’s Great Steam Men Passes the Mantle of Case Allegiance to his Son

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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.

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