Reminiscing with Arthur J. Holen . .

| May/June 1963

2195 Dudley Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota


'Slow and steady', the engineer said time and time again the first few days when I started firing a straw burner back in 1911. The engine was a Northwest New Giant return flue built by the Northwest Thresher Co. in Stillwater, Minnesota. The first few days the engineer had to take the fork several times as the steam went down. Technique is important in firing the straw burner. A beginner's big fault is to want to push in too much straw and thereby smother the fire. By and by the beginner gets into the groove. Slow and steady and with an eye on the steam gauge one gradually gets to master the situation. There certainly is ambition in youth. Get up in the morning at 3:30 to get up steam so as to start the days threshing at 6:00 A.M. That is in stack threshing - the starting time in shock threshing varied with the dew and the number of racks loaded the night before. If it did not look like rain there were several racks loaded ready for the morning. Quitting time was generally around seven. However, in some shock runs in western Minnesota it was the practice to thresh one day on each job. This meant moving to the next job after supper.

In 1911 the fireman was paid $2.50 a day which was 25cent more than the bundle pitchers were paid. In 1912 I was paid $3.00 a day which was considered good wages for firemen.

A fireman soon gets to recognize the good straw for firing. The blue stem wheat straw had good heating qualities. The velvet chaff straw was was not as good as the bluestem-besides the velvet chaff had awns or beards which made it miserable on a hot day. A poor straw for firing was marquis wheat straw especially if it was cut on the green side. I always dreaded a job where there was an a mount of marquis wheat. Barley straw had good heating qualities but, Oh Man!, the beards on the barley straw how they would crawl up the pants leg. Imagine after a hot day firing with barley straw and at night sleeping in the tender or in the sleeping shack without change of underwear for a whole week. I shudder now when I think of it! Oat straw was good, but flax was the fireman's delight but the engineers bug a boo. Flax straw does not pack and has such high heating qualities that cold air is drawn thru the chute and of course apt to make for leaky flues if used for any lenght of time.


A number of incidents which seem amusing now come to mind. When I first started firing I got myself rigged out with a black fireman's cap, and of course a red handkerchief. On the first day it happened that we had to move about three miles at noon. As I said the engine was a return flue which gave off heat like an oven. The fireman stood on a little platform in front of the tender which had a covered box on it filled with straw. The hot August sun beat down unmercifully. That might my ears started to sting. By morning I had in place of ears a baloney ring on each side of my head. When the engineer saw me in the morning he said, 'I think you had better get yourself a straw hat'. That was sound advice for sure.

Another incident involved a cemetery. As a youth I was afraid of cemeteries after dark. We were threshing on a farm just west of LacQuiParle village in LacQuiParle county, Minn. The rig pulled into a setting of four stacks late in the afternoon beside a cemetery. Two stacks were left at quitting time. I was already scared thinking about next morning. In fact I lay awake most of the night getting more scared by the hour. 3:30 comes around and I had to go out to the rig and start getting up steam. Any one who has fired up a boiler in the early morning know that a boiler will make some weird and haunting noises as it is heating up. I stood there poking straw into the straw chute frozen with fear. I never have known a time when I was as much relieved as when I had steam up and could go in for breakfast.


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