Reminiscing with Steam

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This is a Nichols and Shepard rear mounted 20-75 hp. engine, No. 13267, pulling Ben Foster's saw mill near Newton, Illinois, November 18, 1970. This engine is owned by Dale E. Robinson of Newton, Illinois 62448. Courtesy of Dale E. Robinson, R. R. 2, Box
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This is a free lance scale engine, built by Dale E. Robinson of Newton,Illinois 62448. This engine has a cylinder bore 1 inches, a stroke of 1 inches. It carries 100 pounds steam working pressure. It lacks road gears, to be completed later.

R. R. 2. Box 82, Newton, Illinois 62448

Many old timers have written to the Iron-Men Album
telling of their interests and experiences with steam. I have
enjoyed reading these articles very much. However, I feel quilt
that I have never contributed any articles for others to read.

I shall try to give a brief history of my experiences with
steam. My first experience began when I was a lad of eight, and
lived on an old clay, hilly farm in Jasper County, Illinois, near

I constructed, from an old Karo syrup gallon can, a contraption,
which I called a steam engine. Ah yes! I made an engine with a
cylinder made from a solid brass 12 gauge shotgun shell. A cylinder
piston was made from a piece of round brass. The gallon can, used
as a boiler, was placed on a clay base. Oh, how wonderful it looked
to me. I fired it up under an apple tree in the old family orchard.
I thought I needed more water for my boiler, so I went to the house
about fifty yards away, then to the old well for water. While
filling my pail with water, a terrible ‘boom’ took place
out under the apple tree. My mother rushed out to the house to see
what had happened. As my mother and I arrived at the spot, we found
the engine and boiler gone. The parts had ascended upward through
the apple tree, leaving a two-foot diameter hole in the tree
branches. Only a few particles were ever found. The cause of the
explosion was the dire need of a safety valve and a steam gauge. I
was too inexperienced to know about these things. Thus ended my
steam experience until the age of eleven.

An old friend, Mr. Henry Tharp, from Hunt City, Illinois (Burl
Ives’ old home town. I knew Burl well. We went to school
together.) always threshed our neighborhood, near this little

He had a 1915 model Case 65. I can’t recall the serial
number. One day in the summer of 1919, Mr. Tharp pulled into my
father’s farm to thresh. Mr. Tharp knew of the disaster of my
first steam engine. He knew I was interested in steam engines, and
thus took me under his experienced wing. This particular summer, he
taught me to fire his engine, how to start and stop it and how, to
use the injector to take water into the boiler. Oh! The dawning of
a new era arose before me, as I followed Mr. Tharp all through the
neighborhood, threshing that summer.

The summer of 1920 found me proudly pulling Mr. Tharp’s Case
engine and Case separator from place to place. Of course, Mr. Tharp
was at my side if anything develop beyond my control.

The summer of 1921, I operated the engine all alone, but could
not yet make a separator or barn set. This situation continued on
through the summer of 1922. The summer of 1923, I was now the ripe
old age of fifteen years. Mr. Tharp said, ‘You have now passed
your apprenticeship training, so it’s up to you, from now
on.’ I ran his threshing outfit until the finish of the run,
the summer of 1932.

Three years of spare time has been put in this engine to date.
It was last steamed up, March 20,1971. This picture was taken on
this same date.

Courtesy of Dale E. Robinson, R. R. 2, Box 82, Newton, Illinois

Mr. Tharp’s health failed him and he sold his threshing rig.
The loss of this rig to me was almost as bad as losing my best
friend. I would have loved to have had the outfit myself, but of
course I had no money to buy it.

I believe the experience I recall best, when working with Mr.
Tharp, was during the summer of 1926. We finished threshing at
11:00 one morning. The bundle wagons had gone to the next job,
about a mile down the road. As soon as the last bundle went out the
wind stacker, Mr. Tharp told me to pull to the next job and set the
machine. I did just that. To do this, I had to wind around the barn
yard, past the barn and wind in again into an old unused hog lot to
set the machine. After doing this, I banked the fire in the engine
and started toward the farmer’s house. The owner of the farm
suddenly called out to me, ‘Where in the h are you
goin’?’ I told him I was going to the house to get
something to eat. (I had had breakfast that morning around three
o’clock, and it was already past noon.) He cursed and said,
‘You should have eaten on the last job. You’ll get nothing
to eat here.’ ‘O.K.’ I said. I returned to the machine
and proceeded to unbelt the engine, roll up the belt, turn around
and couple up. The farmer said, ‘Where in the h are you
goin’?’ I said, ‘to the next job.’ At this, I
pulled through the gate from the hog lot into the barnyard and
headed for the roadway gate. At this, the farmer cursed again and
said, ‘You’re not goin’ out.’ ‘Yes, I am,’
I shouted. ‘Open that gate or I’ll go through it.’ This
was an old oak slat gate (1′ by 4′). He didn’t open the
gate, so I put the Case 65 with the separator, a pair of mules with
the water wagon on behind, right through his gate. The result was a
nice pile of oak kindling wood. That farmer was quite upset.

When Mr. Tharp heard my story, he said, ‘You-did him right.
He will be the last man whose crops will be threshed this
year.’ He was the last. From then on, he never hesitated to
give a hungry laboring man his dinner. After leaving this
particular job, I pulled to the next job, about a mile or so down
the road.

I pulled in and set the machine ready to thresh. I banked the
fire, closed the draft, picked up my water jug and started for the
farmer’s house, which was about a hundred yards away.

I knocked at the door of an old fashioned log house, very old,
but neat and humble looking. I was met at the door by an old lady
wearing glasses, an old-fashioned sunbonnet and a kitchen apron
over her dress. I asked for a fresh jug of water. She said,
‘Sure, young man, help yourself.’ She showed me the well.
It was an old-fashioned well with rope and pulley. On each end of
the rope was an old-fashioned oaken bucket.

Oh, how good this fresh well water tasted, but it didn’t
take the place of food.

It was now about 1:30 in the afternoon and I still hadn’t
had anything to eat since 3 A.M. I asked the woman if she would
please give me something to eat, after explaining my situation. Her
reply was, ‘You sure can, young man. You can’t run a
threshing engine without plenty of grub. We ain’t much but
I’ll scrape up something for you. Come on in and set yourself
down, while I scrape up something.’ I went in and sat down in
an old-fashioned hickory split bottom chair. Oh, how comfortable!
The lady headed for the kitchen. I could see an old-fashioned
Copper Clad range cook stove. She proceeded to stoke the stove with
dry seasoned hickory and oak wood. I knew from the crackling of the
fire, that it would not be long until the lady would have up steam
ready to go. About twenty minutes later, the lady said, ‘Come
on in and eat.’

She sat me down to two pieces of country hickory smoked ham, six
inches in diameter and about half an inch thick. Also placed before
me were three fresh, fried country eggs, a loaf of home made bread,
a bowl of ham flour gravy, a big cake of country made butter, a
bowl filled with blackberry jelly and a pot of good black coffee
made in an old fashioned coffee pot. My, oh my! Did I ever do
justice to this good meal. About all that was left was half loaf of
bread, some jelly, butter, coffee and dirty dishes. I looked more
like a cat, who had just finished a fish banquet. In all my years
on the threshing ring, I never had a meal that tasted as good as
this one.

This fine old lady passed on to her eternal reward, many years
ago. God bless her, and may her soul rest in peace.

I was again lost without a steam engine until 1938. In May,
1938, I married a young woman, who is a wonderful person and a
teacher of music and art. During the fall of 1938, I found a nice
15 hp. Advance engine. She helped me buy the engine at the
unbelievable price of fifty dollars. It needed some new flues, but
otherwise it was a good engine. I gathered up parts here and there
and built myself a sawmill. I ran this engine and mill, part time
in summer and part time in winter, until 1941. Then came World War
II. I did my bit for Uncle Sam in the Navy Air Corps and was
discharged honorably in September of 1945. My mill by now needed
repair. I rebuilt it and increased its size. It was too much for my
16 hp. Advance. I sold this engine in 1946 and bought a 20-75
double cylinder rear mounted Nichols and Shepard Engine No. 13267,
which I now own and have on a sawmill near Newton. This mill
belongs to a good friend of mine, Mr. Ben Foster of Wheeler,
Illinois. He also has a stationary boiler and a stationary
horizontal engine in good running order.

Last summer and fall, with some help from Mr. Foster, I
overhauled my N & S engine. I put in a complete set of new
flues, new main crankshaft bearings, new crosshead pins, all new
reverse linkage pins, and cleaned and painted it, which cost me a
total of 350 dollars in cash and two months work.

I have built a one-fourth scale, free lance engine in my shop.
It is complete except for road gears, which I hope to put in soon.
It is a good little steamer with an 8 inch by 22 inch boiler shell,
an 8 by 12 by 7 inch firebox fired on coal. It has been cold water
tested to 160 pounds pressure and operates on one hundred pounds
steam working pressure. It has a 1′ by 1′ piston and
stroke. It sure is a nice little engine.

I am enclosing a picture of my Nichols and Shepard engine,
pulling Mr. Foster’s saw mill. Nov. 18, 1970. I am also
enclosing a picture of my little engine that I am building. It was
last steamed up, March 20, 1971.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank three nice
Iron-Men Album readers, who answered my letter in regard to the
original colors for re-painting my Nichols and Shepard engine. They
are as follows:

Mr. Forrest V. Cunningham – R. D. 2 Harrodsburg, Kentucky

Mr. Alvin I. Smith – R. R. 2, Galveston, Indiana 46932.

Mr. William H. Brown – R. R. 2, Granby, Missouri 64844.

I have had several nice letters from these fine gentlemen.
Thanks again.

Maybe you haven’t guessed it. But, I am a retired school
teacher. I began teaching in 1928. Both my wife and I retired in

The old steam engine, a hound dog and a fiddle helped me earn
money to get my education. Both my wife and I worked our way
through school.

We have a string quartet, two fiddles and two guitars, of which
Mrs. Robinson and I are members. We get together each week during
the fall and winter months for practice sessions. We play for
churches, reunions and many other public occasions.

I will be 63 years old, April 21, 1971, and have found out that
the only cure for steam fever is to become the proud owner of a
steam engine of your choice.

Well, I think this is enough rambling for this time, with best
wishes to all steam friends and the Iron-Men Album. Keep
up the good work.

My latch string is always out for any and all of you good
friends and readers that might be in Newton, Illinois, some time.
Come and see us.

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