Russell Steam Traction Engines: 100 Years of Threshers, Road Rollers, Tractors

The long history of Russell & Company, the "Old Reliable Line”

| Fall 2006

  • 1908_Russell_steam-BIG
    This 1908 Russell steam traction engine was a sleek-looking machine. The smallest one was an 8 HP.
  • Russell_steam_line_ad-BIG
    This Russell ad from 1917 in Power Farming magazine shows that despite its foray into gasoline tractors, the company still considered steam traction engines important, part of their "Old Reliable Russell Line."
  • Russell_steam_engine_ad_BIG
    The Russell & Co. still advertised their steam traction engines in 1920, even though the time of the gas tractor had come.
  • 1918_Russell_steam_traction_BIG
    A 1918 catalog for Russell & Co. says steam traction engines like this one were made in 25-75 HP size, with a 9-by-13-inch simple-cylinder.
  • Button
    John Garrels' 1922 25 HP Russell steam traction engine was featured on the entry button for the 1989 Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Midwest Old Threshers' Reunion.
  • Russell-brothers-BIG-Vossler
    The 1918 Russell & Co. catalog shows "The Russell Brothers." Seated, from left, are Joseph, Nahum and Clement; standing are Thomas, George and Allen.
  • Russell_and_Co_Vossler
    The return-flue steam traction engine manufactured by Russell & Co. was built in 1891 and burned straw. It was probably a 13 HP.
  • 25HP_Russell-BIG-Vossler
    John Garrels' 1922 25 HP Russell steam traction engine was used on a postcard for the Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Midwest Old Threshers' Reunion during the mid-60s. It is a single-cylinder simple machine.
  • Russell_tractor_BIG-Vossler
    This 4-cylinder Russell tractor is still a reminder of steam traction engines. It is the only 3-wheeled model in the Russell line at the time.
  • 20-40-Special_Vossler
    This 20-40 Special road building tractor was part of the successful line of tractors produced by Russell & Co. The company did well with the line after its long history of success with steam traction engines. Note the continued use of "The Boss" logo.
  • 12HP_Russell-Big-Vossler
    This 12 HP Russell is one of several shown at the Mt. Pleasant Midwest Old Threshers' Reunion.
  • Russell_logo-BIG-Vossler
    The old Russell logo says volumes about how life was back in the days when steam traction engines were made.
  • 12HP_Russell-closeup-BIG
    A close-up of the 12 HP Russell steam traction engine.
  • Russell-Ad-Vossler
    A Russell & Co. advertisement from The American Thresherman, August 1909, showing the American 20 HP Gas tractor and The Russell General Utility 30 HP steam traction engine.

  • 1908_Russell_steam-BIG
  • Russell_steam_line_ad-BIG
  • Russell_steam_engine_ad_BIG
  • 1918_Russell_steam_traction_BIG
  • Button
  • Russell-brothers-BIG-Vossler
  • Russell_and_Co_Vossler
  • 25HP_Russell-BIG-Vossler
  • Russell_tractor_BIG-Vossler
  • 20-40-Special_Vossler
  • 12HP_Russell-Big-Vossler
  • Russell_logo-BIG-Vossler
  • 12HP_Russell-closeup-BIG
  • Russell-Ad-Vossler

On the night of May 9, 1898, the red glare of a magnificent fire stopped an opera in the middle of its performance in the Massillon, Ohio, opera house. The Russell & Co. steam traction engine business was on fire, and the blaze attracted a horde of sightseers from Canton. They saw the flickering on the horizon and bicycled 12 miles in the dark to take in the spectacle.

“Drawn by the red glare in the skies,” wrote Edward Thornton Heald in The Stark County Story, “hundreds of other Cantonians rushed to the scene by train, interurban and carriages.”

Though the fire at the steam engine business provided a display for the sightseers, the Canton Fire Department arrived an hour and a half after the blaze started with a fire engine, wagon and four horses. It was not a good time for Russell & Co., the largest employer in the city. It wasn't the first time the business was on fire.

The Beginnings of Russell & Co.

After their carpentery shop burned in 1840, a trio of Russell brothers – Charles, Nahum and Clement – formed C.M. Russell & Co. on Jan. 1, 1842, to make threshers and horsepowers in an old whitewashed two-story building called the “White Shop.” They used a blind white horse to drive an iron and wood trimming lathe and a grindstone. “The senior partner had seen and carefully examined the Pitts-Buffalo Separator, which had already been constructed and in use,” says Herbert T.O. Blue in The History of Stark County Ohio, “and on that examination Mr. Russell believed that he saw where improvements might be made, and with characteristic energy set about trying to make it better, and so succeeded that the improved machine took the premium at the Ohio State Fair at Columbus in 1845.”



After the local shipping canal was clogged with boats filled with a bumper wheat crop in 1846, citizens realized a railroad was needed. The Russells not only bought stock in the Ohio & Pennsylvania Railroad to urge it to come through Massillon, they built railroad handcars and stockcars for the company, so their new business, N.S.&C. Russell, flourished. Three more brothers joined in 1864 and the organization became Russell & Co. In 1871 the company divided; C. Russell & Co. moved to Canton, to make reapers and mowers.

On May 17, 1878, a fire destroyed the Russell iron-working machinery, wagon stock and 36 years’ stock of patterns, worth $75,000 – a small fortune. Other losses totaled an additional $75,000 and insurance covered only $53,100, a third of the total. This threw 250 men out of work. Two-thirds of the main building was saved, and the next day new machinery was ordered. Several companies actually loaned machinery to the company until theirs came. With the addition of gas put into the works, a week later, the iron department was in operation again on double shifts, and within 30 days the full complement of machines was being turned out again.



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