Farm Collector

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

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.

A new four-story brick warehouse 250 feet long was built out of this chaos, and by 1880, the company was one of the largest manufacturing plants in the west, covering seven acres, with their own railroad sidetrack. They employed 425 people.

Russell Steam Traction Engines

Surprisingly, almost nothing is mentioned about when the Russell brothers started making Russell steam traction engines. One reference says they started shortly after their 1878 incorporation.

Of course, the company was busy making its many various other products: threshers, horsepowers, railroad cars, sawmills, feeder knife grinders, etc., but it seems odd that the history is blank about the product for which they’re known best.

So little is known about the company and the building of their portable steam engines, stationary automatic steam engines and road rollers until that fateful May night in 1898 (one reference says 1899), when the Russell business burned for the third time in their history. During this time they began making Russell stationary engines and spun off the Russell Engine Co. to manufacture them.

By 1909, the plant covered 21 acres and had produced 18,000 farm, traction and stationary engines, as well as 22,000 threshing machines. They also made sawmills, pneumatic stackers, feeders and steam road rollers.

The early Russell steam traction engines were prized for their simplicity and ease of repair. “All moving parts,” writes Jack Norbeck in Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, “were in plain sight, and any parts needing adjustments were within easy reach of ordinary tools.”

Like so many of the steam traction engines, the Russells were behemoths: the smallest one they produced in 1912, the 8 HP, weighed 9,000 pounds without the 60 gallons of water it could hold.

In 1909, Russell entered the gas tractor race, building a 3-cylinder machine that was not of its own design, but actually adapted from a British tractor. “Dubbed the ‘American’,” writes C. H. Wendel in his Encyclopedia of Farm Tractors, “its three 8-by-10-inch cylinders developed 44 brake horsepower,” although only 22 were delivered at the drawbar. Russell tractors were solidly built, like all of their products, but not particularly innovative and that perhaps cost them part of the market share.

They built tractors with some of the earliest cabs, mortised and tenoned wood of matched lumber, bolted together and costing $100 extra. The cab had windows and sashes.

Russell & Co. joined with Griscom-Spencer Co. of Jersey City, N.J., in 1912 to form the Griscom-Russell Co. It entered its final years in decline due to the rise of International Harvester, which had snatched away the market of the once-famous Russell threshing machine. The company limped on until 1942, 100 years after it had started, when its assets were sold in a sheriff’s sale.

A Russell catalog says, “The Russell brothers made it the paramount principle of their business that Russell machinery should be to the utmost degree durable, efficient and economical. Through succeeding generations … their successors have absolutely lived up to these principles and today, as always, the name Russell stands for everything that is best in the machinery line.”

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Russell Steam Traction Engines: An Overview

Russell steam traction engines ranged from sizes of 6 HP to 150 HP. The 6 HP Russell offered in 1887 had self-adjusting piston rings, which would not require attention if properly lubricated. The 10 HP built the same year had patented features like a friction clutch, reverse gear, equilibrium valve and boiler.

The 10, 13 and 16 HP Russells of 1891 had the throttle lever, brake lever, reverse lever, steam chest, cylinder cocks and rod operating the blower all within reach from the footboard.

The 1907 Russells of simple single-cylinder type were built in cylinder sizes of 6-by-8-inch, 7-1/2-by-10-inch, 8-by-10-inch, 8-1/4-by-12-inch, 9-by-13-inch and 10-by-13-inch. Some Russells burned coal or wood.

Other sizes includes 8, 10 “old-style improved,” 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 25, 30 and 150. It’s unclear whether there were sizes between the 30 and 150.

The Russell steam roller was built starting about 1910, as a combination of a road roller and a hauling engine. Rear wheel cleats could be detached for rolling work use.

  • Published on Oct 9, 2008
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