Traction Engines and Threshing Machines
This must have been about 1932. Because of a poor crop in our
section we decided at a rather late date not to pull our rig out
this fall. So I started out to try to find an engine job for the
fall. It was so nearly time to start threshing that I thought I
might have to take some other job. But I was lucky, I found a man
in the northern part of the state (North Dakota) that was about
ready to start threshing and did not have an engineer yet. I was
rather young looking at the time, and I imagine he would rather
have had a man that he knew more about. He seemed mostly concerned
about if I would be able to get the engine in line and into the
belt without losing too much time. He also made a point of
mentioning that the pillow block next to the crank disc was touchy,
but that it was correctly adjusted and I was to leave it alone.
The engine was a 35 HP Advance tandem-compound. We were to
thresh in a day or two so I steamed up a day ahead of time, after
washing out. When we started threshing 1 had no trouble getting
belted up. I had brought my own steam gauge along and had it on the
engine along with his and I noticed that mine showed about 20 to 25
pounds pressure more than the one on the engine. I let the pressure
run up to about 185 or more and the pop valve showed no sign of
opening. When I pulled the level it closed again right away, so I
set it open at 175 by my gauge. I had my gauge tested each year.
The engine was running anything but good, and sounded as if the
valves were way off, steamed hard. In fact, we stopped for steam
several times. It ran anything but satisfactorily.
This went on for two or three days. When a rain stopped
threshing for several days, I knew I would have to find out what
was wrong with the engine. The owner wanted me to set the pressure
back to agree with his gauge. When I told him I would have to have
the gauges tested before doing that he did not like it very well.
But he took the gauges to a power plant about 30 miles away and
found that mine was correct within a couple of pounds and his was
way off. Meanwhile, I had checked the valve setting, and found the
high- and low-pressure valves did not open exactly together.
While the fireman was bringing up pressure to start threshing
again, I set to looking at the engine and knew I had not really
found the trouble yet. It came to my mind that I should investigate
the stuffing box between the two cylinders. Well, I found that
there was hardly any packing left in the stuffing box. It had not
leaked at all to the outside, but the steam had been passing
through from one cylinder to the other. When we started to thresh,
the engine had the nice even muffled chug of the compound, and kept
steam easily. The piston rod must have had a corroded spot that
made it hard to keep packing on it, so after that at the end of the
day’s work I would blow out all the old packing and repack the
box in the morning.
I did not tell the boss what the trouble had been, so he thought
my setting the valves had done the trick. I should have, of course,
located the trouble right away, but it just had not occurred to me.
I guess the fact that there was no leak to the outside was what led
me astray. I had seen pictures of this stuffing box arrangement in
an Advance catalog, and knew just how it was made, but I was just
too dense to tumble to the trouble. I put in two more seasons on
this engine. Farming was done on a larger scale up there and the
small rigs did not get started as soon as at home.
Thomas Downing, Village of Wurtemburg, R.D. #3,
Box 149A, Ellwood City, PA 16117, writes in this issue:
I have been enjoying both the Iron-Men Album, magazine and the
new directory of shows. In the Album I noticed the suggestion that
we send in pictures. The one I am enclosing has little to do with
traction engines but lots to do with steam and the power it
produces. The connections are as follows:
Held Photo #1: Louis De Mas and his 35 HP Advance somewhere
outside of Edmore, N.D. It’s unknown when the photo was taken,
but it likely dates from the teens.
Last week I went to the County Historical Society in New Castle,
Pa., to talk to them about another photo I had, and while I was
there the director showed me a box of photos and material
concerning the area. This photo of a Stirling boiler jumped out at
me because I had never seen a picture of one outside of textbooks.
The note on the back said, ‘Sterling boiler (they misspelled
it) built at PECOR and delivered to South Africa in the early
1900s.’ As you can see it is on a heavy wagon pulled by oxen,
or maybe water buffalos. Since only one back half is obvious we can
only speculate on how many teams were used.
In its operating position the single drum is at the bottom and
the longest set of tubes are inclined so that a triangular space in
front of them was the combustion chamber. According to a 1917
edition of Gebhard’s Steam Power Plant Engineering, the bottom
drum became the mud drum and the top three were for steam
separation and circulation. The text says water was normally added
to the rear drum, which sent it to the bottom where it dropped any
solids then moved up the other tubes. It also describes the tubes
as ‘bent so they entered the drums radially’ or at a square
angle. It certainly would be interesting to know what sort of plant
it was installed in and how long it may have served.
Finally, we have had a request for information on a portable
engine possibly made by the Phoenix Iron Works Co. of Meadville,
Pa. We know of some of their products, which included engines and
boilers, but really don’t know if they ever put them together
as a portable engine. The company started out as Dick, Fish &
Co. and later became Dick & Church. The Portersville, Pa., show
grounds has a stationary steam engine marked Dick & Church in
large cast letters and the base is similarly marked Phoenix Iron
So, our inquiry is for a catalog for any of these concerns that
would give us an idea of the range of their products. Such catalogs
may have gone out to supply houses, industrial concerns or
Dave Crampton, 6 Norwood Close, Mackworth,
Derby, DE22 4GA, England, writes in from across the Atlantic:
I have been reading the Iron-Men Album for many years
through a subscription via the National Traction Engine Club in the
U.K. Having read the recent issues since you have taken over
publication of the magazine, I am pleased to say the Iron-Men Album
is clearer to read, as you have updated and improved the look and
feel of the content without altering the principles and traditions
of the magazine.
‘I have been involved with road and farm steam engines for
about 30 years, and I am currently restoring an Advance steamroller
made by Wallis & Steevens, Basingstoke, England, in 1936. The
design is most unusual for the U.K., as it is not based on a
traction engine but was intended solely for rolling modern road
materials. They do have some similarity to (J.S.-style traction
engines, though, with disc cranks, non-live axle gear drive, coal
bunkers and water tanks. I wonder if any of the Wallis &
Steevens design team visited the U.S.?
Illinois Engine Update
Carl Boettcher, #316743, C.C.I., P.O. Box 900,
Portage, WI 53901, writes in:
I wrote a letter to IMA on our Illinois engine in the
January/February 2000 issue, and I would like to make a correction
to that story. I said that only 75 Illinois engines were made, but
Leonard Bruns wrote me and corrected me, letting me know that only
63 engines were made and that six are known of, instead of the four
I thought were around.
Crampton Photos #1 and #2: Two views of an Advance steamroller
made by Wallis & Steevens, Basing stoke, U.K. The photo at left
appears to be at a rally, date unknown, while the one above looks
to date from perhaps the 1930s.
Crampton Photo #3: Dave Crampton’s 1936 Wallis &
Steevens Advance steamroller, currently undergoing restoration in
I’m sorry I don’t have any photos to share this time
around, but I do have one thing to ask of IMA readers. When I was
younger I made a good friend, George Kafeen, who was old enough to
be my father. George is from Wisconsin, however I’m not sure as
to what part of the state. I’ve seen him at the Picket show and
also at Symco. If anyone knows him, could you please pass along my
address? George is a big Rumely man.
10 HP Russell
Emma Turnage, P.O. Box 373, Nevis, MN 56467,
sends in a photo this issue of her great-grandfather’s Russell.
Here are some photos that I have in my collection. The first is
my great-grandpa J.A. Nachtrab’s 10 HP Russell, number 192. The
two boys are his grandsons. He used this engine on his threshing
crew. He also had an 18-20 HP Nichols & Shepard steam engine.
This engine he used for his sawmill and drag (harrow) mill. He
designed and patented harrows, selling 100 of them between 1890 and
1900. I still have the original harrow. On the 18-20 HP Nichols
& Shepard, he extended the boiler out two feet. Why he did this
is not known.
The second picture is of my grandpa Henry Nachtrab. He was
threshing with his 60-80 HP Russell gas engine at the J.B. Smith
farm in 1919. His first engine was an 8 HP Huber steam engine for
his portable sawmill business. He later bought his father’s
18-20 HP Nichols & Shepard steam engine. When his oldest son
was big enough to operate a steam engine on his own he bought a 25
HP Russell steam engine for his son to use. He was good friends
with A.D. Baker and owned one of the first Baker threshing machines
(number 168). He, with his two sons, ended up running three
threshing crews. My grandpa and dad, Lawrence Nachtrab, threshed
McLaughlin, Best and Price
Best traction engine man Paul Reno, 3254 Kansas St., Oakland, CA
94602, writes in this issue about the McLaughlin engine, Best
engines and Jacob Price:
I was so glad to see the article on the McLaughlin tractor (see
IMA, May/June 2002). I hope you have more on it by now, but at
least we have some good pictures. I can’t figure out the
machinery being pulled on the cover. One man is operating a
two-cylinder steam engine, but the big wheel looks out of place
-it’s probably a steam plow. Is the tractor an oil burner? I
see a water wagon, but no wood or coal wagon on hand. The engine
with the transformer appears to be stuck in the embankment -both of
the transformer pictures look to be the same place.
Turnage Photo #2: Henry Nachtrab and his 60-80 HP Russell in
1919 at the J.B. Smith farm in Holland, Ohio. Henry was good
friends with A.D. Baker of Baker steam engine fame, owning one of
the first Baker threshing machines. Russell went into the gas
tractor business starting in 1909, but continued manufacturing
steam traction engines right up to the end in 1927. Note the front
and rear wheels on Henry’s 60-80, which were said to be the
same as those used on Russell steamers.
In 1997 John McArthur told me his mother had said there were
three McLaughlins in the area. She had thought five were built, and
another one could possibly still be stuck in the woods in northern
Oregon, but this was 15 years ago. The article shows five engines
for sure, with three different wheel patterns. The engine in the
plowing picture has the wide wheels like the McArthur McLaughlin,
but the plowed ground looks too level for the Pit River country.
The log-loading picture looks flat, like over where the McArthur
engine logged, but the engine has the Chevron grouters on it.
I can’t see where either company (Best or McLaughlin) can
make a claim on the three-wheeled tractor, as Jacob Price was
making one patterned after the Thompson (see page 253 of Jack
Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines). In
my research Price was way ahead of Best or Remington in the
manufacturing business, and Best bought Price’s old factory in
San Leandor, Calif. I had a page from the Oakland Tribune from the
1930s of a steam engine running a hay baler in Livermore Valley
that looked to be a Price rather than a Best.
On the Golden Gate Gas Tractor Co., Charles ‘Buzz’
Stetler of Stockton, Calif., is the biggest collector of gas
engines in the bay area. He has three Golden Gate engines and said
there are still 14 around. He said his engine says Golden Gate
Engine Co., but not tractor. Could this be the same company, or two
different ones? I have talked to no one who has seen or heard of a
Golden Gate tractor. I talked to a man here in Oakland who sold his
Golden Gate engine to Buzz. He said Golden Gate Engine had bought
out the Schilling Co., makers of gas engines in San Fransico.
Schilling is still a big maker of spices in San Francisco. Jerry
Clark, Ceres, Calif., has the only known Schilling engine.
The oldest piece of equipment I have restored is an 1840
Petaluma hay baler manufactured by Jacob Price, San Leandro, Calif.
I have Price’s 1876 equipment catalog of earth moving and
haying equipment, but no steam is listed then. I wish I could find
out more on Price’s manufacturing business. I know he died
while working with J.I. Case on steam tractors and is buried in
Advance-Rumely, Avery and Fusible Plugs
Thomas Stebritz,1516 East Commercial St., Algona, IA 50511-1924,
chimes in again this issue with some history and more thoughts on
Looking over the May/June Iron-Men Album, John Spalding
wrote quite an interesting article about the American Abell Co. and
its relationship to the Advance Thresher Co. Actually, Advance
Thresher Co. bought an interest in the American Abell Co. sometime
in the early 1900s, as such the Advance Co. had some input in the
American Abell Co. some years before 1912. Dr. Edward Rumely bought
the American Abell Co. in 1912 and inherited, I believe, the half
interest that Advance Co. had bought many years before.
Dr. Rumely also bought Northwest Thresher Co. in 1912. My late
father said the company was bought to acquire the so-called
Universal gas tractor. Rumely sold the tractor as the GasPull. In
December 1911, Dr. Rumely bought the Gaar-Scott Co. and the Advance
Thresher Co. Rumely bought a number of lesser companies in 1911. It
has been said that Dr. Rumely considered every farmer a potential
customer and he planned to corner the market, so to speak. It’s
too bad the Rumely Co. didn’t have a better line of tractors.
Most steam companies didn’t make the transition into the
tractor world, at least not for very long.
One of the best designed and built tractors was the Aultman
& Taylor, and it looked to have a future. But the
Advance-Rumely Co. bought it in 1924, apparently just to junk
Larry Creed got quite a response to his article, especially
concerning his assessment of the Robinson steam engine that he
guessed to be a top-mounted Avery direct flue.
My late father, like a select few, was a steam man in all
respects who always had time to stop and look at any and all
steamers he saw. I have done the same thing since I was a
Avery Co. built the 25 HP top-mounted, direct flue engine in
1914. The return flue engine was built in several sizes in 1914 as
was the under-mounted. What year the top-mounted 16 HP and 20 HP
were first built I don’t know, as I don’t have a catalog
showing these. However, I have the last Avery catalog showing
steam, which was in 1918, and three steamers are shown;
top-mounted, direct flue engines called 40, 50 and 65 HP.
The Avery engine was always built with flat spoked wheels. There
are a number of things peculiar to the Robinson that make it stand
out, you just have to look for them. Had Mr. Creed guessed the
engine to be a Gaar-Scott it would have been more believable
because the Robinson copied the Gaar-Scott engine in many ways,
especially the mounting of the bull gears.
I see in our continuing education about soft plugs some of the
authors state that various steam engine guides were not enthused
about the soft plugs as it was believed engine operators had a
reckless or indifferent attitude for the plugs. I had three large
engines, a 60 HP Case for 40 years, a 65 Case for 31 years and a 16
HP Nichols-Shepard for 30 years. I observed the soft plugs at
different times but never changed a plug on any of the three
engines. I steamed these engines about 10 times a year apiece.
What’s interesting in all this mess is someone quoted some
of the old engine manuals, saying that most engineers didn’t
pay much attention in any event to the presence of the soft plug.
If you’re counting on your soft plug to save your crown sheet
in case of an accident, remember that the plug in the 32 HP Case at
Medina, Ohio, didn’t melt out, and the same thing happened here
when an 18 HP Aultman & Taylor dropped its crown sheet in the
Mr. Daniel Aldrich is critical of Gary Yaeger’s assessment
of the Pennsylvania boiler inspector’s role in the Medina,
Ohio, incident. I will agree with Gary Yaeger’s opinions across
the board. It’s quite apparent that the state of Minnesota
cold-water tested the 32 HP Case for 100 pounds steam pressure, as
the engine was run several times in Minnesota, and I believe the
state of Ohio gave the boiler a similar test. What happened after
that, who knows?
I have to believe that neither Minnesota nor Ohio did anything
beyond the cold-water test, for had they done any other checking
they would have found out what the true shape of the boiler was. As
such both states were at fault, especially Ohio.
Mr. Aldrich bases his assessment on 15 years experience: I am 75
years of age and grew up on steam engines and see what I see.
I’ve been inside quite a number of boilers, both traction and
stationary, and have witnessed use and abuse in many of types of
boilers down through the years. All of our boiler inspection heads
in this country would be happy to see all of the hobby boilers
running no more than 15-pounds pressure. That would settle all
their problems for sure. We will close on this.
If you have a photo or a comment for Soot in the Flues, please
send it along to Iron-Men Album, 1503 SW 42nd. St., Topeka, KS
66609-1265, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org