Steam and Gas Fairs Recall Bygone Times

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Photo by Declan Haun 1989 National Geographic.
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Photo by Declan Haun ©1989 National Georgraphic Society.

National Geographic News Service National Geographic Society
Washington, D.C. 20036

Only a few thousand remain today: monstrous, shrieking,
potbellied marvels that helped usher mankind into the industrial
age.

‘This machine has a lot of sentimental value,’ says
Wilbur Engle, a 78-year-old Easton, Maryland farmer, as he perches
on the steam engine that once belonged to his father. ‘Folks
didn’t have any other kind of mechanization at the time, and
this machine seemed like magic.’

Bedecked with American flags, this two-cylinder steam engine
puts on a show for visitors to the 16th annual fair of the Tuckahoe
Gas and Steam Association in Easton, Maryland.

Engle used to accompany his father on winter sojourns in the
woods of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, taking the family steam
engine from farm to farm and connecting it to a round saw that
split trees into clean strips of wood.

In their heyday, steam engines did a lot more than that. They
also threshed wheat, milled flour, pumped water, and crushed
stones.

Now Engle keeps his engine, along with two others he bought and
restored, for display at such events as the Tuckahoe Steam and Gas
Show here one of 540 such exhibitions held annually in the United
States and Canada.

At the Tuckahoe Show, part country fair and part outdoor museum,
the old engines are treated with reverence. The grounds are loud
with the hissing of steam, the air redolent of wood burning in the
furnaces.

Attractions on the 40-acre fairgrounds include parades, craft
sales, horseshoe pitching, and country music. But most impressive
are the engines, which tremble as they pour their usable energy
into iron-heavy industrial and agricultural machines such as
sawmills and threshers.

During this year’s three-day show, some 4,000 spectators of
all ages mill around the freshly painted engines and talk with
owners, who share their mechanical know-how and swap
collectors’ magazines.

Demonstrations run simultaneously all over the grounds. A
steam-powered rock crusher grinds stones to powder. Plow horses
brought in by Amish farmers from Pennsylvania turn a wheel to power
a machine that cuts cedar into shingles.

Steam technology developed in the mid-1850’s, and engines
proliferated. But many were converted to scrap metal during the two
world wars.

Steam and gas shows featuring the survivors began in the
1950’s as reunions of ‘threshermen’ farmers who took
their steam engines from farm to farm to thresh wheat. The first
complete directory of the fairs was published 15 years ago by the
Steam gas Publishing Company, an organization formed by aficionados
of the machinery.

Engle is the resident expert at Tuckahoe. He runs the sawmill,
attaching his engine by a belt to the round saw. He also runs the
wheat thresher, a funnel-equipped Rube Goldberg apparatus the size
of a suburban yard.

A 70 year old one-cylinder steam engine drives this threshing
machine at the Tuckahoe show. Multipurpose engines have been
operating since the 1850s.

‘I think people come to these fairs to see how things used
to be,’ says Tom Booze, president of the Tuckahoe Gas and Steam
Association. ‘Plowing and harvesting was done in the hottest
time of the year. These machines run at temperatures of 250 degrees
from sunup to sundown. I don’t think the younger generation
realizes what kind of labor went into building this
country.’

Most collectors restore their own machines, a task that requires
months of labor. Because of high transportation costs, most of the
machines are bought locally from abandoned farms or from other
collectors.

The boilers must pass a government inspection before they can
run, and new parts have to be custom-cast at the foundry. Old
engines may cost as much as $15,000; restoration adds thousands
more. Owners aren’t paid to display their machines.

Bill Cep, who works at a nearby supermarket, owns three engines;
one of them, built in 1885, is the fair’s oldest. He says that
even though the machines strain his budget, he feels he is doing a
service by keeping the relics in good repair: ‘I like to know
they won’t just die away and be forgotten.’

For most of the spectators, the fair is simply entertainment. At
noon the activity comes to a halt, and lines form at an outdoor
eating area. Fairgoers are served piles of Eastern Shore fried
chicken, corn, and string beans.

An hour later, as the crowds clear off the picnic tables, the
steam whistles screech and the clock again turns back a hundred
years.

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