108 Carfield Avenue, Madison, New Jersey 07940.
Sweet are the uses of adversity. I had just arrived at the Leatherbark Campground in Cass, West Virginia for the 'railfan' weekend on the Cass Scenic Railroad when I noticed that one of the tires on my travel trailer was going flat. Now Cass is not the best place to get a flat tire. The nearest service station is in Green Bank some five miles away. So after much huffing and puffing I managed to get the wheel off and into my car for the trip to Green Bank. At that point I was expecting the worst, since the culprit was an arrowhead-like piece of stone piercing the tread itself.
As I paced up and down the gas station awaiting the verdict as to whether or not the tire would survive the repair, I chanced to look down the road a bid and there to my curious surprise was a sight to make me take a second look and to begin to ask questions. There nested among some buildings and behind a vegetable garden was a 'home built' steam powered traction engine. Its vertical boiler topped with a jaunty cap over the smoke stack obviously served the vertical stationary steam engine and could bring movement to a collection of gears, chains and jack-shafts. The grass was beginning to climb up along the rubber tired wheels suggesting that the vehicle had seen little motion at least this year.
The more the people in the service station answered my questions the more I was certain that I would enjoy talking to the owner. And, a subsequent visit proved this to be correct.
I timidly walked up the driveway to the house wondering if the owner might call the local police when the door opened and a smiling woman stepped out. Thus was to begin a series of visits to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Merritt Gum. This most gracious and interesting couple turned out to be subscribers to Iron-Men Album and readers of Gas Engine Magazine.
When one goes to the various historical shows featuring agricultural machinery and sees all of the painstaking restorations, we are perhaps inclined to forget or at least overlook the hours of tender loving care that has to go into making these machines operational. But in every case it just simply has to be a labor of love. All of the pictures and stories in IMA and in Gas Engine telling of the restoration and maintenance of these engines and machines cannot begin to give more than just a glimpse of the hours and hard work required and the technical knowledge needed to keep them operational. Similarly, seeing this old engine in the Gum's yard was only the tip of the iceberg.
Merritt Gum and his wife, Sylvia, have lived all of their lives in the area. They have been a part of the farm scene there doing custom threshing. Their son, Kerth, helped with the machines in the field driving tractor or truck as needed. But, the threshing days are over and now the Gum's have the time to enjoy working to restore and operate old farm engines that served another era but which they now keep in operating condition and thus preserve the symbols and foundations of the mechanization that came in with this century.
Perhaps we should begin by stepping back in time to around 1912 and a threshing scene along Knapps Creek in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Merritt's father, James Gum from Little Back Creek in Highland County, Virginia, owned an A. B. Farquhar Company threshing machine built in York, Pennsylvania. This was powered by an Aultman-Taylor engine owned by Merritt's cousin, Cecil Sheets.
Mrs. Gum has carefully preserved two photographs taken in the summer of 1912 around Knapps Creek showing the crew relaxing while they have their picture taken. Many of the early snapshot photographs were poorly processed and quickly became yellowed. Often the grain was such as to lose detail when they were enlarged. These two are particularly good reproductions of an earlier print or negative. I was able to re-photograph them by simply placing them in the sunshine on their porch and with close-up lens copy them to a new negative. By studying these and comparing them to the photographs in Jack Norbeck's 'Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines' (Crestline Publishing Company, Glen Ellyn, Illinois), I would say that the engine was built around 1905 in Mansfield, Ohio. Probably a ten horsepower. The angle drive shaft to the sunflower gear, characteristic of this manufacturer, is easily apparent. Merritt's father is sitting on the tongue of the thresher and his brother, Harry, is nearby. Merritt told me that he was really too young to go threshing that day. However, his first job was as 'water boy' for an engine and a most fortunate job it was, for the barefoot boy in a little straw hat attracted the attention of a young girl and a lifetime association in marriage was the eventual outcome.
As time passed and the responsibility of earning a living was upon him it was natural that the day came when Merritt's threshing was done with a John Deere thresher equipped with blower and self-feeder. It was powered with a 1939 John Deere model A tractor. The old tractor that raised and provided for a family is still in running condition and kept with pride and a bit of sentiment among his collection of farm machinery. Alas, the thresher was sold and has fallen on difficult times. Unfortunately the new owner is not one that can appreciate a fine piece of machinery and keep it well oiled, wiped clean and protected from the weather when not in use. Many of todays 'hands' have not had to live through hard times when one simply did not just go out and buy a new machine simply because they just had to have it. No, it was 'make do' with what you had.
Although necessity changed his direction from steam to internal combustion powers the chrysalis from childhood experience is still there in the form of the steam tractor that first caught my eye.
The parentage of this engine is difficult to define. The boiler has absolutely no identification on it other than the O & S marking on the fire door. Therein lies a problem for the state inspector will not certify the boiler though it passes the hydrostatic test. Similarly, the vertical steam engine is devoid of nameplate or any other clue to its identity. It is a D valve engine of which many hundreds were built in the heyday of steam. It is a non-reversing stationary type. Though in its present service reversing capability would be convenient the lack of that link was circumvented by installing a gear box from a Chevrolet automobile. This assembly of parts and pieces is all carried on the rubber tired chassis of a former self-propelled Massey Harris corn picker.
Now if the individual pieces of equipment are difficult to identify so is the original builder. Merritt bought it through an IMA FOR SALE item from Mr. G. W. Tapp of Rushsylvania, Ohio, in 1975.
It was trucked home to Green Bank where it has remained. Every now and again it is fired up and steam raised enough to at least blow the several whistles that it affords much to the amusement of the neighborhood......old and young alike.
Did you ever hear of the expression, 'a twinkle in the eye?' Well, here is a man that has a twinkle in his voice. Underneath the West Virginia drawl there is always a subtle little inflection in the voice that has a touch of humor. Among the collection of machines is a grist mill. The Gum family grind and market to their friends and acquaintenances stone ground corn meal. They have a stamp that they use on the paper sacks to show that this product is Stone Ground Corn Meal 'BY GUMMY.'
As I rummaged through the barn listening to the stories of this and that, I must have counted 20 old gasoline engines. These had been collected and made to run again. But of all, there had to be a favorite, naturally. It was a Maynard gasoline engine originally sold by the Charles Williams Stores long since out of business. It is a 3 HP unit with the serial M9841. It is in beautiful condition. At the time it was getting a 'touch up' of bright red paint in anticipation of the summer shows.
Mrs. Gum is not to be left out of the activity either for she has a little Jaeger engine that is done up in a delicate blue paint.
I think that my favorite of the collection is a Fairmont Railway Motors 6 HP two cycle engine made in Fairmont, Minnesota, carrying serial #28440. I like this engine since it was used originally on railroad inspection cars and avoided the necessity of reversing mechanism by simply adjusting the spark either ahead or behind dead-center. Thus the engine would run in the direction that the spark was set. Many of these cars mounted the engine so as to drive the flanged wheels through a flat belt pulley arrangement with an adjustable idler to furnish the 'clutch' function.
The collection has little engines of the Maytag variety and a big 10 HP International Harvester engine. There are Jaegers and Deeres and an Economy engine from Sears
Roebuck and Company. There were machines of all interests to be seen peaking out from under a tarpaulin here or back behind something there. I felt just like a kid in the candy store for I didn't know where to turn next. And, for a total stranger walking in off the state road out front I was as welcome as an old friend. Truly, steam can make warm friends.
A big city service station would have looked at my tire with dollar signs flashing in their eyes. But not these hill country people who have learned to 'make do.' My tire was plugged and ready for service. And, I was ready for a big 'railfan' weekend up on the mountain listening to the stack music of old three truck Shays and a Heisler that took me back to my childhood in memories of logging railroads in these wild and wonderful mountains.