Steam Engine Therapy

| May/June 1996

1845 Marion Road Bucyrus, Ohio 44820

This is the story of an event which actually occurred in my father's life.

At the time this happened, approximately 1895, my father, John A. Hoffmaster, was about 10 years old and lived on a farm about two miles southeast of Benedict, Nebraska. He and his younger brother, Horace, were riding the family's work horses and 'racing' each other. Dad's old work horse stumbled and fell, pinning his leg under the horse. It took some time to get the horse off of Dad and his injury was quite painful. Fearing a reprimand, the two brothers chose not to tell their parents. Dad's injured thigh healed temporarily. However, six months later swelling and pain returned. Old Dr. Hanna was called from York. He diagnosed the injury as a bruised bone. He operated on Dad on the family's kitchen table. Ether was the anesthetic and boiled water was the antiseptic. Dr. Hanna found a severe infection in Dad's thigh. Dad's recovery was very slow. For some time after the surgery, the wound was so large that a silver spoon could be passed through his leg. Dad was confined to bed for several months. The neighbors took up a collection and bought Dad an 1890s version of a reclining chair to make him more comfortable. Approximately two years passed before Dad could use crutches. The remaining muscles in the injured leg had tightened until Dad's heel was near his buttock. The doctor suggested that an amputation be done at the knee. Dad rejected the idea.

During the winter of '98 or '99, Grandpa was shelling corn at home. Grandpa was trying to run the entire rig by himself. Dad watched Grandpa firing with corn cobs and injecting water into the boiler. Soon he started to take on the task. Grandpa had a large wicker basket which was shaped like a bushel basket but held 10-15 bushels. It had a tin bottom and a rope tied to the handle. Grandpa would fill the basket with cobs and pull it back to the engine where he would dump it. After several trips to the engine to check on Dad, Grandpa began returning only to deliver cobs. The day's work was completed with Dad as engineer. That evening at supper, Grandpa asked Dad to shell corn the next day for the Neinhauser family which lived nearby. Thus a routine began. Except for very cold days, when Dad could not keep his foot warm, he shelled corn until the spring field work began. Dad was still using crutches but managed to operate the engine entirely from the ground. Grandpa lubricated the engine and took responsibility for any other tasks which required climbing up on the engine.

While no one knew it, steam therapy had begun. During the winter shelling season, Dad rested his hip on the platform of the engine and dangled his injured leg. The engine was a 14 HP return-flue, center-crank Case, one of the roughest running engines ever made. Poorly designed, the Case had a strong rocking motion. This motion gradually stretched the tendons and muscles of Dad's leg, causing his foot to begin to drop. The tempo of the 'therapy' changed with the arrival of threshing season, as Grandpa delegated Dad to be engineer. Coal was burned during threshing season, which required the use of a two-wheeled tender attached to the rear of the engine. The tender precluded firing from the ground. Due to the difficulty of getting on and off the platform, Dad stayed on the platform once he had managed to get there. Also, Grandpa wanted Dad on the platform to watch the separator. Many hours of steady rocking, from August to January, provided good therapy. By early November, Dad's toes reached the ground. By Christmas, he walked on the toes of the injured leg. Threshing stopped on the day before Christmas so that the family could go to York for Christmas shopping. While on the streets of York, Dr. Hanna saw Dad and asked how he had achieved such a remarkable recovery. Dad did not fully associate his recovery with running the Case engine but did tell the doctor he had done so. There was a custom of inviting distinguished members of the community, who happened to stop by during threshing, to feed a few bundles into the separator. When Dr. Hanna was invited, he accepted and commented that the center-crank Case pulling the separator had probably saved Dad's leg.


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