We thank Daniel A. Porter, Director of Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio 43211 for the story-'Steam Power Comes To The Farm 'we appreciate the editors of ECHOES newspaper of September 1970 to allow us permission to reprint the following:
'It's like a thing of life and makes less noise about it than a human.'
This description of a Columbus-made steam engine in 1847 marked inconspicuously in the columns of an agricultural journal the birth of steam power on the Ohio farm scene. The slow but inexorable move to mechanize agriculture had begun. But it would take three decades before steam power would threaten the domination of the horse.
Among the earliest manufacturers of portable steam engines for farm and sawmill was the Newark Machine Works of Newark, Ohio. The firm was manufacturing both stationary and portable (horse drawn) steam engines by the early 1850's. Their portable sawmill engine was touted as capable of sawing a thousand feet of lumber an hour. The engine with a nine-inch bore and 18-inch stroke cost $1,375 at a time when a farmhouse could be built for the same price. The firm's portable steam engine soon proved its economy for threshing grain and sawing firewood.
The claim of having invented the first self-propelled steam traction engine in Ohio and perhaps the nation is held by a Scotch-Irish farmer from Jefferson County, Joseph McCune. A devotee of steam power, McCune had made, an average profit of $1,000 during each of two years in the mid-1850's by threshing for his neighbors. He claimed the steam engine replaced eight horses and several hired hands. But he found the machine difficult to move from farm to farm by the very horses it had claimed to replace. So he set about to invent a system of gears linking the 'main shaft' to the rear axle, self-propelling the monster. The crucial test of Ohio's first 'tractor' took place in the summer of 1858 when McCune drove his engine to the Cadiz Fair, a distance of 23 miles from his home. Farmers along the road gawked at the first self-propelled, trackless, land vehicle they had ever seen. He brought the engine back by the same route. 'My Engine is not worn any, to notice, and it works beautifully,' he reported to the manufacturer in November 1858. 'I will say here,' he added, 'that I can run up as big a hill as any other Engine in the world.'
Describing the operation of the pioneer machine, McCune stated, 'On our return from Cadiz, we came to Harrisville on the plank road, and took the State road through Mt. Pleasant, and so on to the [Ohio] river. This is a very hilly road for about seventeen miles, but we could 'go it easy.' There were four men on the Engine one to steer, myself to engineer, and two for sport.'
McCune's self-propelled steam traction engine idea was slow to catch on among farmers. Cost was a factor, together with an intense reluctance on the part of pre-Industrial Revolution rural people to accept new ideas until the innovation was proven to be practical. Farm hands were displaced by the machine, causing additional hostility. More than a decade would elapse before the first such engine would be exhibited at the Ohio State Fair.
Danger from an explosion was probably the greatest deterrent to wider use of the steam engine. James R. Disher of Findlay has recently discovered an account of one such accident which occurred in Wyandot County in 1873. On the fatal morning of July 29, an engine being used to thresh wheat blew up like the report of a cannon. Pieces of iron and steel flew in every direction. One farm worker was killed instantly, another lay bleeding and scalded and died the next day. Two more were injured. The boiler itself was blown seventy feet. More than a thousand curious folk gathered to view the awesome effects of the blast.
Today the steam traction engine is a curiosity demonstrated at special events. These machines were the first attempt to mechanize the farm and their economic impact upon post-Civil War economy in Ohio was incalculable.