STEAM POWER COMES TO THE FARM

By Staff
article image
Six Horse Power Farm Engine.

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment