Nestled among the overgrown weeds behind an old weather beaten barn on one of Michigan’s centennial farms, lay a treasure that only rusty old iron collectors would ever spot: a huge, silver gray Nagel steam boiler engine that had been long forgotten by its owners and those who ran it.
The history behind this old engine told a lot about our parents’ generation and the promises that living in America would bring to those who chose to work hard and live frugally. This piece of machinery was purchased by the Michigan Flywheelers Museum of South Haven in the summer of 1999. Because it was such an important part of southwest Michigan, documenting its history has been a project of museum president, Pat Ingalls of Bangor, who interviewed many of the people whose life stories helped create this steam boiler engine’s past.
About 1936, local farmer George Wallace of Lawrence, Michigan, set up a box making factory north of Lawrence that was run by a steam traction engine. George also owned the local sawmill, so was no stranger to being a businessman.
The factory, which made strawberry boxes, crates, and bushel crates, was soon moved to George’s farm located on 48th Street about 1936 or 1937. No reason was known for the move. The Nagel steam boiler engine that was found behind the barn was purchased from a local paper mill located less than twenty miles away in the small neighboring town of Waterliet. The engine, which weighed about 1,000 lbs., was a 130 HP with a 22 inch stroke, 12 inch bore and an impressive five foot flywheel. The boiler that created steam for the engine came north from the furniture town of Grand Rapids by train. The nearest depot was in Bangor, north of Lawrence. From there, the boiler had to be taken to George’s farm. The man hired to do this enormous job was Roy Markup. Roy used wooden wagons and horses to move the boiler and apparently had only one breakdown during the long difficult trip.
The factory, which became “George Wallace & Son Fruit Boxes,” was a small family run business that employed several local neighbors. It ran during the spring, summer and fall from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. each day. Workers earned a one hour lunch break. A local store, Root’s Grocery, would come out to the factory each day to sell lunch items to the hungry workmen. Lunch time and quitting time were signaled by the powerful blast of the steam whistle, which could be heard all the way into Lawrence. When production was in full swing, approximately 400 boxes could be made in a day. The factory would shut down in November unless there were special orders for wooden boxes.
George was born on October 29, 1879, on the Wallace farm. One of fourteen children, he married Edna Hinckley, also on October 29th but in the year 1898, at the ripe old age of nineteen. After taking over the farm from his parents Seymour and Frances, George and Edna produced three children, Neva, Clark and Frances. George kept busy by doing threshing and other custom work in the area. He was involved in community groups such as the Odd Fellows and Modern Woodsmen as well. Wallace was often seen driving his Auburn car around town and loved to chew Beechnut gum. Former employee Bert Delong of Lawrence, (now deceased) worked for Wallace for many years, tending the boiler. One of the interesting facts that Delong remembered about his boss was that he only had stubs for fingers on his right hand, except for his thumb. Delong retired from the box factory, which was by then managed by George’s son, Clark. Among the many duties that Bert had, was keeping the boiler’s steam pressure in an acceptable range. Firing the boiler meant adding slab wood or sawdust to the fire box. The operator was also responsible for keeping the water level above the boiler tubes and lubricating the steam engine. Bert, who liked to chew Red Man tobacco, fondly remembered receiving an impressive Bulova self-winding watch from Clark at his retirement dinner.
Equipment at the business included a head saw, planer, splitting saw, cut off saw, log peeler, corner saw, basket nailer and staples. The Nagel engine powered a line shaft into the family barn by using an eight-inch flat belt. Flat belts were used to run all the machinery. For small orders, workers would hook up a 15-30 International Harvester tractor instead of the Nagel. The peeler could also be powered by an 85 HP Ford flathead engine. White wood was used to make the fruit boxes, while elm was used for crates. The logs were steamed in a concrete tank that received heat from the steam engine exhaust and were then peeled, revealing the virgin wood.
Irwin Guernsey and his wife Eva of Lawrence, Michigan, remember working at the factory as teenagers. Irwin, now 78, thought he started the mill in about ’35 or ’36. They both worked evenings assembling boxes at the Wallace’s house. Irwin’s brother, Warren, also worked at the mill. They often chuckle when they tell the story about a chicken that got tangled up in the gang saw while they were working. As the feathers and blood flew all over the place, workers became alarmed when they saw Evelyn (Clark’s wife) covered in chicken blood. They thought she had been hurt. Irwin did lose an eye while working for Wallace. He hired an attorney and sued for damages. They won the case, but Guernsey said that the lawyer took most of the money.
Warren, who lives in nearby Bangor, used to help Irwin cut logs for the factory, using a cross saw. They also had an uncle named Frank who was employed there. Warren remembers making $8.10 a day and working ten hours a day, and six days a week. He left in 1941 to join the service.
Despite having a long list of local customers (such as Shugars Strawberry Farm in Hartford, Emmerts in Bangor, the Hartford Fruit Exchange and an outlet in Keeler), the box factory stopped operation about 1955, as wooden crates and boxes was replaced with the newer and more popular paper and plastic products. Bob Delong, Bert’s grandson, hired in when he was 14 years old. He thought the factory quit production due to the dwindling number of strawberry farms and rising insurance costs. One of the many tasks that Bob was required to do, besides sweep the floor, was to shovel sawdust and chips into the boiler. Paid 25 cents per hour, Bob used a potato fork to do this and had to go outside to gather the wooden chips that were thrown there by the planer. He remembers Clark as a good man to work for and one who made good money making fruit boxes.
Clark Wallace died in 1996. He and his wife Evelyn had two children, Rheta and Robert. When Clark took over management of the farm factory, they started a crate mill and sawmill, as well. Robert and his wife, Clara, moved into the old house on 46th street upon the death of his grandmother, Edna. They kept the Nagel engine until it was sold to the museum. The engine at this point had a cracked head which was apparently caused by high steam pressure. The engine is being restored by the volunteers at the museum. The remaining pieces of equipment were sold to a Riverside box factory which is still in business.
Information for this story about the Nagel engine and the box factory was taken from interviews and the “History of Van Buren County,” 1912 and 1982. Plans for the engine after restoration, are to use it in a permanent crate and box making display for demonstration purposes. The non-profit museum is located at 06285 68th Street, South Haven, Mich. Phone: 269-639-2010, online at: www.michiganflywheelers.org.
Contact Kim Ingalls at 64958 M-43 Bangor, Michigan 49013-9655.