4401 Church Road, Evansville, Indiana
Big Mort and his hired hand were building a heavy cattle-wire fence across the prairie when his wire stretcher broke. So Mort fired up his Keck Gonnerman, hooked on to one end of a long section of unrolled wire, and at the very first yank he pulled up twenty-seven (more or less) fence posts to which he had already stapled the wire a quarter of a mile back down the line. Mort had a poker face and very little sense of humor. Later he was heard to say, very seriously, that his old Keck 'was a awful good threshin' engine, but a dam pore wire stretcher.'
Now I don't know whether that's a true story or not. But that's the way I heard it! I have several note books full of stories that have been told me by machine men from just about all over the country. I'm sure some of them are true as the Gospels. But I have a feeling that some have been ornamented, embellished, and revised just for fine art's sake. But there is something intriguing about sitting on an old, sizzling, slobbering steam engine and listening to the operator dress up a story to fit the occasion.
A lanky, bewiskered Texan once told me with tears in his eyes and half a pound of Beechnut tobacco in his mouth that he once steered 'a leetle too fur to the left', and had had to jump off the platform and watch the best engine he ever owned sink, lock, stock, and smokestack in a bed of quicksand, with only a series of big fat 'plops' on the surface to indicate the final resting place of his beloved Case 65.
I suppose that could have happened. I never lived in quicksand country. But this old boy was a little hard to go along with. Not ten minutes later he assured me that he had 'seen the day' when he could uncork a pint of any kind of whiskey you wanted to give him, hold the neck of the bottle in his teeth, put his hands in his pant's pockets, spread his legs apart like a sawhorse, 'rare' back his head, shut his eyes, and without drawing a breath, could polish off the liquor, spit out the bottle, and go on about his engineering as straight and sober as a Massachusetts judge.
After hearing that, it was easy to believe that he might have been a leetle too fur to the left. Probably about two hundred yards.
He talked to me for two hours and I never believed a word he said, but was utterly fascinated by every story he told me. If he had ever bothered to learn how to write he could have made a fortune.
Even harder to believe is a story I heard in Pennsylvania of a very young engineer who was moving an Avery undermounted with only a water wagon attached. Just as he got the big drive wheels on a wooden bridge, that end of the structure gave way, and sank evenly and steadily down a vertical twelve-foot bank and came to rest at the bottom of a dry creek. The bridge did not break up, and the other end was left on its bank, forming a steep ramp with the engine at the bottom, headed upward.
But there was a little problem. The coupling had broken, and the tank wagon, which was not on the bridge when the drop began, crawled right over on top of the engine, got a half nelson on the boiler, and settled down as firm as the hump on a camel.
The kid, who had closed the throttle and jumped, looked the situation over, couldn't see too much damage done, got back at the controls, and with the tank wagon still riding 'piggy-back', did a little hill climbing. When he got his two-story rig on the road again, his first big problem presented itself: How do you get a traction engine out from under a water wagon?
In a Detroit factory, so an engine man told me, a giant power plant had to be lowered from the second to the first floor. But the engine was so heavy that no construction company would bid on the job.