436 North Library, Waterloo, Ill. 62298
I had always wanted to be a R.R. engineer, so one fine morning in the Spring of s920 I hired out to the Missouri Pacific R.R. as fireman. I had to take three student runs under supervision of regular fireman. With my experience as traction engineer, I didn't have any trouble learning to fire the big railroad hog. What bothered me most was getting to sit over on the other side as engineer. As we were approaching the R.R. yards on my third run, I said to the old engineer, 'How long will I have to fire to get in your seat?' When he replied, 'A long time,' I asked, 'Well how long?' His answer was, 'About twenty years.' With that, I took my shovel and heaved in some more coal. When we uncoupled from our train and pulled our engine up to the round house, the hostler took over, and in my mind I said good-by to the engine. I shook hands with the engineer and fireman and went into the office to resign. They wanted to know what was wrong and I said, 'Twenty years is too long.'
I took off for home. Dad had just got a new issue of the American Thresher Magazine. While reading it, I saw a picture of a 25 H.P. Nichols & Shepard Engine and a 36x60 Red River Special owned by a man down in the Texas Panhandle. I sat right down, wrote him a letter and asked him for a job running his engine. In about a week I heard from him saying to come on to run his engine and bring all the men I could along to work in the harvest, as they had a good crop that year. Since the time was short I couldn't find anybody to go with me, so I packed my suitcase and tool box. I put on a fresh starched overhauls and jacket, a red handkerchief around my neck and a polka dot cap. Oh boy! As I took a look at myself in the mirror I swore I looked like one of the top engineers on one of New York Central's crack trains.
I left St. Louis for Waynoka, Okla home, via Kansas City. From Waynoka I took a branch line to the Pan-handle country. When I got to my destination, I telephoned the thresherman that had hired me. He lived fifteen miles from town and wasn't home. The lady of the house answered and I informed her the engineer from Illinois was at the R.R. station. She sent the separator man in to get me. An hour passed when a model-T drove up and a man about 300 pounds (burned black) got out of the ford. The ford seemed to raise up six inches. He walked over to me and said, 'Are you the engineer from Illinois?' I said, 'Yes' and he told me to jump in. Away we went! I was trying to churn around in my mind what he was thinking, for somehow i didn't think it was good. I was just a kid seventeen years and weighed 135 pounds. Anyway, we started to talk about threshing and he told me we would have to refuel the engine before we started threshing. He informed me that he couldn't get in the fire box and I answered that would be no trouble for me. The boss was out selling N. S. threshing machinery and wouldn't be home until late that night. The separator man and I were sitting there in the yard when the boss drove up. We got acquainted, but I think he thought the same thing about me as the separator man did whatever that was. He asked me a lot of questions about engines and inquired if I had ever put in flues. I said 'Yes, quite a few sets. 'Next morning, the separator man worked the front end of the boiler and I got in the fire box. We removed the flues and cleaned out all of the scale. The boss heated the flue ends and stuck them in a barrel of lime to anneal them, so is they would bead down good. I also used copper ferrules on the tubes in the fire box end, rolled and beaded them down. When we were through, we filled the boiler and built a fire in it. It seeped a little until it got hot, but we had a perfect job done. The big 300 pounder slapped me on the back and said, 'You fooled me.' The boss agreed. We tried out the outfit a little and in a few days, we started to thresh. The boss watched me operate for most of the first day. I suppose he thought I was O.K., as he left me and didn't bother me anymore.
The water was very hard. They called it jip water. It sealed very badly and you had to use a boiler compound all the time. The coal was so poor, they called it clinker coal, for regardless how you fired, it would clinker.
I run for the boss for several years after. About the third day we threshed, we moved to a new setting. We were set and belted up when, for some reason, the separator man had something to do. We were waiting; the old engine was sizzling; and the steam gauge was on the peg. A farmer drove up in a box wagon with team of mules and threw the lines down. Just then, the old engine popped off, and away those mules ran across the prairie. The wagon was a wreck! When the farmer got his mules back, all they had left was the neck yoke. Boy! I was shaking in my boots. I thought, since I was a stranger, that he would run me clean out of the country when he came back. However, he never said a word to me; nor did anyone else. If he had come after me, I guess I would have crawled in the fire box, and out through the smoke stack.
It was all headed grain in that country and you sat between two stacks and a long extension feeder four men on each stack and one at the end of the feeder as clean-up man. You had to make good line-ups and run a tight belt, for when they turned the top of those stacks over on the feeder, it made the old engine bark. The boss used to say, 'Boys, when I can't see the feeder, I am making money.' I used to get out before daybreak and fire up the engine. While I was waiting for the steam to raise and daylight to come, the coyotes used to give me the creeps with their endless howling. As soon as day came, they went into hiding. By the time I had the old engine groomed for another days work, it was time to go to breakfast. The waterman's wife cooked in the cook car and boy, she was a real cook! She made biscuits, bacon and eggs, fruit and coffee-all you could eat. We never got fresh meat; the boss said the men would get sick from it in the heat. As we didn't thresh on Sunday, we would wash the boiler and do other work around the machine. By noon, we were finished. The cook would have pies and cake for dinner Sunday afternoon. We also went swimming or watched the bronco riders, which was a great sport down there.
After thirty days we finished the run. A fellow from Kentucky, one from Texas, and I bought a ford Model-T for $50.00-no top on it. We started out for North Dakota. The center main bearing knocked like a blacksmith's trip hammer, but it hammered and rolled. The man from Texas said he had some relatives in Lincoln, Nebraska, that he would like to see, and suggested we could stop there on our way to North Dakota. He thought they would also be glad to see him, so we left the Pan-handle and drove all day. That evening about midnight we got to Lincoln, Nebraska, and asked directions to his relatives' home. When we came to the place, old Texas said, 'Here it is.' Since nobody was up, he suggested we bunk on the lawn and sleep for the night. The next morning a man came out of the house and asked, 'What are you bums doing in my yard?' 'Get out, or I will call the police.' Old Texas had to explain. The irate man told us the people we were looking for lived next door. We threw our bunks in the ford and Texas went next door to see his relatives. They obviously didn't enjoy seeing him, for he wasn't there long, and we didn't get invited for breakfast. We took off, found a restaurant and ate breakfast. Old Texas didn't say much about his relatives anymore. I suppose they had the same opinion of him that I did. We wheeled North through the wheat belt. In about two days we landed in North Dakota in time for threshing. Old Texas and the man from Kentucky had borrowed enough money from me by this time that I became the sole owner of the Model-T. The hammer went along with it, and it hammered just as it did when we left the Texas Pan-handle. I later sold the Model-T when we were through threshing in North Dakota. It was getting cold then. My two friends went their way, and I boarded a train for Saskatchewan, Canada, to thresh there. After that, I left for Illinois to saw lumber until the next Spring.
A rolling stone may gather no moss, but I say you get a good polish. I wouldn't take a million for the experience and wouldn't give you ten cents for more. There's more to come, so let's all steam up for Mt. Pleasant and blow off some more steam.