Farm Collector


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 36×60 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

  • Published on Nov 1, 1967
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