117 Ruch Street, Coplay, PA 18037
Robert Bell 25 HP steam traction engine built in 1923 by the
Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company, Sea-forth, Ontario, Canada
and owned by Allan Byers, Alillin, Ontario.
Photo taken at the Ontario Steam & Antique Preservers
Association Show at Milton, Ontario by Jack C. Norbeck, author of
Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines and included in the
third revised edition, second printing.
In June 1864, Robert Bell was born near the village of Hensall,
Ontario, Canada. Close by was a water powered pioneer sawmill which
fostered the young boy’s natural liking for machinery and
enabled him, while still a young lad, to build a sawmill of his own
on his father’s farm. Later he moved into Hensall, and built a
much larger sawmill, a machine shop where he did general repairs
and manufactured sawmills and farm implements of his own
In the 1890’s, steam power for threshing had proven its
worth and presented a great manufacturing opportunity. Robert Bell
was greatly interested and decided to try his luck in this new
field. A locomotive type boiler was purchased in London, Onatario,
and enlisting the aid of John Finlayson, an experienced carpenter,
they designed and made patterns for a side crank engine to mount on
the boiler. The first portable engine was completed in time for the
1899 threshing season and proved a decided success.
A suitable plant, complete with a small foundry, was available
in the nearby town of Sea forth so the move was made. The fast
expanding business became established in its new location as the
Robert Bell Engine and Thresher Company, Sea forth, Ontario.
Self-propelled steam threshing engines had become popular and to
meet this demand Robert Bell opened negotiations with the Port
Huron Engine & Thresher Company, of Port Huron, Michigan,
U.S.A. He obtained permission to build their engines in Canada. The
first steam traction engine, a 14 HP, was built in the Sea forth
plant in 1901. Altered only in minor details, these well
proportioned side mounted engines with their long smoke boxes and
corrugated self-cleaning drive wheels became a familiar sight in
Ontario for the next 30 years.
The last completely new engine was built in 1928, but engines
were rebuilt and repaired for some years after. Many tandem
compound engines were built in the early years but the demand
switched almost entirely to simple engines in later years. The firm
also made heavy round roller wheels to fit the engines and many
owners purchased a set of these to enable them to use their engines
to advantage before the threshing season opened.
In 1904, a branch office and warehouse was opened in Winnipeg,
Manitoba, to take care of the growing Western trade and the home
plant was enlarged to enable the company to build separators.
For a short while following World War I, a 15-30
‘Imperial’ gasoline tractor was assembled at the Bell
plant, but for various reasons it was soon dropped.
Robert Bell died in 1934. His son Earl, with the assistance of
John Finlay son who had stuck by his father ever since their first
venture with agricultural engines, carried on the business until
Earl died in 1948. The only Bell grandson, who it was hoped would
carry on the business, was killed in World War II. In consequence,
the plant was sold but the new owners felt that the good name of
Robert Bell should remain associated with the business, and thus it
carried on under the name of Robert Bell Industries. Separators and
heating boilers are still made, but the once familiar and faithful
old ‘BELL’ steam traction engines are past and gone but not
forgotten by those who spent many a happy threshing season with
Jack Norbeck is author of Encyclopedia of American
Steam Traction Engines, from which this article is