Farm Collector

The Spirit of the Machine

The Reynolds-Alberta Museum’s 1903 American Abell, serial
number 1165, built by the American-Abell Engine and Thresher Co.,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Rated as an 18-50, this single-cylinder
engine has a bore and stroke of 8- inches by 12 inches and uses an
inverted Woolf reverse gear. Note the smoke box door, which carries
a depiction of Saint George the dragon slayer. This is possibly the
only engine that survives with this door intact.

This spring, not really paying attention to what I was doing, I
accidentally ran the wing of my cultivator into the grass along the
edge of the field I was working. There was an old roll of barbed
wire in there and it got wrapped around the wheel. By the time I
noticed, it had wrapped around the wheel about a hundred times and
was just a tangled mess. Getting off the tractor, I was mad as heck
and wondered just who was the stupid so-and-so who had left that
wire where I could snag it.

I soon realized it was going to take awhile to untangle this
mess, and as my temper cooled I noticed there were three huge rocks
on the edge of the field where I had hooked that wire. I breathed a
sigh of relief I hadn’t hit one of those rocks, or I’d have
wrecked my cultivator for sure.

Sitting there untangling the wire and looking at those rocks, I
recalled a conversation I overheard when I was a kid. I remember my
grandfather, my dad and my uncles talking about how my
great-grandfather used blasting powder and his steam engine to pull
rocks and stumps off the land he homesteaded.

The steam engine they were talking about is the same 1903
American-Abell that is in our museum warehouse. I started wondering
what kind of equipment the fellow who had moved those rocks had
used, and I figured he had probably used a tractor similar to what
my great grandfather had.

Working here at the Reynolds-Alberta

A straw-burner, this American-Abell’s boiler has a stepped
crownsheet. The boiler barrel is 30 inches in diameter, with 38
two-inch boiler tubes running 96 inches. Its original rated working
pressure was 120 psi.

Museum, I have had the opportunity to operate some of these
antique machines, and I have stood on the deck and operated the
controls of my great grandfather’s tractor. In truth, it amazes
me how slow, uncomfortable and awkward the old tractors are to use.
I found myself wondering how long it would take to move these
rocks, by the time you packed shovels and chains and blasting
powder and ran out in the field at the top speed of two miles per
hour, blasting the rocks out, then figuring out a way to wrap a
chain around them so you could drag them off the field. I began to
realize that just moving these rocks with that old equipment would
have taken at least one whole day.

Darren Wiberg on the 1903 American-Abell, the same tractor his
great-grandfather used to break the Canadian prairie. Rear wheels
are 64 inches in diameter, 20 inches wide, while the fronts are 40
inches in diameter and 10 inches wide.

Now, if that fellow, whoever he was, hadn’t moved these
rocks, I wouldn’t be able to farm that area of that field at
all. And all of a sudden, I started feeling a little sheepish about
some of the things I was thinking about the man who had cared for
this land before me.

My thoughts turned to my great-grandfather and what possessed
him to come out to the end of the world to start a farm where there
was no power, no roads and acres and acres of uncultivated land.
Pulling the last strands of wire from my cultivator, it occurred to
me that in four generations my forefathers transformed this land
from wilderness into one of the richest provinces in one of the
richest countries in the world.

We have some unique and rare things here at our museum, but if
you expect to see the crown jewels here you’re probably going
to be disappointed. However, when I look at one of these old steam
tractors I see so much more than a collection of nuts, bolts and
gears.

The exhibits at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum are not about moving
rocks, building roads, moving freight or cultivating the land. In
this museum, we celebrate the ordinary people with ordinary tools
doing the extraordinary job of building this province. Would these
machines mean so much anywhere else? Ordinary people, like my great
grandfather, Deitrich Humbke, who owned the 1903 American-Abell
Steam Engine, really are the ‘Spirit of the Machine.’

As I sit here looking at my two-story tall, 250 HP, four-wheel
drive tractor and 42-foot cultivator, I realize I can work more
land in an hour than the fellow who moved these rocks could have
done in a day. But I also realize how totally ineffective my modern
machine would be if someone hadn’t moved those rocks and
prepared this land before me.

Working here at the museum, I celebrate the Spirit of the
Machine, because how many provinces have been built with the crown
jewels?

Steam enthusiast Darren Wiberg is the head of
restoration services at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, P.O. Box 6360,
Wetaskiwin, Alberta T9A 2G1 Canada, (800) 661-4726, or e-mail:
ram@gov.ab.ca

  • Published on Jul 1, 2002
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