I have been reading your magazine for several years and enjoy it very much. I think it is very common for all of us as we grow older to live in the past as these old saw mill and thresher men are doing. I have never read a letter from Kentucky and as my experience with steam engines in part at least, is quite different from anything I've read I think perhaps it may be of some interest to some of your readers.
I was born in the mountains of Kentucky where corn and hay were practically the only crops at that time. When I was about six years of age my father raised a small crop of wheat. I don't remember the thresher man's name but he had the first steam engine I ever saw. It was a small portable one. He used oxen to move the engine and separator from farm to farm.
There were two grist mills near our house. One was driven by water power and went out of business a few years after I can first remember it. The other one was driven by a portable steam with wheels removed and axles resting on logs. It was used, I think, for around 20 years, when it was replaced with a gasoline engine. Both millers took toll for their work. I think one-sixth for engine driven and one-eighth for water driven mills.
I had an aunt who lived near a little railroad station that had been named for her husband. One of the highlights of my young life was a visit to her each summer and I never tired of watching the locomotives as that was long before the day of diesel power.
In my early twenties I spent the years of 1914 and 1915 in central Oklahoma where I worked both seasons with steam powered threshers. First year it was a 15 hp Case Engine pulling a 32-54 Case Thresher. The engineer would sometimes let me guide the engine when it was moving and even though I was a grown young man I was never more thrilled in my life.
The next year the owner of this outfit and his brother-in-law bought the only new steam engine I have ever seen. It was a 25 hp Advance-Rumely and a 40-62 Buffalo-Pitts Separator. I could hardly work for watching and listening to that shiny new engine.
In the spring of 1916 I moved back to Kentucky and rented my father's farm. He had moved from the mountains into Blue Grass region where considerable wheat is raised. From then until 1930 I knew nothing about steam engines except to see one when our crop was threshed.
In the fall of 1930 a M r. Poindexter, one of the old school of thresher men, who had a 15 HP Russell Engine and 33 in. Russell Separator with hand feed and a Russell saw mill with top saw rig. (I have this same top saw outfit now on a Farquhar mill), and believing me to be dependable and of the same ability, made me a proposition to run his engine on a share basis to steam tobacco plant beds. As many of you probably know, tobacco is the cash crop of central Kentucky. While plants get to be quite large, sometimes taller than a man, the seeds are very, very small and young plants are very small and tender. Until around 45 years ago it was customary to pile wood on a bed after it was plowed and burn it to kill weed seeds. Finally someone conceived the idea of using steam heat to kill weeds, grass and weed seeds.
A frame, 9 x 12 ft. and about six inches deep was made and covered with tin. This was turned bottom side up after the bed was plowed and we used 3/4 inch pipe to run steam under this box for 25 minutes. If the ground was in proper condition and the work was done right this would just about kill everything in the ground. I have eaten many eggs and potatoes cooked under this box and they had a flavor no other method of cooking could give them. That also shows how intense the heat was for killing weeds and seeds.
About 1932 I bought my first engine. It was a 50 HP Case with single top boiler and I operated both my own and Mr. Poindexter's Russell until his death about 1936.
Having come into possession of a Model 12-20 Case tractor in 1930, I entered the threshing game. I operated a 21 inch Woods Bros. Separator on shares for another neighbor using my tractor. The large steam driven threshers were on their way out.
In 1931 I bought my first thresher, a 22 x 36 Case and traded for Model K 18-32 Case Tractor to pull it. This outfit was used for several years and then replaced with a Model L Case Tractor and 28 x 46 Thresher.
During this time I traded a 50 HP Steam Engine for a 40 HP Case and bought a 65 HP with single lap boiler. Also a 50.HP Case with butt-strap boiler and a 16 HP Advance. I used all of these engines in plant bed work as well as a little for other work. I only used the Advance one year and sold it. I used the 65 HP Case for three years and used the 40 HP Case for 6 or 7 years and sold them.
Somewhere along the line I bought and old 28 x 50 Case Thresher and rebuilt it. For several years I ran it with a 50 HP Steam Engine or a 25-45 Case Tractor.
About 1935 I acquired a saw mill which I still have. I used the steam engines for a few days to pull it but for various reasons gasoline power was more practical. By 1945 with less grain being raised, scarcity of labor and advent of small combines, threshing machines were a thing of the past. I had sold out except for 28 x 50 which I cut up for scrap.
I used a 50 HP Case engine, No. 33619, for plant bed work until 1958 due to other work, being physically unable to do the work and increased use of chemicals on plant beds, I sold it to a young man named Trautman at Dayton, Ohio. He recently wrote me that he had it rebuilt and plans to take it to some reunions.
While I am not one of the really old time steam thresher men, for nearly 30 years I had a rather varied experience which if you see cause to print this account of my experiences, I hope may be of some interest to someone.
While I will probably never own another engine they will always have a fascination for me and I hope some day to be able to attend at least one reunion and see the many engines restored to their original beauty and glory, see the smoke curl from the stacks driven by blower or exhaust and possibly get hold of the controls of one for a few minutes.
It is possible future generations may have such pleasant memories but I doubt it.