Thirty Years At The Throttle

Maxwell, Iowa 50161

Work finished at Koester’s, Sam and I settled down on our
claims and after a not too bad winter, I went to work for Chas.
Creighton near Colome, running a new Case, two cylinder tractor,
one of their first, number three hundred as I recall. He had
contracted to plow a lot of old ground east of town and we could
pull four plows in it easily. We lived in a tent and did our own
cooking, as simple as possible, but we were so hungry after a
half-day run, we were not too particular what we ate. only wanted
plenty. The work was not bad as we took turns driving and tending
plows. The worst part was cranking the big two cylinder, direct
opposed motor, as it had a low tension magneto and batteries to
start on. When brought up on compression, if allowed to rock back,
the mag points would open causing a kick back and if one didn’t
dodge the long, heavy crank, he got a knot on his head. We found by
both of us on the crank and by holding onto the driver, we could
pull it over center and get going. It was quite a spring’s work
with many exciting experiences.

The new settlement around Colome was ready for their first
threshing run that fall and as Harry Monroe and Charlie owned a
Gaar-Scott rig in Chas Mix County, east of the Missouri River, we
had it shipped to Dallas but the freight was so much more than we
expected, we had to turn our pockets inside out to raise the money,
leaving us nothing to buy food and lodging. We had brought some
food with us so we made out all right that day, unloaded and were
all set to move the next day so we slept in an empty shed that
night and early morning started home.

From here on unfolds a tale of hunger, hard work and hardships
as bad as I can remember. After several hours of slow progress,
getting in and our of sand holes, the freight agent drove out from
town with a hired livery team to tell us he had made a mistake on
the bill so we owed him $20 more. Tired and hungry as we were, it
didn’t take long to tell him he could tie up out on the prairie
and whistle for his pay or let us go on to the settlement where we
could earn the money. He let us go on.

When about half-way home, we made a lucky decision that avoided
worry later on. At one corner we could go a mile west, then south,
or a mile south, then west; so we decided to go south on account of
sand holes. Half way on the west road, a new barn was just finished
that day and a lot of farm implements stored. During the night the
barn burned, cause not known, but if we had passed they would
naturally have thought we threw a spark causing it. That evening,
tired and hungry, we came to a school house, locked, but I picked
the lock with a wire and after trying without much success to roast
some field corn roasting ears in the firebox (they had a decidely
coal smoke flavor) we retired on the ‘hard pine’ floor. Mid
afternoon found us near my sister’s farm, so leaving Harry to
keep coming, I burst in on Sis, telling her I was starving, so as
she had just removed a baking of bread from the oven, she cut off a
thick slice and put a generous quantity of butter and choke cherry
jelly on it and prepared another for Harry. I took it to him and
both of us agreed nothing ever tasted better. We found two large
stacks of oats ready and from then on we kept Gaar-Scott number
10796 busy in the belt or on the road all fall and had many
experiences, some amusing, some not so funny. At one farmer’s
place we arrived just after noon. He had gone that morning for
groceries and had stopped at the saloon for a glass of beer, but
met so many friends he didn’t get back until after dark, but
his neighbors did the threshing for him any way.

I spent the night at my sister’s, which was near, and next
morning I fired up. No signs of life in the house so I blew the
whistle but still no stir, so I just blew ‘off brakes’ and
pulled to the next job for breakfast, arriving just in time. To
make it more enjoyable they had a very pretty blond daughter who
proved to me the truth of the old saying ‘Pride goeth before a
fall’, and this is how it happened. A two-wheeled tender had
wheels controlled by rods attached to the front axle on the engine
so one could back up or go any way. Taking off the governor belt I
made a flying switch all but backing up to the separator when one
of the guide rods broke. It spoiled the show and reminded me of
what the old Swede I ran an engine for would say when the crew
started scuffling, ‘I tont like tat darned boy play.’ This
tender could have caused a fatal accident. Harry’s wife and
sister would drive the little mule team, hitched to a top buggy,
out to see us every day so in case we needed supplies they could
get them for us and this day they had driven up behind the tender
and called us to come help eat. a water mellon. I put in an extra
shovel of coal and upon finishing the mellon, the girls started to
drive away while I had started around the tender when the wind,
which had risen, blew the drive belt off on the inside of the
flywheel, setting the clutch, tearing the belt in two and the
engine came backing up several feet before I reached the throttle.
If the team had still been headed up to the tender, they would
doubtless have cramped the buggy around, overturning it, and the
girls would have quite likely been run over. However, the torn belt
was a problem as we were still financially embarrassed and had no
lace leather. I had heard that striped bed ticking made
satisfactory lacing so we tried it and it ran all fall. Another
time a small hole came in the body of the steam blower valve on the
live steam side wasting a lot of steam but I made out until night.
Then I placed a small can around the base of the valve and filled
it with lead.

While the engine was on the train at Bonesteel, a girl had
written Miss Nina White on the smokestack, so we called the engine
‘Nina.’ To show what can be done in a pinch, one evening we
were pulling in between stacks when three teeth broke out of the
right bull pinion and upon removing it that night, we took it to a
country blacksmith shop and we drilled and tapped three
three-quarter holes at each broken tooth. Threading rods to fit, we
cut them the same length as the teeth, rounded the ends and got
along until a new pinion arrived from Freemont.

Being the first threshers there the women seemed to try to outdo
each other in cooking, with roast and fried chicken, roast beef and
fresh meats when obtainable, pie and cake and always a lunch in
forenoon and afternoon, especially among the Scandinavians and
Germans.

On one job the Russian farmer declared he would keep us only one
night so we would have to finish his big job in one day. He called
us about three o’clock and while at breakfast he said,
‘Wife’ you must have killed . all the roosters for the
threshers as I don’t hear any crowing.’ I said, ‘They
don’t crow until about morning, do they?’ About this time
the water monkey came down stairs with his suitcase and when asked
where he was going he said, ‘Over to Frescolns to say all
night.’ That was where we threshed yesterday.

We had a little flue trouble since pulling out of sand holes
made them leak for a while. One time we had a steep bank to climb
for about three rods. I raised steam until the safety started
it’s warning fizz so putting reverse in corner of quadrant out
of the notches, we made it just about to the top when the clutch
started slipping. So bracing my hip against the long, horizontal
clutch lever, we made the grade.

The crank disc on this engine had cracked from crank pin hole
out through the rim, but some blacksmith had shrunk a band like a
wagon tire around it so it caused no trouble. This Gaar-Scott was
Number 10796 and fifteen years later in Iowa, I found a sister
engine Number 10798, just two numbers different, perhaps built the
same day.

Proving up on my claim that fall, I came back to Iowa where I
was to continue engineering for some time but in quite a different
line of work.

The next spring, Bob Mc Quern, my old employer, took a grading
contract and bought an Emerson Brantingham ‘Big Four’
tractor and two Adams ‘Leaning Wheel’ graders, A ten and a
twelve foot, and hired me as engineer and my cousin as one grader
man while he took one himself. That summer was a very rainy one so
we averaged about three-fourth time, but we did well when we could
work, as we pulled one grader on a fifty foot cable and so could
work both sides of the road at once. The tractor was three speed
but with those heavy graders, we had to use low except in finishing
a grade and smoothing up or dead heading.

To keep down pre-ignition we had a Bennet water feed carburetor
which we needed as we burned gasoline and kerosene, mixed, which
was plenty volatile for our heavy work. Gasoline cost then ten
cents a gallon and kerosene five, I think, or four and one half.
The motor had no oil pressure gauge, so we were told to hold a
bright tool, a wrench or pair of pliers, to an open compression
relief cock and see if a film of oil collected. Another weak place
we found was the counter shaft support. It was held to the frame by
two big bearing caps bolted to the underside of the frame and when
pulling it was all right, but in reverse the pull was down, causing
the ears to break off the cap and we broke two sets at $30 each cap
before we gave up trying to move a load in reverse. I don’t
know why the company, or we, didn’t under truss the cap. Then
it would have held.

When July 4th came, Bob asked us if we would work that day, so
as we had lost so much time, we told him we would although we
wanted to celebrate. That night it rained so we were glad we had
promised to work. We had signs up ‘Road under Construction’
but the public used it any way, with some accidents. One old
gentleman started around us, unnoticed by me, and his team shied up
on the bank, overturning the buggy and dumping him out. Then the
team ran about a hundred yards where they stradled a telephone
pole, breaking up a lot of things and causing the old gentleman to
recall a lot of his boyhood profanity, which he promptly
recited.

One day a fat girl and two small boys rolled down the same bank
but they just laughed.

One morning I was having trouble getting started, had cranked
and cranked, when just across the fence a farmer was just passing
cutting oats with a four-horse team. Just as he was even with us
and unnoticed, the tractor started with a bang and roar and away
went the team. The farmer was game as he held onto the lines with
one the seat with the other until reaching the barn, forty rods
away. I was sorry to have caused the trouble. The big motor was
rather hard to start as it had a K.W. magneto with no impulse on it
so we had to turn it fast enough by quarter turns to make a spark
by placing one foot on the crank and throwing one’s weight on
it. An impulse mag would have helped a lot. Priming cups over the
intake valves didn’t seem to help, but removing the spark plugs
and pouring in gas often would get results when all else
failed.

After finishing the contract, Bob sold the tractor so I loaded
it and shipped it North. That fall I took the Gaar-Scott and pulled
Garners sawmill on Squaw Creek, where one day we hit a railroad
spike, buried in a limb-log far above the ground and were puzzled
to know why until an old timer told us that when just a small boy,
he was with a party of ‘coon hunters when they treed a
‘coon in the big elm and being near the railroad, they brought
spikes from where the section crew were repairing track and made a
ladder with them, intending to remove them but in the dark must
have missed one, which grew from sight during the passing
years.

Finishing that set Jesse and I decided to trade for a used Avery
under mounted which we did. But when unloading it I found it popped
off at a hundred pounds and knowing that was no good for those two
small cylinders, I asked the man who came to help unload about it
and he said they were overhauling an old Frick at the time they
were repairing the Avery and got the valves exchanged, so I told
him he had better find the buyer of that Frick before he blew
himself up. Seeing that story wouldn’t stick, he said they
broke the original valve and bought a new one and as is was at one
hundred pounds, they didn’t change it. I tried in vain to talk
Jesse out of signing for it, so we unloaded and found we
couldn’t keep it in coal and water so we traded it for a new 18
H.P. Aultman Taylor.

Starting as sawyer for Garner, with his Frick mill pulled by
Chet Halls 16 H.P. Rumley with him as engineer, I liked the clean
work although rather a cold job in winter, and it could have
finished me one day owing to my own carelessness. We had the engine
housed in while the saw was out in the open, so one noon after
finishing eating, I went out to file the saw leaving a few farmers
and the rest in the cook shack. I always hooked one leg up over the
saw to hold the blade more steady. I had filed only a few teeth
when the blade turned so it raised up about a foot where I rolled
off wondering what happened, when out of the shed came a farmer who
said he wondered what would happen if he moved that lever, the
reverse, which he did but there was just enough steam in the steam
chest and pipe to turn the saw a little. My first thought was to go
after that farmer with a hand spike, but when I saw he was as badly
scared as I was, I told him he had taught me a lesson. Now I always
shut the dome valve after that.

One day the governor belt broke and it took Chet so by surprise
the engine went on a tear. The saw was jumping up and down so Bill
got scared and started running up the roll way. With coat-tail
sticking straight out, his feet were slipping so he was like a
squirrel in a wheel, working hard but not going any place. Another
time I started the carriage toward the saw and leaned over the big
lever to brush some snow off the figures on the head block when my
double pair of mittens hooked over the pointer so it was taking me
toward the saw. Pulling loose the mitten chafed up the back of my
hand but better than sawing it off.

The next summer we started at threshing time with the new
Aultman Taylor but had only a short time run when all at once there
was a loud ‘bump, bump, bump,’ in the cylinder and when I
shut off the steam, she stopped on back center, locked tight.
Removing the cylinder head we found a slug of cast we estimated was
the right size to have come from the back port which had dropped
out of sight and lodged for a time midway down until working loose.
It sprung the main shaft in the pillow block bearing, causing us to
have to change it later, a big job in the field, although the
company furnished the repairs at no charge.

That fall Bud Harris had bought a new Case and we both wanted
the same run near Osceola. Jesse and I started the ten-mile pull at
night with the tank wagon tied on behind the separator, and after
four or five miles we found it had come loose so we had to dead
head back and get it but luckily it didn’t upset. Bud had some
trouble with boiler foaming from something in the boiler, but we
had no trouble. A small leak along the main seam the smoke box
fizzed for awhile but soon limed up. This engine had the smoothest
clutch I ever used and the cross head pump was fine as I put a
globe valve and hose between pump and boiler so I could let the
pump run full time and shunt excess water back to the tank, and
that way the pump was always cool so packing lasted all fall. A
weak place was some coil springs in the drive wheels to take shock
off the gears, but pulling some hedge compressed the springs so
they did not return to full length but caused no trouble.

When our run was over I went to North Dakota again, but had to
take a job firing a big Reeves, simple, double with a big Swede
engineer, name of Ole, who was long on strength but short on
judgment. He twisted off many bolts and studs. One day the one that
held the hand hole plate in the smoke box. He came rushing back
telling me to not fire any more so he shut down and after he had it
in place, he made me tighten it for fear he would do it again.

One day while oiling the main bearing next to the flywheel with
an old coffee pot of oil, the flywheel knocked the pot out of his
hand and it disappeared. I finally told him it was in the wheel,
held by centrifugal force and when he stopped to look out for it,
it might come out fast. When he shut down it did, but didn’t
happen to hit or break anything.

An earlier hail storm shortened this run, so I went farther west
and went to spike pitching on another job on a Minneapolis. On
finishing this job, the other spiker and I rode the separator the
several miles home just for fun, putting out sparks, but when we
arrived the boss gave us a half-day’s pay, as he said, for
helping get the machine home.

Going back to Newburg I hired out to run a 16 horse Fairbanks
Morse gasoline engine in a mill pulling a roller feed grinder. The
engine was a ‘Match Head Starter’. An old redhead match was
placed in a tube on the end of a plunger. Engine was held on center
while a charge of gas and air was pumped up, then as the engine was
turned off center, the plunger was hit a sharp blow with the hand,
igniting the match and if all went well you were started.

That fall, while drilling a deep well near Newburg, the drill
hit gas, blowing the drill out of the hole and mud and rocks flew
high in the air. Finally getting capped, a gauge showed one hundred
pound pressure, so it was piped into West hope, several miles north
but it soon failed so the next year a big drill rig came and after
going down several hundred feet, they pulled out but several years
later oil was struck there and it’s a big field today.

Coming back to Iowa I realized the steam days were about over,
so I decided to go to a school to finish learning telegraphy which
I had partly learned, or to take up auto repair which was coming on
fast. The flip of a coin said auto mechanic so I attended
Allen’s Auto School in Des Moines and upon finishing the
course, I went to work for Jesse Living good in Osceola where I
worked for six years for different garages, the last one the
Frederick Garage where I was shop foreman, and there hired a
mechanic who was destined to later be my partner.

One day Wes Miller came to the shop and said they were having
trouble with their eighteen horse power Huber, a twelve-year-old
job, so they talked the boss into letting me run a few days for
them. Going out I had things going fine when one day, having just
finished a very tough job of timothy and while moving, we were
pulling up a very gentle slope when at once the connecting rod
broke in two about the middle, letting the piston knock out
cylinder head and tearing off cross head pump and throwing cross
head piston rod and all up in front of the engine. Upon examination
I found the rod, where it broke, to consist of alternate layers of
steel and charcoal, about one-eighth thick, weaking the rod so it
finally failed. Upon writing the company, I received a letter
saying as the machine had been out twelve years, they didn’t
feel they should replace it at no charge. Not being satisfied, I
wrapped the broken rod and sent it to them for examination, telling
them if they could honestly say this piece of metal should have
been installed, especially in this important place, I would pay for
all parts. Soon came a letter saying the part was defective and new
parts were being shipped, no charge. I do not know why a lathe man
would finish a piece if metal like that.

This ended my traction engine work for some time, only flue
work, valve setting’, etc. Back of the garage where I worked
was a steam laundry with a big horizontal, bricked in boiler and
every so often, a hole would come in the end of a flue, so several
Saturday nights I had to crawl over the fire bridge to the back
where I had about eighteen inches space to cut off the flue, then
drive and pull it out the back.

About this time my steady girl and I decided we had enough saved
up to start housekeeping, so securing a three-days’ leave from
the garage we were married June 21, 1916. As I was only earning $12
a week at that time, we had to use some of wife’s saving to get
started, but as bread was five cents a loaf and we could buy enough
beef steak for a meal for ten cents, we made out all right until
shortly I received a substantial raise.

Hearing of a garage for sale in Truro, my friend and I bought
the place, but while the deal was going through, I quit the Osceola
garage and broke in a new C. L. Best tractor pulling an elevator
grader on Highway 34 in Mills County. It was my first crawler-type
tractor and one of the first put out by Best.

Before leaving Osceola I sold my big I. H. C. Mogul that we had
used grading roads and moved to Truro, where about my last boiler
repair was beading the stay bolts on a Nichols & Shepard and
also babbited a blower bearing on the separator.

In 1926 we took the agency for International Machinery, the
10-20 tractor had just come out so we made it tough for Fordsons
and Sampsons as we had so much more power. We bought a twenty-two
inch Red River Special Jr. separator and used it three seasons.
Later my partner and I bought a 32 x 54 Case separator and pulled
it with his cross mounted Case tractor for two seasons and that
ended my owning any more threshing machines.

In the spring of 1945 as the gas in the garage had about got me
down, we decided to shut up the shop and spend the summer in
Minong, Wisconsin and just rest, but after a month in the open I
felt so much better that I stumbled into another engineer job. A
man in town had a sawmill and lumber yard but, on account of the
war, could not find any one to run the engine. One day my neighbor
told him I was an old engineer so that evening he was right over to
see me and when I told him I hadn’t run an engine for nineteen
years, he just laughed and said I hadn’t forgot how, so I
looked the mill over and as they had a saw and gas engine to cut
fuel to fire with, besides planer shavings, and a pump driven from
an extra pulley on the engine, I took the job and worked all summer
and the boss said I saved his life. The drive belt extended out
front to the saw and when using the planer, we ran the belt over a
roller on top of the rear wheel, the planer being the same distance
as the saw. When planning he controlled power by a long wooden slat
bolted to the throttle. As he was always tinkering with the little
belts on the planer, I was afraid he would get caught by one so I
had planned how to shove the pole in while standing on the ground.
One day the belt to the saw needed tightening. He started to back
up while I put a block in front of the wheel, but the engine
stopped on center. He partially closed the throttle and climbing up
turned the flywheel. I was down holding the block but hearing one
exhaust, I knew what had happened so leaping up I jammed the pole
hard shutting off the steam. The belt had caught him, lifting him
up, so I ran around in time to catch him and ease him down, but it
broke his big toe on one foot and bruised him up considerably.

After a two-weeks layoff we went back to work and a neighbor boy
and his two sisters started coming to the mill about every day. One
frail little girl, eight years old, took a surprising interest in
the engine, watching me fire and wanting to help, she would take
the scoop and gather chips and scraps of bark for me to put in the
fire. She wanted to know what that glass with water in it was for
and I told her that was so the engine would not blow up and if she
ever saw it empty to run home. After we came home she wrote and
said the man that took my place kept water in it too. One day I was
using the cut-off saw to square up some boards and turned around to
see Dorothy trying to remove a piece of wood right by the saw
teeth. I pulled her away from the saw and showed her how a piece of
bark could be cut off by the teeth when you could hardly see them.
She didn’t bother it again.

As the winter cuttings of logs were about sawed up, we decided
we had better open our own garage again, so it was with regret that
I closed the throttle on the Case for the last time and,
incidentally, closing the book on my active career as engineer.

As I look back over the long years, I will be seventy-nine come
September fifth and by the way, I was on an engine seven birthdays
in a row from 1907 on. With the new stronger metals, increased
steam pressures, condensers and gears running in oil, it seems just
as they learned how to build an efficient engine the curtain
fell.

Joining the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association,
Inc., I attended the reunions each fall. One year firing a Geiser
and another year driving a Case around the half-mile race track in
front of the grandstand. I also attended Neil Miller’s show at
Alden where I had the pleasure of driving an Aultman Taylor like
the one we bought in 1914. At one show I noticed an old fellow
trying to start an injector, so I said, ‘It may be too hot;
let’s put some water higher than it is.’ We filled a bucket
and set it up high, then steam blew back into the bucket, so I
asked him if he had taken the unit apart and he said he had soaked
the parts in weak acid to remove lime. I sent him to look in the
bath. Soon he returned with the steam jet and with it replaced, it
worked perfectly.

One thing gave the gas tractor the advantage in the past was the
coal and water trouble. As the farmer usually burned wood, he
disliked having coal left after threshing and there was nothing
more aggravating than to start doing chores at night, finding gates
open, stock scattered and water tanks dry. Later on a small truck,
with coal bunker and water tank could have furnished clean water if
having had to be hauled several miles.

The lack of a power takeoff also limited the use of the steam
tractor and instead of an old smokey lantern to move by or check
steam and water, how easy one could have installed a car generator
and storage battery, had they been available.

Well, friends, I could go on and on writing of happenings that
caused an engineer to give fifty horsepower one day, and half as
much the next owing to unfavorable conditions. But unless the one
who reads this has stood behind a throttle, with the responsibility
of watching out for the safety of those at the machine he is
powering, the constant attention that must be given the water
level, steam pressure, bearings and all the various things vital to
safe, economical operation, it would be drab reading, but to you
who have experienced some of the things I have mentioned, I hereby
dedicate this narrative.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment