Route 3, Sterling, Illinois
This article appeared in the Mt. Vernon Register News, Mt. Vernon, Illinois and was written by Mr. Addison Hapeman of Woodlawn, Illinois.
While the wheat growers were congratulating one another on the case and speed of threshing with the new steam engines, and the thresher man was glorying in his new possession, there was at least one man in every community who was very dissatisfied with the onrush of the world toward mechanization. He was the road commissioner, the man who was responsible for the bridges in the township.
Small boys may have stood about in awe, drinking in every word of the thresher man, and vowing that if they couldn't be locomotive engineers when they grew up; they would at least own a threshing engine. But to the bridge builder, these cast iron behemoths, snorting sparks and scaring horses were just 'them dang bridge busters.'
The bridges of those days were not the product of a corps of engineers and their slide rules, with strains and stresses carefully plotted against all future needs. There were rather, the outcome of experience with the loads that could be piled on an old Weber or Stud baker wood wheeled wagon, and were designed by the simple rule of 'Heck fire, them posts ought to up anything, but may be you better saw the next ones a inch bigger.'
So when the steam engine weighing several tons, began to lumber down the country roads, it left a trail of squashed culverts and shaky bridges behind it. Flattening these culverts caused only another bump in the swaying progress of the outfit, but if a sizeable bridge collapsed under the engine, then there was indeed the devil to pay.
Each outfit carried some heavy planks on the flat top of the water wagon or on the separator, and these planks were laid down as a runway across the doubtful bridges. If these measures were not considered enough to make the bridge safe then it was by-passed and the creek forded. This was a very unpopular pastime and was not tried on any but the smallest.
Since the task of getting one of these steam engines back on the road after falling thru a bridge or getting stuck in the creek was a frightful one, very few chances were taken. If the bridge could not be strengthen-en or a safe fording easily made the outfit just went the other way, and the people on the far side of the creek couldn't get a machine in from their side.
These steam engines were power plants, first and foremost; their mobility was almost an afterthought. The steering gear consisted of a large cast-iron steering wheel that turned a drum around which a heavy chain was wound a couple of times. One end of this chain was attached to each side end of the front axle, and turning the steering wheel would pull one end of the axle around under the engine, while the chain was paid out on the other side. There was usually enough slack in this steering chain to give the front axle about 6 inches of wobble; as a result the engine seemed to lurch down the road.
Not that it made much difference for this machine never got up enough speed to be a menace. The top rate of travel was probably 2 miles an hour, and the fact that there were no brakes was unimportant. The compression of the big cylinder was enough to slow it down on most hills.
One exception was the Jackson hill in the northwest part of Jefferson county. So steep 'that when the old engine started down the engineer could see right down the smokestack' they were coming down at a terrific rate (probably 5 miles an hour,) when something went wrong with the steering gear. Just at the bottom of the hill the old engine lurched across a ditch, sailed majestically across a field, and settled down with a wheeze in a mudhole.
The threshing was delayed a couple of days in that neighborhood while they dug the runaway out of the mud and got her back on solid ground. This could only be done by digging out enough room to put down a screw jack, such as was used in raising houses, and raise the axle as far as possible; put some planks under the wheels, block up the jack for another try, and repeat this until all four wheels were on a plank road that led to safety. The machine might get it-self into such a predicament, but manpower must get it out.
On one other occasion man again demonstrated his superiority over the machine. The threshing crew had just finished with one man, an eccentric character who went barefoot almost the year round. It was said that only the most severe winter could force him to don shoes, and the soles of his feet were as hard as horn. He always wore a floppy straw hat, summer or winter, and was not noted for his ability to see a joke.
There was a wide fence-row between this man and his neighbor, where the next threshing job was to start. This strip had no fence, but was grown up in a veritable canebrake of blackberry briars 5 or 6 feet high. The engineer, with a wink to the onlookers, soberly informed the barefoot man that he would have to go around by the road because he was afraid the blackberry thorns would scratch holes in the boiler. While he was looking around for the audience reaction to this joke, the barefoot man vanished.
When next they saw him, he was busily tramping down the berry thicket with his bare feet and in a short time had the place leveled for the passage of the delicate steam engine. The neighbors were never able to figure out who was making a fool out of who.