Members of two Amish families in Holmes County, Ohio, are bringing the past to life through demonstrations of immaculately restored century-old equipment. Pairing a circular shingle sawmill built in 1904 with a Case steam engine manufactured in 1909, the men show exactly how roofing shingles were produced more than 110 years ago.
Abe Mast, Millersburg, and his brothers purchased the saw from their uncle. “It had not been used for years,” Abe says. “We saw a chance to preserve history.” When Ivan Miller’s family purchased a 1909 Case steam engine in 1991, it was in running condition but badly needed a comprehensive restoration. “By powering Abe’s shingle sawmill,” Ivan says, “we’re keeping this element of power equipment alive for the viewing public.”
Chase organization dates to 1850
In 1850, J.D. Chase & Sons started a manufacturing firm in West Concord, Vermont. The firm produced turbine water wheels, circular sawmills and shingle, heading and lathe machines.
Suffering ruinous losses during the American Civil War, the business was reorganized in 1865 in Orange, Massachusetts. In 1874, the company was incorporated as Chase Turbine Mfg. Co. In 1881, Denison Chase, son of J.D. Chase, was awarded a patent for sawmill set-works. By 1936, the company had ceased operation. The final remnants of the building that once housed Chase Turbine were demolished in March 2020.
Although records are scarce, the company manufactured several types of sawmills and water wheels. The 38-inch circular shingle mill Abe owns was built in 1904. Production figures are unknown.
Rig designed to hit the road
While still a lad, Abe helped his uncle operate the sawmill. When the Mast brothers purchased the mill, Abe quickly mastered its operation. Mounted on a frame that converts into a trailer, the unit is raised and lowered with jacks. Axles with wheels are inserted into square tubing and secured for transportation. When the unit is resting on the ground, 1-inch steel stakes secure it for belt power.
The sawmill is equipped with a de-barker to square a round log destined to be cut into shingles. However, Abe uses 8-inch square blocks precut to 16-inch lengths. From those, standard 8-by-16-inch shingles are produced.
Abe is fascinated by the mechanical automation of a sawmill built so long ago. For cutting purposes, the block of wood is locked securely in an auto-set carriage. When the block passes through the circular saw, the carriage setting determines the cutting depth. The shingle is cut one-half inch thick at one end and tapers to a point on the opposite end. On the next passage, the carriage setting is reversed.
Because of its durability, cedar is the preferred wood for shingles. For demonstration purposes, Abe uses pine and poplar. If shingles are cut from noncured wood, they are stacked to dry. Although wood shingles are not commonly used today, Abe still gets occasional requests for mill-cut shingles.
The shingle mill is very durable and, so far, trouble-free, in part because a metal detector is used on the wood to prevent damage to the blade from stray nails or other materials embedded in the wood. “There are about a dozen oil ports that require lubrication,” Abe says. “The cutting blade has carbon tips. I rely on a service to sharpen the cutting tips.”
Basic steam engines in ancient times
The first basic steam engine may have been the aeolipile described by Heron of Alexandria in first-century Roman Egypt. Numerous steam-powered devices were developed as time passed. In 1606, Spaniard Jéronimo de Ayanz y Beaumont was granted a patent for a steam-powered water pump. The pump was used to drain the waterlogged mines of Guadalcanal, Spain.
In 1698, Englishman Thomas Savery, an accomplished engineer and inventor, patented a steam pump. Using steam pressure, the pump drew water from flooded coal mines. During the Industrial Revolution, steam engines began replacing water and wind power. The steam engine eventually became the dominant source of power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Vintage Case steam engine restored to meet state requirements
The J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., Racine, Wisconsin, traces its roots to 1842, when founder J.I. Case built his first groundhog-style threshing machine. In addition to threshing machines and other harvest equipment, the company went on to produce self-propelled portable and traction steam engines. By the close of the 19th century, Case was a leading manufacturer of steam engines.
The 30hp Case steam engine used to power the Mast shingle sawmill was built in 1909. Ivan, who lives in Baltic, says the engine required restoration. “Due to the engine’s age, parts were difficult to locate,” he says. “That entailed fabrication of some parts. The cam on the main crank shaft was especially difficult to build.”
Before the engine was repainted, the boiler was completely refurbished and the firebox was rebuilt. “The state of Ohio requires inspection and certification every three years,” Ivan says. “Our overhaul was conducted to meet state requirements.”
Lifelong association with working steam engines
As a boy, Ivan helped his dad clean and lubricate the engine and feed the firebox during the engine’s operation. Eventually, he learned to operate the steam tractor on his own. Coal is the engine’s primary fuel source, but some wood is used. “Under a working load, it needs 125 gallons of water per hour,” Ivan says. “We maintain a supply of water close by and the engine siphons water from that source as needed.” It’s a formula that works. “I like the Case,” Abe says, “because it has good power to run the sawmill.”
When the engine is under heavy use, it is shut down every couple hours. For cylinder lubrication, oil is injected before it goes into the piston. This source needs replenishing along with hard, sticky grease for the gears. During shutdowns, bearings are also lubricated.
Ivan has been around steam engines for decades, but his appreciation for the early technology has never waned. “It’s a real joy to operate a machine that is 112 years old,” he says. He enjoys the intricacies of the engine’s mechanical operation and remains intrigued by the way steam is converted to power. “There are fewer steam engines used today in our Plain Communities,” he says. “It’s been a pleasure providing power for Abe Mast’s sawmill.”
The shingle mill is one of many antiques Abe owns. His collection includes two Huber tractors, a Rumley 6 tractor, a John Deere Model R, six threshing machines, a clover huller to separate seed, and several hit-and-miss engines.
“It’s been enjoyable collecting the old machinery,” Abe says. “But displaying it at shows throughout our community is the best part. There’s always lots of questions and discussions with those who view them. We’re fortunate for friends like the Miller family, who provide power for our shingle sawmill.” FC
For more information: Abe Mast, (330) 893-1304; Ivan Miller, (330) 600-8795.
Freelance writer Fred Hendricks of Mansfield, Ohio, covers a vast array of subjects relating to agriculture. Email Fred at firstname.lastname@example.org