Pictures helped tell the threshing story


I regularly subscribe to two domestic magazines of the hobby and one from England. The editors of the domestic magazines depend on people sending in show reports and other stories and especially welcome pictures to go with them.

Several folks are glad to get old photos showing engines in action, especially steam threshing activity. It rather amazes me at the variety and number of pictures that show up from all parts of the country and including Canada.

I got involved many years ago when I called Walt McQuiston, the best known of the local steam threshermen, and offered to take him to some of the local shows. Tri-State near Burgettstown was the first show around that I knew of and we went several times.

Making copies

After we got to know each other, he gave me several pictures of his steam outfits and I had them copied to share. I thought it a bit comic that they were spotted with tobacco juice, since he kept a spit can in the corner of the drawer that the pictures were in.

He chewed a tobacco called Havana blossom.

As we rode around the area, he used to point up a farm lane and say, “We threshed for so and so up that lane for many years.”

Another time he said, “Does that barn have doors that swing on hinges or do they ride on track?”

He recalled many such details. One other memorable evening we got Walt together with a couple other old timers, Logan Wimer and Harvey Studebaker, at the Triangle Inn, which was the local ice cream shop and teen hangout.

Sharing stories

Walt said he tried to count and concluded he had set up a pipe to about 67 different silos. Many stories were shared that evening. Many of the farmers’ names were familiar to me and he also threshed for my great grandad, Nelson Graham, and later for his sons, Roy and Irvin.

When I explained to him who I was, he said, “Oh, I remember that place. There was a sand bank across the lane and it was a bugger of a place to get in and out of.”

I was acquainted with the sand because it washed down to the bottom of the lane and we as children used to take our sand buckets over to fill them so we could play with the sand box at Mrs. Ketterer’s house, next to the lane.

Taking photos

Walt also told me about the photographer who took many of the pictures, a man named Joe Stansfield. He was the company photographer for the local steel mill, a division of National Tube Co., and as such, probably had the best camera equipment in town.

One of his daughters had married a farmer named Adam McQuiston, and one of the best posed pictures was at his barn on Stamms Hollow road. Adam is holding a pitchfork and looking like a model for American Gothic.

The steam engine was an old Frick and because the barn sat along the road in the narrow hollow, the belt stretched across the road to the thresher in the barn. I heard of a couple other setups like this where if someone came up the road, they had to stop and lift the belt to let them pass.

The thresher man and engineer was Amos Koach, who was dressed in plain clothes similar to an Amishman. A couple of his grandsons went to church with me and were very happy to have copies of that picture.

With the help of several neighbors, we identified almost everyone in the group, although a couple youngsters are a bit in question. Among the pictures from Walt were three other threshing scenes and a couple sawmill scenes.

More pictures

Another was a shot along the road by the Wilson Wiles farm, a spot I drove by almost daily on my way to work. Walt is on the ground, his brother John on the engine, and John Wilson had climbed on to the Canopy of the engine, which was a Frick.

They were pulling a Case steel thresher and waiting for the water wagon.

Harold Bupp was in the hospital some years ago and was given a box of glass plate negatives by relatives of his roommate showing hogs hanging up on butchering day at their farm near Butler, Pa. Prints of them are still on display at Portersville. I have several other threshing scenes given me by the Fombell history staff.

I went to one of their early meetings and when a silo filling scene was put on the screen, I said “There is a Peerless steamer.”

They wanted to know how I knew the make so I pointed out the single wood spokes in the drive wheels and a couple other details. They were convinced.

The outfit was owned by Frank Steffler, who was a local thresherman. The area, now called Lillyville, on some old maps, is called Stefflerville after that family, but I guess that was too hard to say so after they had a girl named Lilly they changed it after her.

That scene was on the Steffler farm and another good picture is at the Nevin farm on Zelie road. I also have a picture of an eight or ten horse Russell portable sitting in a stubble field and a very young Frank Steffler standing by the rear wheel.

I never found out for sure who took those pictures but I did find out from somebody that a man in Frisco named Bill Haas was an early photographer, in that area south and east of town.

I wonder what happened to his stuff? One of the disadvantages of getting to be a senior citizen is that there is hardly anyone older around to ask about things gone by. Another fact that I think is important is to find out who threshed locally where you lived.

As I said, Walt and his brother, John McQuiston, were the best known in Ellwood City and Wayne Township, Pa.

Walt liked Peerless engines best and had five or six of them over many years. He also owned a Frick or two, and a Leader, which he said he did not like.

A picture came to me of a portable engine threshing near Portersville, probably a Farquhar and inquirys brought us to the name of Wilbur Durnell who lived just north of there.

Rare find

North of there in Scott township and Plain Grove the local thresherman was John McMurray, who owned and drove a Twentieth Century double-undermounted engine. In fact, he had two of them and the newer one survives and I have driven it a couple of times.

His son, Charles McMurray, was the founder of the Northwest Pa. Steam association and president for many years.

Both McQuistons and Frank Steffler had Peerless engines and I wonder similarly about that make. The newer Twentieth Century engine had belonged to Ethan McDanel in Fombell and been traded in on a new Minneapolis tractor and thresher by a dealer at the New Castle Fair. Minneapolis did not move the engine from McDanels because they had no sale for it as steam was on the wane and besides it had a broken counter shaft.

Charlie McMurray got wind of it from a cousin at a family reunion and encouraged his dad, John to talk to the Minneapolis man and they bought it. Probably their older engine was pretty well worn out.

A new Counter shaft had been bought so they went down and installed it, filled the boiler from the nearby spring and fired up and drove home, probably about twelve miles. Twentieth Century had two road speeds and the fast one allowed about six miles per hour so that would have helped on the trip home. Besides threshing, they did some sawing and that became Charlie’s favorite activity with steam engines. I bought the first engine I owned from Alvie Gaiser who lived in Buffalo Run hollow below Slate Lick over in Armstrong County, Pa.

Alvie favored Huber engines and had several over the years. His son, Don, and wife Helen gifted me several photos of some of them.

On one trip over there I mentioned Portersville show and Alvie said, “Why don’t you get a good engine over there like a Huber”.

I said in reply, “Why didn’t you save us one?”

He had no reply and I think he was wishing by then he had kept the last one they had. They travelled and threshed in the Eastern Butler county and adjacent Armstrong county area.

At one time they had a Huber 30 horse, which was a big engine and they got sued by the town for marking up a new brick street that had been laid. When the hearing came up, they talked things over and agreed to pay costs and the suit was dismissed.

The Huber agent was furious as the engine was equipped with Pennsylvania legal cleats, which had a one-inch face to the road.

I wonder if that law is still on the books in Pensylvania, along with a lot of other obsolete rules?

Of course, he did not have to live there and Gaisers did. You are not likely to find any steam engines laying around on farms, but keep your eyes peeled for old pictures and try to save them.


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