History of rallies and American steam shows

steam engine

I have been mulling over what I might write about here in the offseason, as it were, and decided that in my position as a dedicated Anglophile and subscriber to the magazine Steaming which is the official publication of England’s National Traction Engine Trust, I might do a comparison between British rallies and American steam shows.

Of course, I enjoy British rallies entirely by long distance as reports are posted by video on my computer. Fortunately, there are dozens posted so the material is quite ample.

I did get to see a rally back in 1972 when I was on a sabbatical leave for travel and spent six weeks in England and on the continent.

The rally was called Expo Steam and was in London’s Battersea Park.

They tried for one hundred engines but only got ninety-six but as it was all new to me I did not notice the shortage.

One of the memorable happenings was while I was walking down the park road to see the engines I heard one behind me and as I turned found I was being followed by a Yorkshire steam Lorry or truck.

As for American and Canadian shows, many are also posted as videos and over the past fifty years, I have personally attended many shows locally in Pennsylvania and Ohio and as far afield as Florida, Minnesota, Iowa, Alberta and Ontario.

Big shows

The biggest shows are the most attractive both here in America and over there in England. Among the biggest in the U.S. are Midwest Old Threshers at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and Western Minnesota Steam Threshers at Rollag, Minnesota.

Both will field more than 100 traction engines annually plus 20 or so models from one-eighth scale up to half scale, and many hundreds of gas and oil tractors.

The Great Dorset Steam Fair in southern England is advertising to have some 500 engines and rollers plus many tractors and cars, motorcycles and horses in 2018.

There are commonly at least two Stanley Steamers puffing around Dorset but they are quite rare at our shows.

But, let’s consider some of the differences. The names we use are maybe the most obvious thing. We call ours shows or reunions because they started out as nostalgic get-togethers by old timers who had kept their steam engines out of wartime scrap drives and trade-ins on more modern power sources.

They had a soft spot for the steamers and set up a threshing time or sawmill run and played a bit.

In England where some engines were still in use the beginnings were mainly races arising from arguments at the local pub (read that as beer garden) as to who had the best or fastest engine.

So, they met at a spot, threw off the governor belts and away they went. Of course, they drew crowd as word got around and soon other activities were added.

I don’t think I have read of them blowing up a flywheel but they recognized the possibility and soon dropped racing in favor of road runs and staged games and such.

On the road

I just mentioned another difference and that is that they still commonly run over the common roads which has not happened over here in quite some time, though with more engines put on rubber it could be done.

I heard the late-great Leroy Blaker describe how he pulled the pinion gears off his big Port Huron, (his favorite engine) and towed it some 25 miles to a parade.

He had an International tractor with a fast road gear he called his “Big Red Tractor” that allowed him to make good speed over the road.

In England, they do memorial road runs and hill climbs and often do a long distance run from John O’Groats to Lands End. That’s from the far North of Scotland to far Western Cornwall or about as far cross country as can be done over there.

They had a large number of road locomotives which had solid rubber tires four or five inches wide bonded to steel backing which in turn was welded to the wheels.

On wide rear wheels, they used three or four strips of rubber, side-by-side and one on the front wheels.

Among other differences are British frequent use of compound cylinders, high and low pressure that allows the steam to be used twice and expanded more, producing increased efficiency.

Often the cranks are set at ninety degrees to eliminate dead centers on starting. Only Reeves in the U.S. pushed the cross compound design and Port Huron used the Wolfe or tandem compound on most of their engines.

Many other builders made a few tandems but not many.

Special design

A special design in England was the single crank compound built by Burrells of Thetford. The smaller or high-pressure cylinder was above and a bit offside the low-pressure cylinder and both piston rods attached to one crosshead from which the connecting rod went to the crankshaft.

Engine sizes are rather similar but in England they used a nominal horsepower number which is roughly one-third of our ratings.

The smallest over there both portable and traction were about two horsepower while American was about six.

When sawmills got popular and threshers got bigger the engines most commonly used were 13 or 15 horsepower. The biggest Case engine was the 32 horse or on the brake measure 110 horsepower.

Their cylinder was 12 by 12 inches and pressure was 150 PSI. The largest Fowler was the B3 Super Lion design which had cylinders of seven and 12-inch bore and 12-inch stroke.

Running on 200 PSI it produced about 80 horsepower with a maximum of 125 for short bursts. These figures apply to the showmens engine named SUPREME ordered by Mrs. Deakin in 1934.

Since I maintain my membership in National Tractor Engine Trust, I also get a copy of The Approved Rally List which the trust publishes late spring.


This also shows another difference between the two countries. The trust does not sponsor shows but keeps up a code of practice for how shows should be run covering such things as inspection of boilers, insurance which is provided by private commercial companies who also train and license the inspectors.

Getting on the approved list ensures that dates do not overlap. This year’s list shows some 62 rallies in an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

The rallies are set up by local committees who invite engines and the list shows how many are expected to attend. The range is from three engines to 500 at Dorset.

Their inspections put most of our state inspections to shame, involving an internal and external with the boiler dry, then a cold water pressure test, then a check under steam pressure.

We have doubted if some of our inspectors will go near a boiler under steam.

Among other major differences are the activities on the field. As I said above our shows started as threshing bees and most American shows still do some threshing though most of the spectators have no idea of the purpose of the machine.

But we are an educational enterprise so we try to explain it to the crowd. Every show I know about has both a sawmill, sometimes more than one, and a shingle mill.

We often hand out shingles as souvenirs, sometimes with a burned in message, but Canadian shows often pack them in a frame for sale. Tractor pulling is often done with a weight transfer sled in which the load moves toward the tractor as they move down the track. It seems like the English shows have copied us to some extent with threshing and sawing where they used to involve some games to show off the talent of drivers at handling their engine.

One other major activity is the Heavy Haulage demonstrations in England. They arrange for a heavy load like a stationary boiler, or large electric motor or transformer and in a couple cases a locomotive, all on suitable trailers, and pull them around with three or four road locomotives tied together with tow bars.

In most cases, the track involves a steep grade at one point and the exhaust sound is great. One engine is normally last in the train for braking purposes if needed.


British sawmills are called a rack saw bench and the timber lays on the bench with no attachments and the feed is done by hand crank.

Rather often the logs are handled by a steam crane engine if one is in attendance, to put the logs on the bench.

British threshers are somewhat different too, the sheaves are fed into the top and the action is more top to bottom while American machines move the material front to back.

They also have a special machine which keeps the straw whole and trusses it up again at the end to be used for thatching roofs. The wheat for this operation is a special breed which grows straw four or five feet high.

I saw a video on thatching and was amazed when the men walked into the field and the ripe grain was shoulder high. Most shows have a good deal of activity on the field in the form of parades and similar movements.

If there are horses at an American show they are normally Belgian or Percheron workhorses. The British favor Shires or Clydesdales like the Budweiser horses with fancy feathered feet and hooked to fancy formal wagons or buggies.

We have mentioned a couple times steam Lorries or trucks which have no counterpart in America but are very common in England.

The two most common are Foden with a locomotive style boiler and over type with the engine in the cab and Sentinel with a vertical water tube coke-fired boiler and under type engine below the platform.

They were both used for all sorts of hauling and the later rubber tired and shaft driven Sentinels would do up to 35 miles per hour and so could keep up with much traffic.

The Yorshire Lorries main claim to fame is a double-ended tee shaped boiler across the front with short fire tubes out to a smokebox and back to the chimney.

Several other makes show up on occasion but are not numerous. American engines appear over there at times and on one video the commentator refers repeatedly to a Canadian George White engine as American, probably because it is American in style of construction and not like English engines.


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