Off-season activities to take up time


Hello again Steam enthusiasts. I hope you are all managing to keep warm in this frigid weather, if by steam or just hot air.

I used to say I fired my boiler in the summer for fun and in the winter to keep warm. I can’t say that now as my old cast iron Red Top coal-fired boiler finally rotted out and has gone to scrap.  No shame, as it was probably as old as I am. I got it second hand from a friend in Butler about forty years ago with the help of my mentor, the late Daryl K. Williams of New Castle, who had installed and used several similar units.

I got it installed in my newly expanded house three or four years later and rather enjoyed the comfort and economy of this type of heat. I most always had a pickup truck to haul my own coal and my coal bin was outside the cellar, so the dirt from that source was minimized.

Emergency averted

My family also learned to fire it to some extent. But it was a bit oversized for the job and I well recall the panicked call from my wife one cold day saying she “blew it up.” Fortunately my boss allowed me leave early and run home, about ten minutes, to see what had happened. What I found was that no explosion had taken place, as I had hoped and really expected.  When I made the original installation, I set an oil fired boiler beside the coal one for automatic operation and in case I got sick and could not fire the coal furnace.

There were two expansion tanks and a safety valve between the two furnaces. My wife had fired too hard and popped the safety, filling the cellar with steam and causing her to panic. Now the oil boiler is my main source of heat and I’ve had to spend a few dollars on it to keep it going. It had not occurred to me that it was almost 40 years old and some parts were obsolete, though not used much if at all. Live and learn.

Busy in winter

Back in the good old days, one of the common winter activities was overhauling and repairing engines, boilers, threshers, sawmills and other machinery. Several family scions have written articles about grandad’s shop and some of the work done there over the winters. The Holp family from western Ohio is one I am familiar with in this light, and I have known three or four of those men. John Jr. and Bob are still writing for the magazines of the hobby.

Garden planning

Non-mechanical activities also filled in some time in most communities. Planning next year’s garden was one of those, as I was reminded of last week when I got a seed catalog in the mail.  A lot of hours were absorbed reading through the glowing descriptions of better tomatoes, beans, corn and even some new veggies that we had not planted before.

One of the ideas I have found in my various researches in old iron and family history is that a big garden was needed from the colonial era until nearly World War II. Many jars of food and fruit were preserved in the cellar for use over the winter and spring, and some root crops were kept in a cold cellar for similar use. There were no supermarkets supplied with food stuffs by the truckload daily.

Meat was also home grown for the most part including pork, beef and chickens which also provided eggs. Home grown meats were often supplemented by venison, squirrel, pheasant, and rabbit and so on from the woods and fields. A big family made these arrangements all the more important.

My great granddad Downing, the Civil War veteran, fathered 15 children to his two wives, so there was often 12 or more sitting around the dinner table. My grandad, the third son, used to talk about how many bushels of potatoes they grew and stored every year to keep up with the demand.  The idea of multiple bushels of potatoes sort of startled me until I figured it out.

When I was a kid, my Grandma Graham still canned a good bit and had a cold cellar for root crops. I recall several men cutting up a quarter or half of beef on our kitchen table one time. More fruit was canned than vegetables and it still is the best tasting you can get as far as my judgement is concerned.

Steam engine shopping

Another common activity was looking at steam engine catalogs. Most of the companies had agents scouring the farming areas, getting leads from farmers they called on, and likely from the local general store owner, who knew everybody and most of their business.

I don’t know how often they sent out booklets through the mail. I think it is more likely they carried a supply and dropped them off with possible prospective buyers. They are a gold mine to find these days, and one friend from the Lawrence County Fair had a whole trunk full from his dad and uncles, which he graciously shared with me. They provided the basis for a series of articles. He even let me keep a couple.

One of those was a Red River Special catalog and another was Nichols and Shepard. Another odd one to me, was a DeLoach Sawmill catalog from down south. I found out there are a couple of their mills in preservation but not many.  One catalog that I had close touch with was a Twentieth Century Company booklet from Somerset County Pa. It had belonged to the late John McMurray of Slippery Rock, who owned two of their engines over the years and used them for threshing and sawing.

The last of his engines is still in operation and I hope the catalog has stayed with it through several changes of ownership. It contained a testimonial letter from John McMurray. Many catalogs included these, which goes along with the Port Huron motto, “Ask the User.”


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