Steam history is a reminder to document, record


Hello again steam enthusiasts.

As usual, off season topics are a bit hard to find but we keep trying and thinking and reading a couple of the magazines of the hobby and several club newsletters to keep up on the happenings in various areas.

When clubs were first starting up, mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the 20th century, there was much discussion, I’m sure, as to just how the club should be structured, who should run it, what officers and directors would be elected and from what pool of interested persons, and so on.

Social groups

We had a couple people in western Pennsylvania who were strongly of the opinion that the club should be a social organization and steam activity should be limited to each other’s farms at harvest. They were against public shows, charging admission fees and a lot of other things. Some felt that it would be illegal to charge admission to a show. In many areas there was a tension between steam people and gas engine and tractor people. Steam folks really did not want gas engines cluttering up the grounds.

But steam engines, especially traction engines, were always rare and relatively expensive and gas engines were just the opposite in many cases. I have two or three gas engines that were given to me at no cost.

Does anybody have a steam engine that was for free? At first it was rather a given fact that all the operating equipment at a show would belong to the individual members. The first exception to this that I recall was a Port Huron engine, at National Threshers, that belonged to the club.

I think LeRoy Blaker, their president for the first 25 years and a strong advocate of the Port Huron marque, persuaded them to buy it to keep it local when no individual buyer came forth.

Big decision

I don’t know of any problems caused by that situation, but certainly somebody would have to be in charge of running it at show time. And perhaps more importantly, to clean, maintain and store it in the off-season.

I know of another case when this did not happen and the boiler was damaged by having stray bolts pushed off the sheets in the water bottom due to improper draining and cleaning. Strong leadership is needed here.

I am reminded of a family related to my brother-in-law who decided it would be nice to have a pickup truck in the family. So, four of them, the dad, two sons and a son-in-law went together, or “in cahoots,” as they called it, and bought one, licensing it in one man’s name. A couple years later the dad said when he wanted to use it someone else had it and all he got was the cahoots.

Changing times

Now with many clubs owning their own grounds and buildings, the ownership picture has had to change. Incorporation has happened, insurance needs have come to be considered a necessity and an expense.

Another thing that has changed is the appearance of boiler shops, with the capability to do major repairs on boilers and even to build complete new boilers. These things are quite expensive, as you might expect, but there always seems to be money around for some folks. In fact, some of us have complained that the big money boys have driven the common po’folks out of the market.

Takes money

I think this is more common in the antique car game than with steam engines, but there are steam engines that are locked up in museums and not really out performing. Many museums are active and not to be criticized, especially collections like Jay Leno’s garage. Not only does Jay have the money to collect what he likes, but according to what is shown on the Internet, he drives them and enjoys them.

How else could he have gotten a speeding ticket on the California highways driving an antique Stanley Steamer. Yes, they are still capable of great speed. But as usual I digress. The days when heavy boiler repairs were considered impossible are now gone, as I mentioned above. All you need is the money, and it is not prohibitively expensive in all cases

Safety hazard

As we have also discussed before, an old boiler is a wasted or wasting asset and can be dangerous! An antique boiler is not something desirable as far as an engine is concerned, since a reasonable working pressure is needed to make an engine perform.

True, a welded boiler does not look quite right on an antique traction engine, or even a portable, but fake rivet heads can be applied for aesthetic purposes if we wish. I have seen it being done. I think I only know of one portable with a new boiler and it is in Canada, but there may be others. Stutzman’s have even built a quarter-scale Case portable to run their Ice cream freezer and it makes a marvelous display.

Now an article in E& E magazine details that a rare, one-of-a-kind left, traction engine by Lang & Button has been reboilered by the club, so that it is back in operation at their shows. It has a long history as it was at their first show in 1960 and for many years after till in 1976 when it failed boiler inspection. Since the owners could not stand the expense of a new boiler and other restoration work, the club stepped up and bought it and put a new boiler under it and restored the rest of it so that it looks like new.

It was an appropriate project, since it is a local product having been built nearby in Ithaca, New York, and is the only one left of the make. In addition, it was used for the club logo design and is still on that design.

Fine details

The article does not say what year it was built or what the horsepower is, but according to Norbeck’s encyclopedia, it is a 12 hp and built in 1909. Their production was not likely very large, and Norbeck says they quit building in 1921, when gas tractors started to take over farm power needs. No information is shown either place as to what size engines they likely built over the years.

The engine just restored is a standard sort of engine, with locomotive-style boiler, top-mounted forward engine with the cylinder close to the stack, and a head tank for water. No clutch shoes are apparent and it may have been a pin clutch setup, as some other companies used. The steam dome is centrally located on the top of the boiler, as is quite standard.

Personally, I think the NYSEA is to be commended for this action. Due to actions like this, there are probably more traction engines running at shows than there were twenty or so years ago. Someone has observed recently that each make of engine should have its own history recorded and with this I heartily agree.

I did my share in my book on Russell engines a few years ago and it was rather well-received as far as I know. I also have copies of professor Bixler’s history of C. Aultman and Co. and Aultman-Taylor, both in Ohio. I also have three great histories from England, covering John Fowler & Co.’s Steam Plow Works, Wallis and Stevens of Basingstoke, and Garrrets of Leiston.

Historic literature

I also got a copy of a book titled Iron, Steam and Wood, which is a history of The Waterous Engine Co. of Canada, who moved from steam engines into fire engines later in their history.

Another interesting booklet I have is called Ontario’s Threshing Machine Industry, compiled by Harold Turner and Ross W. Irwin who appears to have been an engineering professor at the university of Guelph in Ontario and reprinted by the OSAPA club, which presents the “Steam Era” show annually near Milton, Ontario. It contains some 28 short articles on the various companies in Canada that built agricultural equipment, but not necessarily steam engines. It is only 30 pages, so is not really very extensive, but has some nice illustrations. Several of the Canadian engines were copied, with permission from American engines.

In at least one case there was a family connection that supported this action. It is rather a lot of work to research and write a history book. Mine lasted more than ten years, but was also very rewarding. So get working, all you enthusiasts, and let’s see what we can publish before it is lost.

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