Steam shows: The times they are a changin’

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traction engine
By Rodhullandemu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose this title can be applied to most any area of human endeavor but if we are thinking of steam engines and steam shows, which is my usual field, many details come to mind.

If some of the founders of our reunions and clubs would come in to a 2016 show they might hardly recognize things.

Local shows

I can’t speak of other shows but I do know the Northwest Pennsylvania show was started around one traction engine. That was the 1911 Case twelve horse power traction engine owned and operated by Charlie McMurray of Slippery Rock. He was also club president and one of the organizers.

Probably the second steamer at the show was Morgan Hill’s ten horse Westinghouse engine. I well recall Kyle Matteson saying it was not as it should be since Morgan had replaced the original water tube boiler with a more recent fire tube vertical. Apparently. Kyle had worked with an original many years ago and admired how it performed. I never heard him say who owned the one he worked on.

Tri-State show

The only other local show at that time was called Tri-State and was centered around Burgettstown, Pennsylvania.

When I first attended, they showed at the Dean Fullerton farm just off route 18. It was a mountain valley farm with almost no flat ground.

My old mentor Marvin McGeorge used to say it was so steep you had to dig a hole to sit down a bucket of water without spilling it. They commonly had five or six traction engines and a large vertical boiler that powered some stationary engines.

Dean owned two or three traction engines and a portable Scheidler of ten or twelve horsepower that he rescued from the woods at an old sawmill site in West Virginia. That story has been told and retold and become sort of a classic tale of the grit and determination of some of the old timers.

Brother Clark Fullerton owned one or two engines and his son Glenn was a major operator at the shows. They had a threshing machine and a sawmill which was a permanent fixture on the farm. Another thing they ran regularly was a clover huller, the only one I ever saw running. I never saw the seed they produced if any, but I suppose there was some.

What I remember was that it had a canvas tube laying along the top about fifteen inches in diameter which poured out a continuous stream of dust. No one today would have any idea what was going on.

Audience

Probably the most obvious and massive change is the audience at the shows. Back in the day it was mainly old farmers who remembered threshing with steam with much nostalgia. Today it is tractor drivers and pullers and others of that age range.

When tractors became common at the shows it expanded attendance tremendously as many more men could afford to own them and knew how to run them. Steamers were and still are a mystery to a great majority of people.

Also, many tractor owners can and do haul or drive their machines to the shows, while hauling steamers requires a low deck trailer truck.

Keeping it going

Perhaps less obvious are some internal changes. Instead of knowing how to operate a steam engine or thresher officers and directors now need to spend time and energy on fund raising to keep the bills paid.

Those groups which have bought grounds and built buildings or set up a museum find that maintaining those facilities becomes a time and labor absorbing part of their operation.

One of the big examples I am familiar with is the Coolspring Power Museum in northern Pennsylvania where they have many large gas engines up to six hundred horse power which have required many dozens of cubic yards of concrete to sit them on.

Another maintenance item if much acreage is involved is mowing the grass. The club needs a tractor and mower big enough for the job and it then needs maintained too.

Boilers

Another big item with steam engines is boilers. For an engine to perform up to snuff the boiler has to provide the needed pressure and the more the better the performance.

I remember Charlie McMurray taking a wrench to the safety valve of the 1911 twelve horse Case that I mentioned above and raising the working pressure from 100 PSI to 125 so they could cut some extra logs after the show was over and the public was not around.

It performed much better and Charlie was a long time sawmill man who recognized the difference. Of course, that sort of adjustment is a no-no for sure but obviously it can be done.

Pennsylvania boiler law and inspectors have created problems for as long as I have been around and the rules they work under make almost no sense.

When I was first involved, Ohio did no inspections for “Agricultural” engines as I heard Earl Hamilton say on several occasions.

After the Medina disaster caused by a man who flaunted all the rules of engineering and common sense as well, they called together a committee of known steam experts and rewrote the rules for Ohio. They included licensing for operators which Pennsylvania declined to do.

First boiler

I do not remember the first new boiler that appeared on the scene but it was probably the Sawyer Massey engine called Sassy Lady. The owner had two very similar engines so he sold the better one and used the proceeds to rebuild the other which became Sassy Lady.

I don’t know where it was done or by whom but I would guess in Canada. I believe at that time the Robert Bell works was still on the job and that may be where it was done.

Aging boilers

Earl Hamilton machined the parts for a half scale Case and was well enough known and respected in Columbus that they allowed him to build his own boiler too. By that time several shops out west — one I know of was in Kansas — were licensed to build Code boilers for model engines.

Now there are several shops in the USA and Canada with the R Stamp allowing heavy repairs and the S stamp allowing complete new boilers to be built. Heavy repairs such as crown sheets and fireboxes for instance, are necessary because no new engines have been built since about 1925 even though some were sold in the thirties. So even if they have been well cared for, the corrosion the British refer to the “dreaded Fire Box moth,” takes its toll.

The shop I am most familiar with is booked ahead for about three years so don’t get in a hurry if that is what you need. But a new boiler has a beauty all its own and there are several to be seen at shows.

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