What’s that worth? Value is in the eye of beholder


This material is the result of some of that inspiration that we all get on occasion. As usual, I’m not sure just what happened to start this train of thought, but the topic is one that comes up in the Old Iron business quite often, as well as many other pursuits.

Original price or value is one common starting place for any such question, and though most traction engine catalogs don’t quote prices, we know from various other sources that most of them sold for prices in the range of $2,000 to $4,000 in the days when they were new.

Of course bigger engines and those with more particular features brought more money then as now.

Price fluctuations

As steam power on the farm fell out of vogue and was replaced with gas, tractors prices fell to the bottom line, which would be junk price. The Twentieth Century engine that was McMurray’s was sold to Rev. Ritzman for about $75 in the mid 40s.

Marvin told of a Nichols & Shepard double cylinder that sat in his neighborhood near Enon Valley, disappearing one day, and when he inquired he found it was sold to a scrap dealer in New Castle for $150. And it was good enough that two helpers came out from the scrap yard, filled the boiler with water from the stream nearby, fired it up and drove it back to the yard.

Soon after World War II, steam engines began to be seen as a collectible item by some. At that point prices started to rise toward, and then above, their original cost.

In more recent times some well-to-do folks got interested and the sky seemed to be the limit. Some of the rare gas tractors are also in this group of high-priced iron. Several of the old line companies switched to gas tractors late and didn’t build many, so the rarity factor is often strong here, with many prices moving close to half a million dollars. These prices often arise in auction settings, which is one common way of establishing value on such equipment with a limited supply on the market.

Value variables

Viewpoint is another important factor in setting prices. I have often heard it said when two fools get together we find out what an engine is worth. What is valuable to one person may be nearly worthless to another.

I have on occasion sold an item and my dad was amazed, saying “I would have thrown that away.” This sometimes gives rise to a practice called dumpster diving, which I have done a few times.

We also hear about this sort of activity from TV shows like Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars. People bring in items for valuation they picked up at the curb or from a dumpster, or sometimes from an actual dump site.


Digging out an old dump can yield some great and valuable artifacts at times. I know a couple fellows who have found some bottles of very interesting designs in the dump of an old town.

I also know that at Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, they learned a lot by excavating old wells in the town. When the original settlers quit using the wells due to pollution, they dumped trash into them and than covered them over, creating a treasure trove for the restorers

Another item along this line was the under parts of an old time hotel. It seems the practice in those often was to furnish tobacco and clay pipes called “church wardens” to hotel guests. The pipes were made with long stems, maybe 10 or more inches. When a man had used one he broke an inch or so off the stem where his lips had touched it and laid it on the hearth or mantel shelf for the next customer.

When the stem got too short to use any more, the rest of the pipe was simply tossed in the dump, which in some cases was down through a crack or knothole into an unused crawl space under the floor, creating another treasure trove for later generations of historians.

Check the market

At times we need to check on the market before we stick out our necks. I once spent a couple days limbering up an old McCormick mowing machine that I had left sitting out for too many years, and then took it to a consignment sale.

I thought it should be worth $100 but didn’t realize the market was gone and it was no longer a viable mower and worth only scrap value. In fact another fellow brought in the same model in much better shape since it had not set out, and the auctioneer could not even get $50 for it.

We must also realize our sentimental attraction to a piece mostly has no bearing on its actual sale value. Grandpa’s old tool chest may seem valuable to the owner, but on the market be worth much less, if anything.

To quote a sort of amusing example, I had occasion at one time to attend a fire school in Beaver County, which is done periodically for the volunteer fire companies. A state fire marshal was urging us to be realistic about valuing things lost in a fire.

The comment was “What is the real value of an outhouse 40 years old?” and a man in the back of the room would add “and contents.” It is standard to list the loss at a fire as “house and contents.”

Restoration adds value back into a machine in many cases. Many old threshers were mostly wood, so a machine shop or welding outfit is not as important as skill in woodworking to rebuild them That is important too, in restoring the older Keystone Drillers discussed in a couple of recent issues.

Necessary tools

They were originally built on a wagon, and most on a timber frame, until all-steel machines were developed later. In the case of steam engines and their boilers, we need the specialty boiler shop, machine shop, welder and maybe the foundry and pattern shop to do the full restoration.

Recently some excellent work has been done and those machines should outlast their builders and owners. At least they will be around for longer than some of the rusty old pieces that we drool over.

Real value has been created in cases like these, and most shows will have several examples to look over. One of the nicest and most viable machines one may see is a half-scale engine or similar fraction. They are big enough to do some work and small enough to haul around on a pickup truck or a trailer behind a pickup.


In my experience, Case is the most common, probably because the company has cooperated by supplying original drawings, and some enterprising fellows have scaled them down to model specifications. I have seen one-inch to the foot or one-twelfth scale, which is quite strictly a toy.

It is almost impossible to fire with solid fuel and you would need a jewelers lathe to work on a lot of the parts.

Double that to a two-inches to the foot or one-sixth scale, and we still have a rather strict toy, though I have seen this size in steam. Same with a three inch to the foot or quarter-scale, which is a bit easier to fire and will develop enough power to pull the operator along on a wagon behind.

I’m not sure if four inches to-the-foot models exist or not. That would be one-third scale. Most of these models have patterns and castings available to aid in the building process.

Then there are 6 inches to the foot, or half scale, and they are nice size machines to work with. I have seen several half scales of the 110 Case and they are really an ideal size, but now we are talking about a machine costing several thousand dollars, and if self-made, involving several thousand hours of machine work in addition to buying steel or castings.

I’ve seen a few Russell models and Jonas bought a set of patterns that a man had made, and made several Baker models I believe scaled out at about five eighths scale or 7 and-a-half inches to the foot.

Apparently the building of them was not an extremely profitable venture, as they are not continuing production. But the several they made are great. They even have the distinctive Baker exhaust sound, caused by the uniflow design.

Again, I will not try to quote prices, but if you read the magazines of the hobby and follow the auction results you can gauge the market quite well.


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