Without doubt the most picturesque period of agricultural history was the Steam Era. The steam engine boom was from 1885 to 1912. The steam age on the farm drew to a close in the 1920's challenged by the gas tractor, which were becoming more efficient and reliable. Originally horses provided the energy to pull a plow or turn a treadmill to drive a small threshing machine.
Small portable stream engines first appeared in England in the 1830's and in the United States by the 1850's. They were small engines used only for belt work and of 8-14 HP. Unable to self propel or steer they were drawn by teams of horses to location and then belted to whatever was required to be run. Wheel chocks (wooden wedges) were used to keep the engine in place and coal or wood used for fuel to burn.
Early threshing machines of the 1880's threshed only 750 to 800 bushels of grain per day. They required at least two men to cut & feed the bundles of grain and another two to stack the straw. The addition of "wind stackers" (big fan that blew the straw out into the stack) and feeders that carried the grain into the thresher made capacities near double by 1900. However the power requirements also increased. Threshers were becoming bigger and crews needed to move quickly from farm to farm. Great pride was taken and emphasis was placed on a crew's efficiency and ability to move and set up rapidly. Most rural farmers did not own their own threshing rig and would hire contractors to do there threshing. The threshing runs for crews could last for months in the fall, right up until freeze and cover several counties and many miles.
The development of the self-propelled steam engine was a major advancement. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels by a simple gear train of cast iron spur gears. Early self-propelled engines were still guided by teams of horses, which would help out a little, on grades where loads were a little heavy for the yet relatively small engines. Later chain steering systems allowed the front wheels to be guided via means of a winding shaft turned by a worm gear and a steering wheel.
An expanding clutch located inside the flywheel allowed the engine to be operated without driving the rear wheels. Forward and reverse directions were accomplished by addition of a reversing valve gear on the engine. (Which previously was only capable of turning in one direction only). Simply put, to move forward or backwards you changed the rotational direction of the engine. A hand throttle operated by the engineer allowed speeds to be regulated for slow speed maneuvering. Typical speeds would be 2 to 3 miles per hour. Two speed gear arrangements were common in later years especially in hilly country. (One slow speed and one faster speed). Cleats on the rear wheels increased the traction capability and the engine could pull the thresher. The need for that extra team of horses was no longer.
While the earliest traction engine was quite small compared to its predecessor the portable engine, a need for increased tractive and belt power rapidly brought an increase in size and horse power. Sizes and variations in types of boiler design were numerous. The most common is the horizontal direct flue type of boiler also adopted by the railroad. Fuel is burnt in a firebox at the rear. The flues pass horizontally to the smoke box at the front end and hence the term "locomotive firebox straight flue" type of boiler. Other popular designs included "horizontal return flue" boilers where combustion gasses passed forward in one large flue and returned to the rear again in many small tubes to a smoke box in the rear above the fire door. Some manufactures chose to use "vertical tube" boilers, which had a firebox at the bottom of a cylindrical shell and the tubes stood vertically. Regardless, the locomotive type boiler proved to be the design of choice by most.
The majority of the manufactures chose to use the boiler as the principal platform to directly mount the major components to. Others chose to make frames, which carried the steam cylinders, gears and wheels independently, and the boilers sat on top independent somewhat like a railroad locomotive. Engines which had the rear wheels attached to the sides of the boiler firebox were referred to as "side mounted". Those with the rear wheels on a common axle across the rear and mounted behind the boiler were referred to as "rear mounted" and preferred by many who had heavy draw bar loads encountered in operation such as prairie plowing and construction. The rear-mounted design placed less stress on the sides of the boiler! Weights increased rapidly with size of the boilers required to supply steam to ever-larger higher HP engines.
Many a life was lost in bridge collapses as crews attempted to cross rural bridges, which were often inadequate and designed for horde & buggy travel. Threshing crews regularly had to detour certain bridges or attempt to ford streams in shallow areas. Often a dangerous proposition either way. That ever increasing size brought engines up to 150 HP and weighing 40,000 lbs. 60 to 100 HP were common placed in the western prairies. Most were of a single cylinder engine design but double cylinders and compounds were also common on bigger engines.
In a letter from a 1902 Farmers advocate a farmer from Manitoba stated that "his preferred threshing outfit was of the larger 42" separator (referring to the size of the threshing machine) and an engine of about 20 HP. Big enough to handle it when working at capacity and is about as heavy as it is safe to cross most of the bridges with." Such an outfit would require seven or eight stool teams with 4 good men to pitch the sheaves. Estimated cost with water tanks and a caboose would be between $3500.00 to $4000.00 dollars. It should average 1800 bushels per day. Wages there were from $30.00 to $40.00 per month and teams from $2.50 to $3.00 per day. Pay was related to rank. The engineer was the highest priced man of the hour making an envied $3.50 per day at the turn of the century. (from farmers advocate of 1902). The separator man drew the second biggest at $3.00 /day because of his ability to lace belts, find obscure holes in which to lubricate moving parts and survive in a dreadful atmosphere of dust. Third came the spike pitchers at $2.50 per day and last the waterman, teamsters and fireman on the engine at appox $1.60/day.
From a 1907 Case catalog a Saskatchewan farmer writes "that his Case engine will travel 2 ¼ to 2.1/2 mile per hour pulling a 12 bottom plow cutting 14feet wide. That equaling 3.8 acres per hour and in a twelve hour day making allowance for reasonable delays averaging an estimated 30 to 40 acres. He also says plowing in heavier sod and breaking about 20-30 acres per day his 25HP Case uses from 2000 to 2400 lbs of coal and about 36 barrel of water.
Ontario was a hot bead of manufactures at the turn of the century for steam engines and agricultural equipment. According to the University of Guelph's "Ontario's threshing Machine Industry" book there was 27 different companies in business in Ontario, sadly many faded into obscurity. Companies such as "John Abel Machinery" in Toronto, The "John Goodison" of Sarnia, "Sawyer Massey" of Hamilton, "George White" of London to name a few and Robert Bell in Sarnia.
From the first self propelled steam engine of note in 1873 by "Merritte & Kellog" of Battle Creek Michigan the boom of steam drew to a close in the 1920's. More efficient gas tractors were being developed, sales had fallen rapidly and production of traction engines diminished. Many surviving companies went on to produce gas tractors and continued to rebuild steam engine which did continue in use for many more years. The last new steam threshing engine built in Ontario was buy" The Robert Bell Thresher Company" at Seaforth.
© David Stirk