Homesteader Memories of Early Steam Engines and Gas Tractors

Alfred Eichler Pigeon shares his memories and expresses his fondness of early steam engines and gas tractors.

The tractor

Photo courtesy of Alfred Eichler, Pigeon, Michigan.


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A homesteader talks about the early steam engines and gas tractors. 

I was born in a log house on a farm 3 miles northeast of Pigeon, Mich, on Oct. 2nd, 1895. I was the second youngest of a family of 6, 3 girls and 3 boys. There were many horses used in those days (in fact all the work on the land was done with them) and my father raised them. He was accidentally struck down and trampled by one and he only lived about two hours after the accident in April of 1900. The only thing I distinctly remember about him was when he was lying on the couch and he said "Good bye Alfred." I sincerely hope to meet him again where God himself will wipe away our tears and there will be no need of 'good byes'. I like those lines from John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Snowbound".  "Since He who knows our need is just, that somehow, somewhere, meet we must."

My youngest brother was only 11 days old at the time. Later we were told that the funeral procession was over a mile long (horse drawn vehicles, of course) and it eased our sorrow and raised our pride just a little to know that he was so highly respected. I was too young to grieve very long, but what a shock it must have been to my dear mother.

Now a little bit of family history; my parents came from Ontario, Canada, some time in the 1880's and settled on the farm where I was born (120 acres). The large brick house, built in 1898, and also large bank barn with straw shed attached, both sturdy buildings, still stand as originally built; house had furnace in basement and heat piped to every room at the time it was built.

My father had a small building about 10 foot by 12 foot for a blacksmith shop, he must have been handy as I could tell by the tools and equipment that were still there as I grew older: bellows, forge, vise, anvil together with all the rest. He had a double barn floor which made room for horse power. He and a friend, buddy and good neighbor, (I knew him well in later years) used this horse power with tumbling rod affair to turn off wood wheels (solid) and made a wagon. We used it on the farm to haul anything and everything when I was a grown man.

Well a little must have rubbed off on me, to say that I am enthused about early steam engines and gas tractors and especially saw mills is putting it mildly. When I was a little boy and heard or saw a steam rig coming, I would go to meet it walking along the fence, stumbling along the little crooked paths, between humps and ant hills and little drainage cuts that children had made when going to and from school day after day.

In the spring of 1917 I worked in a sawmill (steam). I can see the spot from our window. I drove the 3 miles with horse and buggy, worked 10 hours for $1.65 (per 10 hours).

In the fall of 1917 Uncle Sam needed me. When I heard the terrific whine and following explosion of the first shell, I thought I guess this is it; but the first one didn't hurt me and the second one either so one finally got immune to danger, so to speak, but we must remember our Heavenly Father has us constantly in mind even when we are unmindful of Him.

I left a sweetheart which was extremely hard to do but she waited patiently. I carried her picture with me constantly (we have it enlarged now) which was always a pleasant reminder of a hopeful future. We were married in 1919 and settled on a farm about I/2 miles farther from town than our home place (you never would amount to any thing if you did anything else).

In due time we were blessed with two children, a daughter and a son. We did alright, but I always had saw mills on my mind. I corresponded with the Belsaw Co. and finally sent for a 40 foot solid tooth saw for $25.00 and an arbor for $10.00 (both used) and in the fall of 1940 I started to build on a Model A Ford chassis, 3 feet by 8 feet by 12 feet oak beams with 12 foot detachable section on each end, 10 foot steel carriage and 3 dog posts spaced 6 and 4 feet apart. We sawed a great deal of lumber with this outfit, (1940 H. McCormick for power). We moved 26 times one winter, (4 months) not large yards, of course. We charged $2.75 per hour (my son was with me) and $15.00 for a set job. It was a wonderful little mill, did good work, many compliments kept ones ego up, I continually kept figuring how I would like to have a mill to be. I built one that you could put on any standard low wheeled farm wagon, left hand conventional type, no belt, run from P. T. O. off tractor must be left hand mill for P. T. O., but with carriage running over arbor can be used on right hand mill. The old professionals said it was too solid a hook up, but they are building them that way now, some 25 years later. The sections on this mill are all 16 feet, center section with blower and all mechanism, end sections, detachable, 16 foot carriage, 2 knees can be moved from 4 feet to end of carriage rails with crank.

We moved many times and sawed several million feet of lumber. One time we were still sawing at 9:00 a.m.; we moved about 3 miles and were sawing again at 10:30 a.m.. One time we set on clear ice; I never once set up this mill but what it sawed good lumber right from the start. We farmed in the summer and sawed in the winter and believe me, we sawed in all kinds of weather (except rain). We always had much more than we could do. As time went on we let the customer put on his own tractor we didn't allow too much they seemed quite anxious to see what their tractor would do. (We had an L Case). One man had an Oliver 88 and on the way back to the logs he remarked that his tractor would just play with that saw.

This is a log a very prosperous farmer brought me to saw. I told him to throw it down. I reloaded it on our wagon later. He makes money but I didn't make any, I cut 1 by 3 for corn crib.

I didn't say anything. When we got started and I was sure the saw would take it alright, I would just feed a little faster. I could have stalled it in no time I guess he is just like the rest of us a little too much talking and not enough listening.

One man had a Massey Harris 44 and he was rather cocky about his tractor. We started sawing (his tractor was warmed up) the tractor started to lag. He ran to it to see what was the reason; it was simple, I just fed a little too fast. I never was in the habit of crowding the saw you can do much better all round by not crowding it. Moving around got too rugged a life for me so I figured on building another mill, strictly a one man mill for retirement, and to have something to do that I like. This mill is on the Belsaw order, all steel, 39 feet long, 4 feet folds up on one end and the other end only one side folds up to allow for tractor hitch, one truck axle in the middle, 12 foot carriage width, 5 foot opens, 3 foot bottom belt runs over blower pulley eliminating any blower belt. Saw dust enters blast, not fan case, no knots or trash to harm fan blades, run much easier too, use same H McCormick (1940) only had the valve cover and oil pan off once about 12 years ago.

I use a 52 foot saw with 50 sockets, but only use 13 teeth. Last year, in my seventieth year, I sawed an 18 foot log (elm) that had 461 inches in it and also one day I sawed over 1,000 feet which makes me feel quite good and I am very thankful that I can do this. This I did without any help whatsoever.

I have taken the "Iron Men Album" for many years and enjoyed every issue. In fact, when I get one of the older ones out to look at, it seems like just off the press and now the 'Gas Engine Magazine'. I would not like to mention here how much more I would pay for it rather than to have my subscription cancelled.

In about 1905 we put up a wood silo 14 feet by 30 feet full length stave. My step father had a friend who also had a silo and an "Ohio" silo filler. He came in the morning about 9 miles, was there about 7:00 o'clock (with horses) and we engaged a steam engine to be there also. We waited and waited, all the men were there, corn cut, served dinner, waited some more. About the middle of the afternoon it came and we started to fill silo. In my memory I can see it yet. We really filled silo the next year we hired a "Bates & Edmonds" 9 horse upright gas engine to fill the silo. About 1907 we bought a 6 hp International on skids; we used this engine to fill silo, we had to cut the bands and hold part of the bundle back which was quite easy to do with corn. I used to start this engine by turning the wheels back and forth to take in a charge of fuel, then pull the wheels back and compress the charge, snap the igniter and it would take off.

We sawed wood, ground feed, shredded corn and what not for many years. We also had an "Associated" 1-1/2 hp air cooled to pump water after the wood tower wind mill didn't do so good any more. At least we could get water when there was little or no wind. We had this engine in a well house with the exhaust pipe leading outside hit & miss governor; it would fire and then breathe quite fast for a while and then slower and slower, then fire again and continue the cycle. I can hear it yet as though it was an hour ago, and get a nice fresh drink from the pipe at the water tank.

One time (I was about 12) there was a steam engine in our yard (Peerless) after the days threshing. I don't know how much steam the gauge showed but I tried the levers; I started the engine and ran it slow, left the throttle alone and pulled the reverse lever back and forth; what a sweet sound with a few sharp exhausts when it started in the opposite directions.

In about 1911 a threshing ring of about 20 farmers was formed, all "Aultman Taylor" 25-50 Gas tractor, 32' separator, bean thresher and clover huller. This engine had a Remy ignition system; you placed the fly wheel in a certain position and locked it with some sort of a latch, filled priming cups and drained them, pumped air into proper cylinder, press button and it would take off. I did this one Sunday p.m They put a magneto with impulse starter on it some years later. Of all the old time tractors I liked the sound of the 30-60 "Townsend" the best. It had two cylinders side by side and fired evenly, speed 450 and you could not tell whether it was a single steam engine when you heard it from a distance on a still day when the atmosphere was right. I also liked to hear a single 30 "Rumley" or a 30-60 "Titan" under the same conditions.

I will have to bring this lengthy jumble to some kind of a conclusion, it is ten times too long now. I could go on and on.

A few notes: I sawed (alone) a beech log 15 foot long that had 408 board feet 3 by 10 and a white oak 18 foot that cut out some 260 board feet, made 4 pieces 3-1/2 by 7-1/4 and also some other special pieces, it was real good oak (there is a difference you know). This was only several weeks ago.

I am sending some photos with description on back.

I like the religious aspect of both the magazines and who alone but our Heavenly father has authority enough to say whether or not we will be permitted to sit on a log or a pile of lumber with old friends and listen to the familiar sounds (on some clear morning) in the distance of a 30-60 Townsend, 30 Rumley, 30-60 Rumley together with all the rest of these nice old engines every 1,000 years or so.

My sister sent me this poem when I was overseas in World War I:

"I do not ask O Lord that life should be a pleasant road, I do not ask that Thou should take from me aught of its load For one thing only Lord, dear Lord I plead, lead me aright, Though strength may falter and though heart may bleed, Through peace to light."

I memorized this poem so thoroughly that I can recite it while thinking about some thing else.

"The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. Ecc. 5:12."

If my people, which are called by my name shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

This picture was taken in the early '20's on our farm after we were married. The tractor was new in the fall of 1919 (Fordson). It looks like I was at the. third round by the looks of the ground.

This is a picture of the. 6 H.P. International filling silo on our home place about 1908 or 1910.

This picture is of a "Peerless" steam engine on a Sunday p.m. at our home farm, the bank barn and silo I spoke of in the article. The boys are likely two of my school friends. (I know this is a steam engine in the Gas Magazine, but it goes with the story Anne Mae.)