Road Rollers I Have Known

By Staff
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Chesterton, Indiana 46304

In March of 1904 when I was one year old, my family moved from
Chicago to a farm about six miles east of Crown Point in Lake
County, Indiana. This farm bordered on a plain dirt road. Rumors
were that this road would be graveled within several years. This
event happened when I was four years old.

I was very interested in what was going on, and would linger at
the end of our driveway and watch the wagons which hauled the
gravel. These were regular farm wagon gear with 4x4s placed across
the bolsters with plank sides and ends to form a box which would
probably hold a little over a cubic yard. To dump the load the
driver would remove the end boards and one by one would pry up the
4x4s which were trimmed at the ends for hand holes.

Finally when the gravel had been spread on the stretch fronting
our farm, I was amazed to see a strange contraption pulled by two
teams of horses, coming over the new spread gravel. I gazed with
wonder as it came closer. It was a horse-drawn road roller,
consisting of a large roller wheel about 5′ wide and 6′ in
diameter. There was a circular horizontal track around the roller
at axle level; a half circle frame extended over the top from axel
end to axel end. Another quarter circle frame pivoted on top center
and extended to the horizontal track, secured with small rollers so
that it could be revolved around the roller for reversing
direction, locking in position. A seat and foot rest for the driver
was located near the top of quarter circle frame while a tongue for
hitching a team of horses was attached to the lower end which was
also supported by a set of caster wheels. So to reverse direction
it was only necessary to unlatch the frame and let the horses swing
it 180 degrees to the other side of the roller. Young as I was I
memorized all of these details.

My next encounter with a roller was when I was about 12 or 13
years old. The dirt road one mile north of our road was being
graveled. On a beautiful Sunday morning in June I walked over to a
Sunday School which was located on this road. It was there that I
saw my first steam roller, which was packing down the loose gravel.
I recognized the operator as the young man who had run the steam
engine for our threshing run. He stopped and let me examine the
roller and told me that it was a Kelley Springfield 10-ton roller.
It had a single cylinder center crank engine. The flywheel was a
cast solid disc instead of a band wheel. The entire machine was
built very narrow so that the front roll would overlap the rear
wheels by about six inches.

The years rolled by. When I was 17 I was water boy for a
threshing rig. Needless to say, I spent my spare time on the engine
platform, learning all I could about its operation and care. I also
sent to Montgomery Ward for a book called ‘Steam Traction
Engineering.’ Evenings at home I simply devoured that book. It
not only explained the workings of all the parts and different
valve gears, but also explained how to make any necessary repairs,
not only to the engine but also the boiler.

The next year when I was 18, the thresherman put me in charge of
the engine. It was a 20 HP Huber return flue, single cylinder with
power steering. I enjoyed this job immensely for several

In 1923 I started working for a road building firm, firing
engine boilers to heat asphalt. Also operated a 10-ton Holt to pull
a 12-foot Adams leaning wheel grader. It was then that I got
acquainted with some more road rollers. They had a Kelley
Springfield 10-ton single, a Kelley Springfield 12-ton double and a
9-ton Buffalo Springfield tandem. The 10-ton was identical to the
one I had seen many years before near my farm home. The 12-ton
double also had center cranks and disc flywheel. It also had a
sliding gear which opeated with a lock pin and hand wheel which
gave it two speeds. The main point when changing gears was to be
sure that the roller was on level ground, since it had no brakes
and if it started moving while the gear was in between low and
high, there was no way to stop it. A machine like that rolling down
a hill, uncontrollable except for the steering, which was very
slow, usually would end in serious trouble.

I operated all three of these rollers at different times. The
9-ton was almost new when I first ran it. It was double cylinder
and had no flywheel; therefore, could reverse very quickly for
asphalt paving work. It had a small 2 cylinder engine encased in a
drum like casing for driving the steering gear. This made it very
easy to operate. The boiler was upright and jacketed. The fuel
bunker was under the operator’s platform with an extra pan-like
rack above the drive roll. The water tank was hung in front of the
drive roll.

In about 19251 worked for another gravel road contractor
operating a Beyers crane, unloading crushed stone from gondola
railroad cars. He purchased the 10-ton Kelly from the other
contractor. It had been stored in a shed over winter. When they got
ready to fire it up for the season, it was discovered that it had
not been properly drained before winter and the inside plates of
the water legs had been forced from their rivets by freezing water
and mud. Since the machine was very old and a boiler repair such as
this would be very costly, the contractor decided to replace it. In
communications with Buffalo Springfield Company of Springfield,
Ohio, they offered to take the old roller in trade (for its rolls),
for a used Huber 12-ton return flue machine. This sounded like a
good deal, so I was sent to Springfield with a check to inspect the
roller and buy it if it was worth the price. I left Gary about 8:00
P.M. on the Pennsylvania Railroad and arrived in Lima, Ohio about
midnight. I checked in a hotel and the next morning I took an
interurban to Springfield. I found the roller to be in excellent
condition so I closed the deal. It was shipped by flatcar to Crown
Point, Indiana. We steamed it up and unloaded it. We then used it
to pull the old Kelley on to the same flatcar for shipment to

This Huber was a beautiful handling roller, with its powerful 2
cylinder engine and power steering. Power steering was used on a
lot of steam operated rigs 40 years before it was adopted by the
automobile industry. My roller operating years were all before
1930, so I did not operate gasoline-driven rigs. These were first
made with a large gasoline engine with two large flywheels and one
single cylinder. Eventually they were made with a 4 cylinder engine
and designed similar to a tractor, except for the wheels.

In writing this I have traveled a long way down memory lane.

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