Volume I, No. 4, Summer 1974


by Jay Hillig

Photography by Stephen Hough

Around the turn of the century, a new source of power came into the Ozarks region to replace the horse in the everyday farm tasks such as threshing, lumber sawing, rock crushing, grist mills and many other jobs. This new power that first put the farmer on the highest level of productivity in the world was steam. For fifty years the steam engine was the utmost in power for the farmer.

In the 1890's, the first steam engines began clouding the skies of the Ozarks with smoke belching from their smokestacks and scenting the air with the smell of burning wood or coal, boiling water and hot lubricating oil. These early engines, called bull and tongue engines, had to be pulled about by horses or oxen to wherever there was a job that needed to be done. For this reason they did mostly stationary jobs like operating a sawmill, grist mill or threshing.

Then, in the late 1890's, the first traction engines (one that can move under its own power) began rumbling on to the farm. These engines were a blessing to the farmer, because, unlike the horse, they could work all day under a heavy load like threshing, and never tire.

The steam engine worked quicker, was more dependable and was far more powerful than horses. The traction engine, with its coming, brought more than just better work to the farm; it brought an excitement, a thrill that is very hard to describe. It was much the same as the earlier railroad locomotives. People would watch in utter amazement as the engine went about the tasks set upon it.

The steam engineer was the trained and skilled professional of the simpler unmechanized times. The engineer was a breed of proud, strong, and very important men who loved their work. Such a man is Ellis Wedge, a man who was a steam engineer during this steam era.

I asked Ellis about the kind of engine he ran.

"My engine has done more work, I would imagine, than any other engine in the county. It was a 20 horse and weighed 12 tons and carried 160 pounds of pressure."

At the height of the steam era, over thirty companies were manufacturing more than 5000 large engines a year, ranging from 6 to 150 horsepower and weighing up to 30 tons. Some had traction wheels up to six feet tall and two foot wide, made of steel so they would not crack under the strain of the terrain. Case, Oughtman-Taylor, Peerless, Reed, Avery and Bellville were just a few of the companies that produced these metal giants. I asked Ellis just what was the best engine produced.

"Well now, that would be hard to say. It's a matter of opinion. But, if I were buying, I'd buy a Geyser-Peerless. You couldn't tear them up."

But were they more powerful than gasoline engines?



"For power, there is nothing that can compare to steam. Although, with a gasoline tractor I can go out to work by myself where as with steam, I needed three other men--a separator man, a water hauler and man to feed the bundles. But when you were threshing with steam, there was no missing or cutting out like gasoline tractors will do sometimes. When you started your engine in the morning, you knew you were going to have power all day. And the harder you pulled them, the better they liked it."

At the time Ellis was running, there were probably only eight or ten engines in the county. This made him a very important man in the eyes of the farmers.

"Being a steam engineer was the finest life that ever was," he said.

Ellis was certainly right about it being a fine life. At this time, common labor was earning 75¢ to $1.00 a day. But the steam engineer was earning about $5.00 a day, which made him the envy of quite a few people.

One unusual thing about steam engines is the measurement of speed. Speed is not measured by miles an hour, for the best engine could only run "about two or three miles an hour down a hill with a good wind behind it." The speed is measured in revolution of the engine per minute. The average speed of an engine was about 250 to 300 R.P.M.'s. The engines had governors to regulate the speed. If you wanted a faster speed than the engine was running at the moment, you only had to turn a screw on the governor and the speed was there, no power lag of any sorts, the speed was there. Some engines were equipped with expansion plates for high speeds of about 500 R.P.M.'s. But 500 R.P.M.'s was impractical and hard on the engine so most engineers kept the speed at 250 to 300 R.P.M.'s to do average jobs.

Homer Hough threshing with steam in early 1900's

Steam was used in grading roads.


To operate a steam engine you need two things--fuel and water. You put the fuel in the firebox. Then fill the boiler with water. Set fire to the fuel which in turn heats the water to 212° F. at which point the water boils and changes into steam. The steam is kept enclosed so as to build up enough pressure to operate. The steam under pressure rises into the steam dome. When it reaches the proper amount of pressure, a valve is opened at the top of the steam dome. The steam is pushed through a tube that leads to the cylinder. The steam enters the cylinder through a sliding valve that is hooked to the flywheel by a very small rod. The steam builds inside the cylinder and drives the piston back, pushing the connecting rod that turns the flywheel. The flywheel pushes the rod that slides the valve forward. Then steam enters behind the piston and pushes the piston forward. This pulls the connecting rod back which in turn brings the flywheel around to complete the revolution. The exhaust exits by way of two valves at each end of the piston. As the piston is being pushed forward the force of the piston moving pushes the exhaust steam out of the cylinder. The same is true when the piston is being pulled back. The flywheel turning by way of the connecting rod is what is used to attach a belt to, to do the work of threshing or sawing lumber. The speed is controlled by simply regulating the amount of steam that enters the piston. In the event that too much pressure should build up in the boiler, there is a safety valve that opens. But when the safety valve opens, you lose all your steam, so good engineers could keep the safety valve from "blowing off." But there has been at least one occasion when something went wrong with the safety valve and the steam engine exploded, killing the engineer.

No one actually knows what caused it to happen, but when the safety valve exploded, the hot steam burned the engineer so badly that he died a day later. Steam engines were not for amateurs to play with.

Diagram of piston action on one stroke of a steam engine. Unlike a gasoline engine, the steam engine has power pushing the piston both forward and backward.

The average day of the working steam engineer and engine began early. The engineer had to be at his engine at about five o'clock in the morning to build a fire in the firebox so he could have enough steam to put more water in the boiler. It took three men, if they were threshing, to operate in a normal day. The engineer's job was to feed the fuel into the firebox and make sure everything was running smoothly on the engine. He also kept his eye on the gauges to make sure the steam didn't gain too much pressure. The water hauler was another important man. He took the water wagon to a pond or spring. The water hauler, if he was experienced, knew every pond, river, lake or spring in the county.

"Some ponds were so full of alkaline that in an hour you couldn't be a threshing. If there were a bunch of geese in a pond, an engine would blow the water plum out of it. I don't know why, but you cannot use that water."

The water hauler would lower along hose into the water, then climb up on top of the wagon and start pumping on the hand pump. He would pump 300 gallons of water into the wagon, then return to the engine. He would have to make four or five trips a day.

Pump water in and out of the boiler until the water in this glass is clear.

I asked Ellis why would alkaline water make it lose its steam?

"Now here's what my father told me about. Alkaline will make an engine boil over. We called it foaming. It will jerk its water over in its cylinders. With water in your cylinders you can't do nothing, you have to keep them dry."

If alkaline water was left in the boiler it could rust the inside. So, if you had alkaline water in your boiler you had to clean it by pumping clean water into the boiler and letting it drain out and pumping water in it again. You repeated this process until the water in the water glass was clear.

So, the water hauler had to know not only where all the ponds were, but where the best water was too. When Ellis worked near town he had to buy his water at 15¢ for 300 gallons.

During the average working day, a steam engine could use as much as 1500 gallons of water and burn up to a ton of coal or a cord of wood. The engine could thresh up to 1000 bushels of wheat.

The firebox on a bull and tongue engine is small compared to later engines but still holds enough wood to build the steam.


The engines ran very long days and sometimes ran long into the night. But at the close of each day, the engineer would cool it down by pumping her full of cold water. He had to take into account the fact that if there was a small fire in her, he would lose quite a bit of water overnight. So he would fill it accordingly.

All this was the everyday life of Ellis Wedge. His father, Charley Wedge, was an engineer before him. He grew up with the sight, sound, and smell of steam engines right outside his door. He also grew up with a love for the engines from his father, that cannot be put into words. Some days, Ellis would be sitting in school and he would hear a sound. He would get up and run outside, with all the other boys wishing that they could go too. Because the sound was the sound of a whistle on a steam engine and it was telling young Ellis that his father needed him to help.

As Ellis was growing up, there was no doubt in his mind as to what profession he would take up. When he was old enough he bought a steam engine and went into business in the county. Steam engines were in very big demand. He worked on farms or in town and he worked on roads.

Steam, at the time, was the most economical, dependable, and hardest working source of power known. But with the coming of the gasoline and diesel engine, steam became impractical because of the large amounts of fuel to burn and the number of men necessary to operate.

So we no longer hear the sound of the engine puffing or smell the burning wood, or feel the heat generated by the boiling water, or feel the ground shake and rumble beneath our feet as did the farmers of the steam era. Nor do we hear the engineer shouting at his men, "Fire her up. There's work to be done."

One of the first in the Ozarks, this bull and tongue engine now lies rusting in a field.


"The finest life that ever was."

Ellis Wedge reminisces.

A Case road roller

A steamdome.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues

Local History Home

 Springfield-Greene County Library