ENGINES, ENGINES, AND MORE ENGINES(2)
A. PRESTON GRAY
3501 Bristol Highway, Kingsport, Tennessee
After we sold our farm in Washington County at Gray, we
purchased another in Sullivan County, ten or fifteen miles away.
Other experiences amused. Once when crossing a field in which was a
pond to reach the barn, the threshermen were helpless when the
thirsty oxen, sighting the water, rushed headlong, pulling the
separator in with them. A like experience occurred with Harrison
Wexler, mentioned before, when his ox team pulled his 'tub'
engine into Holston River. Charlie Slaughter of Fordtown, related
to me his experience in bringing his N & S traction engine home
one night when during a hard electric storm he had to ford this
Not too long ago, one of the largest locomotives pounding the
rails of America exploded on the C. C. & O. near Erwin,
Tennessee, blowing the boiler clear of its trucks and another, more
recently, exploding on the N & W tracks near Bristol, and as I
think of these, I wonder how, with all these traction engines
climbing and descending our long steep grades with the water first
in the fire-box end, then in the smoke-box end of the boiler, we
did not more often meet tragedy.
A gentleman told me recently of such misfortune at Church Hill
near Kingsport. The fireman had just expressed delight at the easy
firing of his engine when almost immediately the boiler was blown
to smithereens when parts of the crown sheet proved to be very
The nearest I have ever been to a steam fan's heaven was
when driving, years ago, from Shreveport, La., to Crowley. The
latter is known as the rice center of the world. I saw them
threshing rice. Nearing the town I pulled my car to the roadside
and as I stood on the running-board of my car I counted ten steam
threshers all going at the same time. If the war scrap drive did
not get them, there should be many fine engines there to this day.
Besides, in that soft level country their machinery is not
subjected to the brutal punishment we accord it in our hill
Thank God that there are fine men and women, young and old, who
have set themselves to locating, buying, taking care of and
preserving these mechanical treasures of what may be called the
'farm steam age.' The most active of these years, about 40,
would run, say, from about 1880 to about 1920. Of course, before
this there was the gradual beginning, even as there is to this day,
a gradual tapering off. There are now thousands of steam sawmills
and other steam operated machinery in use. In our vicinity there
are three such sawmills in operation, perhaps more.
One is made to think of 'The Slaughter of the Innocent'
when he sees what is happening to our railway locomotives and farm
engines. Who has not lain in his Pullman to listen, when awake, to
the rapid exhaust of some faithful locomotive far ahead up the
tracks pulling us, gliding over silvery ribbons of steel, or to
hear the solemn lonesome wail of the whistle vibrating the dark
night air. How different now with these diesel rattletraps and
No, I am not an enemy of progress, so please, please, do not try
to inhibit my sentimentality. Do you say, 'Amen?'
Many of these old engines are receiving better care today than
ever before. Many brazen instruments, pop and other valves,
governors, lubricators, try cocks, steam gauges and whistles show
marks of some 'pipe-wrench artist,' brasses that should
have had the same care a man gives a fine watch or your wife
accords her bracelet.
Just as no man is a real horseman unless he loves horses, likes
to personally assist in his care, to clean his feet, curry, brush
and saddle him, so the real honest-to-goodness engineer is seen
caring for his engine, when not otherwise engaged, wiping -with his
oily waste every part of this marvelous servant of man.
We talk about 'live steam', so it seems that one reason
for our attachment from boyhood to the steam engine lies in the
fact that, when fired up, it becomes, it seems, a living thing,
throbbing with energy, breathing, pulsating, trembling, eager for
the master to touch the throttle, then to respond in consonance
with the nature of that touch maybe, gently as when a mother lifts
her babe from its cradle, or with the vigor and alertness of a
Minute Man, who with loaded musket blasts forth with pent up
These old engines are monuments to a race of men. The men who
operated those mills and separators and engines were no kid glove,
white collar, swivel chair, cake eating, street corner loafers.
They were he-men, tall men, strong men,, sun-crowned, brawny
pioneers who settled on the land, cleared the forests, laid out and
tended their farms, erected homes, and sired and reared their
families, men who laughed at their calamities, whistled as they
planned and sang as they worked, and now we have come upon this
rich American inheritance of culture, discovery, invention,
scientific technology, with abundance for all and an almost
universal longing for peace.
As I bring this inadequate article to a close, let me pause,
before I do so, for we have finished the threshing job at my
boyhood home. The crew has departed. The neighbors have gone their
several ways. With the belt thrown, the engine moves down the road
with an apparent new freedom. The horse drawn 'thresh box'
lumbers along and at each depression in the road I see dust
dislodged and shaken into the air. Everything seems quiet and
lonely about the barn-lot. Father is cleaning up the screenings off
the barn floor, assisted by mother's ducks which after taking
to the water, each have a passport to duck-heaven, for some of the
screenings were oats!
I am bare-footed and as I walk along the wide tracks, digging my
toes into the grooves made by the diagonal cleats, and wondering
how long we could keep those pictured intaglio sculptures or that
pile of ashes, to me sacred, as if from the altar fires of some
deity. Happy Days were those to me, but they are gone, save in
memory. The Tide of Time moves on and those of you who helped to
make the poetic history to which I refer, and those who read
'THE IRON-MEN ALBUM' and edit and write the thrilling
record of its pages, are all poets who cherish the beautiful, the
true and the good, as you plan for the future and preserve the