By: Kay Charter
STEAM TRACTION ENGINE
The Buckley Lantern
“McPherrin’s Folly and Other Steam Traction Engines”
In the winter of 1996, East Jordan resident Tom Graham arrived at the Steam Museum in Hesston, Indiana to pick up a piece of equipment for the Northwest Michigan Engine & Thresher Club. Off in a corner of the Museum, he saw something that stirred his passion for steam like nothing else had ever done: a 1911 Avery 40 Steam Traction Engine. He knew that the engine was one of the largest and most expensive ever built. He also knew its strange history. A week after his visit, he bought it.
Graham refurbished his new prized possession and one morning the following August, he opened the throttle, turned it away from the parade grounds at the Buckley Old Engine Show and steered up a hill along side a nearby railroad track. The machine lurched to a start and lumbered forward, huffing a dense plume of dark smoke through its stack and sweating steam from the bottom of its boiler. The ground sagged under the enormous weight of the great engine as it crawled up the hill; late arrive show goers scrambled from its path and then stood aside to admire its massive mechanical beauty.
The Avery was originally purchased by Nebraska rancher Edward McPherrin to facilitate work on his 6400-acre spread. Although it set him back a hefty $4250.00, more that twice what he might have spent on an engine from other manufacturers, McPherrin abandoned this magnificent piece of equipment on a sandy hilltop after using it only briefly. There it remained for forty years. The rancher, and his sons after him, worked around it as if it didn’t exist. It was never even discussed among them.
(Note: The story, as to the reason why the Avery was abandoned, is that it was too heavy for the sandy hills of Mr. McPherrin’s ranch and became frequently stuck. McPherrin was a wealthy man and felt it was not even worth his time to remove it from where it last became stuck and try to resell the Avery. He was know to abandon many things in this manner.)
Hidden away in a vast ranch and virtually forgotten by its owner, McPherrin’s engine escaped the destiny of other great steamers. Some were worked to death while others were dispassionately dropped into swamps for road fill. Many went to feed the Second World War’s voracious appetite for scrap metal. But the Avery survived. And it did so in remarkably good condition because it was deserted in a relatively dry part of the country. Today it is an exquisitely preserved rarity: the largest of Avery’s under mount engines. The engine’s undercarriage and the spokes of its enormous iron wheels were trimmed in bright red and yellow paint and its boiler rests seven feet above the ground on brightly colored supports and struts.
Large steam traction engines were developed to break up tough prairie sod in the heart of the country. Teams of horses of sixteen or more were not sturdy enough to pull gang plows through dense grasses whose roots were as big as a man’s thumb and grew as deep of six feet into the earth. And the first, relatively small steam traction engines – which were simply adaptations of stationary engines that had been used for threshing wheat and grinning cotton – weren’t much better; they broke down repeatedly under the strain. Elephant power was clearly called for. Thus were born monsters like Graham’s Avery, and equally monumental machines made by other companies like J.I. Case, Huber and Advance-Rumley, that developed power which, translated into human terms, would enable and average man to lift a Jeep Cherokee on his outstretched hand. And thus the steam that had already changed the world of manufacturing was harnessed for agriculture, altering the face of the American farm forever.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century most of the great steam traction engines, once coveted by every prairie farmer from Mississippi to the Rockies a few short decades earlier, had quietly vanished from the American agricultural landscape. Of those that were not melted down and hammered into swords for the war effort or pushed into swamps for road fill, most were simply left to rust and rot in farmyards and barns. Old engine clubs, populated by those who wanted to preserve the history and romance of antique farm equipment, sprouted up around the country.
Those of us who enjoy watching steam equipment at work can thank the members of the Northwest Michigan Engine & Thresher Club, and other clubs like it around the country, for investing their personal time and resources in order to provide us with this wonderful annual event.