Living

Steam power is a-m-a-z-i-n-g!

A rare site is a lineup of four steam tractors dating from the late 19th century, early 20th century. The Somerset Steam & Gas Pasture Party in Virginia lures all kinds of steam tractors that were the workhorses of American farms.
A rare site is a lineup of four steam tractors dating from the late 19th century, early 20th century. The Somerset Steam & Gas Pasture Party in Virginia lures all kinds of steam tractors that were the workhorses of American farms. Special to the Sun Herald

I am steaming.

This is not about anger, or comic steam pouring out of smokestack ears.

Nope, I just finished three days in my version of steam paradise, a so-called “steam show.”

The second day I came home and looked in the mirror. I was speckled in soot. It was windy and I had stood in the wrong places, too close to the wood and coal-powered boilers. I laughed at myself and jumped in the shower to wash off the grime. The next day I headed back for more.

In all the decades I worked at this newspaper, I don’t recall receiving a press release or being assigned to cover such an event for any South Mississippi community. I didn’t know that antique power and engine shows existed or that people actually attended old farm equipment festivals.

That changed five years ago when I was driving in the rural Virginia Piedmont and spied a road sign that invited all to come to a “pasture party.” I didn’t know what that was but my Virginia house is in the middle of farm country.

The next time I passed the sign I noticed more words: Somerset Steam & Gas Pasture Party.”

That raised my curiosity higher than my eyebrows, so I paid a few bucks to walk onto the farmer’s field-turned-festival. Normally, dairy cows saunter about, not people and all manner of old farm equipment with accompanying loud, steamy and gaseous emissions. What a cacophony!

I was like a kid in a candy shop, arriving not knowing I was hungry but leaving satisfyingly filled. I learned a lot from that first pasture party, the lasting bit being that old tractors are my eye candy. From the giant 1890s Case steam tractor to the little gas-powered 1960s Cub Cadet lawn tractor, this vintage equipment is fascinating.

Art comes in many forms

The steam tractors and the oldest of the gas and diesel powered tractors are works of art.

The sizes and shapes of the wheels, the canopies, the gauges, the insignias, the horns, the stacks, even the cogs in the wheels are things of beauty. I say that admitting I am no farmer, a fact that does not stop me from admiring the equipment that once brought food to our tables.

After five years of attending the pasture party I now recognize such names as Case, McCormick, Farmall IH, Ford, Minneapolis Moline, Oliver, Massey Ferguson and John Deere.

What makes this Somerset show different is its location on a modern working farm, not at a museum. The Roberts family that owns the dairy leaves acres of corn to harvest so neophytes like me can see how it was done in the olden days. What fun to watch! The steam tractors pull platforms, called gang plows, on which men stand to maneuver the levels for blade depth.

These old tractors did double duty when they became stationery and pulley belts were added. The belts could run everything from threshers and corn choppers to lumber saw mills. The pasture party organizers operate an old saw mill, too.

A bit of tractor history

Steam engines were coming into farm use when the Civil War slowed down progress. At first, they were pulled into place by horses, but later became self-propelled. President Abe Lincoln observed about steam power, “it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power.”

And that it did. Not until the early 20th century, however, did improved steam and gas technology release most four-legged creatures from farm duty. To picture these old steam tractors, think of Wild West trains but make them shorter and smaller and put them on giant metal ground wheels.

With tricky boilers, the steam farm equipment had the same dangerous explosion problems as train engines, and they were so heavy they collapsed bridges intended for horse-drawn wagons. But they persevered as the game-changinger before combustion engines came into their own.

At this year’s pasture party, I hitched a ride in a 1907 Stanley Steamer touring car. Wow!

I watched ice cream being churned by steam power and shingles planed by the same. I watched corn as high as an elephant’s eye come down, be thrashed, turned into silage and the harvested field plowed. I watched tractor pulls, a competition to see which is the strongest by pulling heavy weights on a track.

The local connection

After three days of tractor overload, I researched this newspaper certain that the steam and old combustion-engine tractors were also important to South Mississippi. Lumber was an early economic engine, and when the virgin yellow pine forests were felled, much of the cut-over land was sold for farming. They needed machines to remove stumps and plow ground.

Not surprisingly, I found plenty of turn-of-the-century advertisements for such farm equipment. One 1912 Daily Herald article reported the Dantzler Foundry and Machine Shop in Gulfport had made a disc plow that cut a 9-foot swatch, even through roots:

“It is believed that as the ‘back country’ develops, a demand for such plows as the Motor Tractor will justify its being manufactured here.”

Yup, South Mississippi steamed, too.

Infoline: Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of

place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the

Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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