1911 Aultman & Taylor Steam Tractor
By Kristy Athens
Imagine the racket of a fourteen thousand-pound sixteen-horsepower steam engine farm tractor. The machine rises ten feet in the air—a lurid amalgam of what was once bright orange- and green-painted cast iron and steel. Nothing about this beast is subtle. How could a man see from his perch on the back—three feet off the ground, true—but having to look over boiler, chimney and cylinder? The back wheels as tall as I am; both they and the front are linked with solid axles. To turn it, the farmer had what looks like a regular steering wheel, but the mechanism is slow and imprecise, heavy chain mounted to the center of the front axle to turn it as a single unit, like a child’s wagon. One giant cylinder. Most of the machinery regulates the power generated by the steam: governor; throttle; flywheel.
Ken tells me these things. Ken volunteers at the museum and points out a white shed across Tucker Road. “It came from right over there,” he says. After the tractor became obsolete, the farmer who owned it continued to drive it in Hood River’s Fourth of July parade. First, he had to bolt thick wedges of rubber between each iron tread on the wheels.
“To protect the wheels,” I surmise.
“To protect the road,” Ken corrects.
On plowing day, the farmer built a fire in the firebox, which flared around pipes filled with water. The steam pushed a piston, which turned a small wheel, which turned the flywheel and smoothed out the piston’s pulses, which turned a series of gears, which made the back wheels move. “He could keep his hamper on the boiler and have a hot lunch,” Ken says. By lunchtime, every inch of the machinery must have seethed with heat.
The farmer stood before two massive levers, whose orange paint has worn through to polished metal, a water level and the steering wheel. For fun, three thin ropes connect to three whistles of different sizes, and the roof is festooned with the remains of a stringer of colored flags, a remnant of its tenure as a parade attraction.
“This machine will probably never run again,” Ken says, putting a hand on the water tank. “The boiler is so old; if it blew up downtown during a parade it would probably kill ninety people.”
So, imagine the racket: Slam! goes the firebox door. The pressure builds inside the boiler’s tubes. Smoke billows from the chimney; steam sneaks from the seams. The piston slams back and forth. The throttle is engaged, and Clunk! The gears begin to turn. The steering chains pull against the axle. The governor spins. A furrow is carved in the field.
If something broke or seized, the farmer grabbed one of the ten-pound wrenches that rest on the water reservoir tank. Grease, fire, wood, iron.
Water, wheat, weeds, whistle.
Gear, gear, gear, axle.
Turning, turning, turning, made it.
Plow another row, another.
Bolts, belts, billowing smoke.
Boiler, water, burning wood.
Second cutting, coming up.
Kristy Athens is a freelance writer and editor who lives on a small farm near Husum, Washington. Her professional and creative work has been published in a number of magazines, newspapers and literary journals. She coordinates the Plein Air Writing Exhibition.