Steamboats were on the rivers and steam-powered locomotives were chugging across the country, but there were other, less visible uses of the power of steam in its heyday. “Steam engines were used widely for threshing, saw mills and plowing, really more for breaking up sod in the Midwest and West than here,” said Crozet resident Charlie Black, “mostly because they had fields that were larger and flatter than ours.” Black owns a steam tractor that once belonged to his grandfather (also Charles Black). It’s a 15 horse-power 1907 Case tractor that’s remained in the Crozet area for all of its hundred-plus-year history.
His interest in his family’s agricultural legacy made Black a student of steam history. A lot of people around here went straight from horse and mule power to the internal combustion engine, he said, but the period between the 1880s and 1920s saw many farmers in the know transition to steam power. “It was only about a 40-year run,” he said. No matter how good a farmer’s horses and mules were at powering a thresher or a saw mill, those who had a source of water and fuel were glad to have a mechanical assistant.
Although steam tractors were not on every farm—Black estimates you could find one hereabouts every ten miles—communities sometimes owned one in common or signed up to hire one at harvest time. The tractor was an especially appropriate vehicle for a steam boiler, since the immense contraption (Black’s tractor is 15,000 pounds) could be driven into the woods and set up near a creek to power a sawmill. Boilers without a traction vehicle were hauled about by horses.
In 1907, Black’s family had two steam tractors. In 1923, one of them was washed away by the great flood that year. Once the waters receded, William Sprouse, a neighbor of the Black family, bought the damaged tractor and hauled it from the spot right where Stockton Creek deposited it as the waters receded. Sprouse got it back in service, and it was spotted around the area, running saw mills here and there. Steam engines were also used for threshing. “We grew a lot more wheat around here back then,” Black said. After a period of retirement, the tractor was again returned to running order by Sprouse’s son (also William). He knew the history of the venerable machine and invited Charlie Black to drive it, a moment he still remembers.
After Sprouse’s death, Black became the grateful owner of his grandfather’s tractor. Luckily, he said, the Sprouse family had preserved it over the years, keeping it painted and protected. Although part of Black’s restoration was cosmetic, it’s a much more complex process than restoring, say, an antique piece of furniture. There’s an inherent challenge in the heat of the fire box and the harnessing of steam. The boiler requires inspection, and operators need to keep a watchful eye on the gauges as well as the moving parts, all of which need to be in good working order.
Black had successfully restored another steam tractor, which was honored as the “best restored engine” by the National Thresher’s Association in Ohio in 2014. Because of his long-time interest in steam engines, he had plenty of connections to others with the same hobby, and he was able to find, have made, or otherwise come up with the many parts he needed. “I really get parts from all over,” he said. Many of his contacts were from Amish communities and other farmers in the Midwest. Black’s tractor is recognizable as a Case by the fierce eagle on the front, and it’s the locomotive model, meaning it has a horizontal boiler that looks very much like the more massive railroad locomotive.
In the heyday of steam engines, fuel to produce the steam varied a bit, mostly depending on what was on hand. “In a saw mill, they’d use slab wood and discarded pieces,” he said. Farmers might use a mix of wood and coal. Some Midwestern and Western farmers burned straw, since it was readily available during threshing, and a few enterprising foundrymen adapted the existing design to accommodate that fast-burning fuel. No matter where they lived, one of the challenges facing anyone with a steam engine was the need for water. “For a sawmill, they’d just set it up in the woods by a water source,” Black said. On the farm, operators would use water from their wells or a creek on their property.
First, the operators would start a fire in the firebox (in Black’s tractor, a two-foot-square metal box). After waiting a couple of hours for the boiler to build up pressure, they’d let the steam through pipes into the engine, where it would drive the pistons that powered the wheels, all regulated by a lever. Engines come rated as to horsepower—Black’s is 15hp—but it’s not a vehicle built for speed. Most can get up to a speed of about 2.4 miles an hour, or about the speed those accompanying the driver can walk comfortably. “Men, horses, tractors: all got around at about the same speed on the farm,” Black said.
Anyone who’s ever had a pressure cooker malfunction or a car overheat is aware of the importance of the safe use of steam, and hobbyists go to “steam school,” an intensive course that’s offered by groups of enthusiasts all over the country, and regionally by the Somerset Steam and Gas Association in Orange County. Many states require a steam engine operator’s license, and Virginia requires a yearly inspection of steam-powered boilers. Each April, Somerset offers a two-day course offering classroom instruction and hands-on experience. The association offers many more events, combining fun and instruction, competition and collaboration.
Black has completed and also helped with steam school. His fascination with steam, plus his mechanical ability and painstaking attention to detail have been assets, as has his profession––he works with modern-day tractors in his day job. But he’s the first to admit that nostalgia has a lot to do with his interest in the relics of our agricultural past, and he’s found he’s not the only one. There were many in the greatest generation, all those returning World War II soldiers whose experience away from the farm made them reluctant to abandon the familiar sights of their youth, he said. “They wanted to preserve what they’d known as boys.” He pointed out that “Old Abe,” the fierce bald eagle on the Chase insignia, has an even earlier history. The insignia goes back to the Civil War. It depicts a real eagle that inspired the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and that later became a bit of a national celebrity.
Black’s understanding of the agricultural history of our country and our area is not abstract, but anchored in the real day-to-day labor of his father and grandfather. Long ago, this struck the youthful Charlie Black when his then-neighbor invited him to sit on the tractor that had once been his family’s. Black felt the profound historical significance of that moment: “It was one of the high points of my life,” he said. “I was right where my 21-year-old grandfather had been.” The same tractor powered the mill that sawed the lumber for his grandfather’s home on Miller School Road, where Black now lives. “So, I’m surrounded by my history,” he said.