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Oregon Trails: Iron Horses

By Ron Brown

RUCH, Ore. — Summer is here and farmers everywhere are busy plowing and harvesting their crops. In southern Oregon, besides fruit and livestock, most agriculture centers on hay and grain crops, and up until the late 1800’s, almost all the work was done by hand or horse.

All around our region, farmers who grow hay are getting in their first cuttings of the season. With good luck, they’ll get in several before summer is over. It’s an important crop because hay is what feeds cows, horses and other livestock. In the Klamath Basin, it’s one of Klamath County’s most valuable crops. With a tractor and a power baler, it’s not nearly as difficult as it was a hundred years or more ago when there was very few power equipment to lighten the load.

One early Jackson County pioneer hand-cut native grasses to feed livestock that would have starved the first winter because mountain passes were closed to supply pack trains. He made a quick fortune for his foresight. But by the 1880’s and 90’s, steam tractors and traction engines began to bring railroad locomotive technology into the fields and forests of the west, including Southern Oregon.

Pioneer farmer and rancher Michael Hanley is said to have used one of the first steam tractors in the Rogue Valley. By the turn of the century, and up through the Depression, migrant steam tractors and threshing machines came to farms. Local families would join together to help bring in the grains, hay and other crops, thereby easing the workload and increasing production. It also became a social event.

“They’d come help dad, and then when several other neighbors had to use the threshing machine, he’d go; that’s how they did it,” recalls Roberta Sletten, a local resident who remembers threshing parties. “And of course dinner was served. And a couple of women would come in and help mom. And we’d have fried chicken and mashed potatoes and the whole schmeer! What we’d do is set a, a mirror up on a tree by the faucet outside, and a basin. And they’d clean up and comb their hair; get the dust off, to come and eat.” Sletten’s job, as a child, was to carry ice water out to the crews in the field.

“They’d bring the threshing machine a day ahead and they’d move it into the field where they wanted it,” she says. “And they had a great big old tractor. I mean, that thing had a big belt on it that ran the threshing machine.”

A big tractor like the 25 horsepower, 20-ton, 1922 Gaar Scott. It was at the Pottsville antique power days father’s day weekend showing what it could do. Loaded with hundreds of gallons of water, and burning slab and chunks of wood, it whirred and clanked and blew its whistle, just like the old days.

“It’s a workout for sure! Y’know, you’re up there. It’s all chain driven. Y’know, you’re up there turning it. It takes about ten cranks just to get it started movin’!” says Kameron Frey, a steam tractor operator.

Grants Pass paving contractor Gary Peterson owns this and several other steam machines, including a rare Buffalo Springfield Steam Roller that once belonged to ODOT. He figures the 25 horsepower of the Gaar Scot would be like several hundred gasoline engine horsepower today.

“Back when these things were used on the farm and things, they were typically closer to around 200 pounds of steam pressure. Yeah! A lot! But even now it’s got more, so much power you can’t hardly stop it,” Peterson says.

Current law limits the tractor’s operating pressure to about 100 pounds per square inch. These machines were also used to bring timber out of the woods and to the mills, before log trucks were strong enough to do the job, or to dig ditches or to help pave roads. That’s when steam was king, both on the rails, and in the fields and forests. But they had their drawbacks.

“Unlike a gas engine where you can just turn the key and it starts and want to go. These here take a little longer,” Peterson says. “Takes about a hour and a half to get up to steam pressure, and be sure it’s ready to go to work.”

There were a lot of manufacturers in the United States of steam tractors and traction engines. The Gaar Scott was just one of many that company eventually went to making gasoline tractors, but it’s now out of business. Our research shows there were about 90 U.S. and Canadian makers of steam traction engines at one time or another. One of the few survivors is the J.I. Case Company, which merged with new Holland in 1999, and continues to make tractors and other equipment under the case, New Holland and International Harvester Labels. Their last steam tractor came out in 1927.