Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

‘Kettle’ engineers teach how America was made

It’s a skilled engineer who can make a smooth-purring "kettle" out a of an old steam engine that’s been idle for 50 tractor-crazy years. There seems to have been no wearing out of these machines, and there were "bone yards" in most Grain Belt states - Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere. Tangled vines tied their cleated wheels to the ground, and tall weeds grew in the unused paths.

Nobody needed steam engines. But the men who once made a good living operating these engines yearn to see them roll again, to see and smell the smoke belching from their flues and to hear their voices. A steam engine is known by its manufacturer, serial number and voice. It purrs when resting and "screams" its coarse, harsh steam whistle at the whim of the engineer.

Ed Peacock of Fulton was one of those engineers. To pick him out in the crowd you’d look for the one who stood quietly, his clasped hands against his chest, behind the bib of his greasy overalls.

Ed was a bachelor engineer with steam in his blood. He and his mother lived in their 19th century home north of Fulton on Highway 54. His annual show was all about steam and the men who took their engines from farm to farm to thresh wheat and oats, to saw wood, to fill silos, to plow and pull heavy loads. Why do they stage these annual autumn steam shows in many parts of the Grain Belt?

An old steam man explained it this way, "How are these youngsters to know how America was made if we don’t keep these engines operating?" Youngsters love the shows, ride the engines and imagine themselves as engineers of the future.

Some steam-engine owners hauled their own kettles to Peacock’s shows; others removed the metal cleats and put on rubber tread and drove their machines on public roads and highways. When grandpas get together to parade their steam engines around a pasture or fairground, the harsh music of steam whistles carries out over the countryside. This means to belt up to the threshing machine, or a huge wood saw, or to register the machine’s power by prony brake and more.

It’s a steady hand that can maneuver a steam engine onto two narrow teeter-totter beams and balance it there.

Someone yells "steady as she goes," and the first engine begins a snail’s pace climb on those timbers. Spectators hold their breaths as the engine’s weight teeters those beams forward, ever so slowly.

Suspense! Tension! And then balance! The monster stands motionless, balanced on two teeter-totter beams supported by a single timber. It takes the onlookers a few moments to realize that this several-ton engine has no wheels on the ground! The only noise is the gentle thud, thud, thud of the smooth-purring kettle. Then there’s a roar of applause.

Finally the monster belches black smoke and emits a deafening blast of the steam whistle, announcing its success. The engineer inches the big machine forward, the fronts of teeter-totter beams touch ground and the engine slides ever so gently off of its perch. Another rig is waiting to try that trick. You’re glued in place to see that trick again.

Ed Peacock and many old steam men are gone. Now the boys who learned "how America was made" are the men who feel sparks on their faces, wipe chaff from their eyes and thrill to the power of a throttle in their hands - so the next generation of boys will also "know how America was made." Toot those whistles, fellows!

Click here to return to the index

 Subscribe in your RSS reader

Copyright © 1994-2010 Sue Gerard. All Rights Reserved. No text or images on this website may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author, except small quotations to be used in reviews.