Playing with big boy toys

I’ve mentioned the Southeast Old Threshers Reunion, held yearly over the July 4th timeframe ay the Denton Farmpark in the major metropolitan area of Denton, NC. I haven’t really said much about it in recent years, because how many tractor pictures do you want to see?

But this is a yearly thing for me, and I few years ago I participated in “Steam School”, a weekend-long class meant to introduce the newcomer to the world of antique steam boilers and other machines. This year I finally made the jump from spectator to participant.

All I can say without babbling is “Wow!” It’s more fun than I’ve had in a while, even with temps in the mid-90s and humidity hovering between 60-85%. That puts the “feels like” temperature at 105+, and you’re working with a machine that has an exterior temp of over 325o-sometimes well over.

Can you say “hydrate”?

I spent 4 out of 5 days at the Farmpark, with the first day being “me time”, just to wonder around looking and buying a few things (tools, mostly). The next 3 days were working on 3 different exhibits.

The Day One I was on a 7 HP Frick Eclipse portable engine. “Portable” means that when it’s moved, it has to be towed. It powers a shingle mill, which makes wood shingles for roofs-a big improvement over doing it by hand with a froe and a mallet.

This day I was tutored on the operation by a 15-year-old. I learned a lot. If I ever get as good as this kid, I’ll feel justified in breaking an arm patting myself on the back. The kid has a definite touch with engines. It was a good thing to see, because it gives you faith that everything isn’t going to Hell.

The shingle mill
Signage at the exhibit

Day Two I was tossed into the deep end of the pool. I ran this beast, a 1945 75 HP vertical stationary boiler.

The 75 HP stationary boiler. At this point we’ve just started firing and steam hasn’t risen yet.

Note the three white dots you see on the upper left of the boiler. Those are called “tri-cocks” or “try cocks”. You use them both to prove to yourself that the water level sight glass (it’s between the two dots (actually valves) on the upper right) is actually working, as well as a method to tell where the water level is should the sight glass break. Yeah, that does happen in rare instances.You use a shovel to deflect the live steam that will be spurting forth while you close the valves and replace the sight glass. I hear it’s quite a festive occasion.

The reason I say I was tossed into the deep end is that I was responsible (with help and under supervision of more experienced men) for running this boiler. I was the operator for the day. Day Two and you’re running the biggest boiler in the place-which, among other things, runs this:

That is the 350 HP Bates-Corliss engine. To give you some scale, the flywheel weighs 15 tons. It is a beast. This is it running at idle.

For those who ask “How does a 75 HP boiler run a 350 HP engine?”, I have an answer for you. At idle and not for long. We fired this boiler as hard as we could the entire day, attempting to maintain 100 PSI. When the Corliss started it’s hourly exhibition, we had to shut down everything that is steam-powered in the building (7 or 8 items) and even then the Corliss dropped our pressure 10 PSI as soon as its main steam valve was cracked. At that point, we could keep pressure above 60 PSI for about 5 minutes. Then it was “Shut ‘er down!” and let the machines inside run while we worked to raise pressure for the next exhibition.

Day Three was sawmill time, working with the 40 HP Frick Eclipse and off-bearing during exhibitions. That’s why there is no video of the mill sawing. I wanted to off-bear because my Dad did that in a lumber mill as a young man, before WWII.

Good grief that’s some work. Do you know what an 8’ 8″x 8″ cedar bean weighs? A lot, even with 3 guys sliding it into place on the stack of freshly sawn lumber. The video is it running at idle, just to use the steam we’re generating to be ready for the next exhibition.

More exhibit signage
The 40 HP Frick Eclipse with the sawmill under cover.

For me this was an intense learning experience, but it was worth the sweat, sore back and sorer feet. Like the Terminator, I’ll be back-next year, for more.

2 thoughts on “Playing with big boy toys

  1. Interesting! Thanks for the tour.

    Coincidently, just today I was wondering if we would go back to steam if/when SHTF. Good to know the tech isn't lost entirely.

    How on earth do you make/move/install a 15-ton flywheel? A piece at a time?

    Ooohh, oohh, Iknow, I know! How about a steam-powered special event station at the next annual thing? W1SPS "This is Water One Steam Powered Station calling CQ" Steam Punk Station?

  2. That fly wheel is in 4 pieces, bolted together. As to "How do you move a 3.75 ton piece of fly wheel?" question, beats me.

    Believe it or not, in the building the 75 HP vertical powers, there is a rather large generator. It could be done.

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