Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Steam Scene at Somerset

On Sunday, Rob and I returned to the annual Pasture Party, an event held by the Steam and Gas Association in Somerset, VA. The last time we'd been here was 7 years ago; time flies by fast. It had been an excellent day, filled with machines I'd never seen before, the opportunity to get up close and personal with the engines and so many friendly people. Set in a large field, with all kinds of antique vehicles, old barns and men in denim coveralls tinkering with engines, it was easy to imagine that we were stepping back in time. No souped up V8 sports cars or snappy designer dressers here, I loved it.
We approached the field, already excited as we smelled the familiar coal smoke drifting across the road, whistles from the traction engines shrieking a welcome and motors chugging and chattering.
There were a few old cars and trucks lined up, the still immaculate old wooden spokes catching my eye, and a beautifully geometric Art Deco hood ornament. But my attention was soon diverted elsewhere, especially towards the old tractors.
There were the usual John Deere yellow and green monstrosities, I've never been a fan, and some gorgeous Farmall tricycles alongside a few Case gems. There were also some I hadn't seen, including the 2 above, especially the huge rusty hulk with double back wheels, which Rob dubbed The Beast. We never saw it running which was a shame, I'd have loved to hear the racket it must surely have emitted.
The traction engine wheels always draw me towards them, massive and strong, turning slowly under their giant weight. There were many gas engine combustion engines, or 'hit and miss' as they are also called. Loud thwacking noises, at different pitches, could be heard across the field as they pumped round and round, all of them with a constant audience of mainly men, who seemed to stand in hypnotic trances as they stared into the engines. It was kind of cool to watch the wheels go round, steam hissing from spouts and oil dripping from leaks, the constant pop, pop, and chugging drew people from all over the field.
 There were quite a few demonstrations going on, all of them very noisy, dirty, but always crowd pleasers. Machinery was run by gas or steam engines, or tractors, or traction engines, with long leather belts turning and supplying power to make cinder bricks, crush rocks into gravel, shuck corn and shred the husks into mulch, or cut tree trunks into planks.
Look and listen to some of them working here. We watched all of these, and as I got close with my camera, I was soon covered in coal dust or sawdust, Rob helping to pick pieces of corn husks from my hair as a cloud like confetti flew around me.
This huge engine is a Sears Handiman, built in 1929, and comes from Indiana, once used for ploughing, when it would have plodded steadily and solidly at 1.5mph, only able to travel forwards or backwards. A huge machine, apparently 2 thirds of its power was needed just to get it started moving.
There were a couple of blacksmiths working under a tent, one whose work caught my attention. He's on the left here, but I haven't shown a photo of him as he has no images on the internet and I guess that's intentional. I loved his work and bought a small knife with a bull head on the handle.
There were some unusual vehicles trundling about the field, some that we laughed at and one that I fell in love with, the Oliver tractor above won me over. The huge traction engines rumbled around the field as well as mini tractors, driven by kids. Old cars, with their passengers looking like they rolled right off The Beverly Hillbillies set, chugged b, their occupants smiling and waving at anyone who looked at them.You had to keep your wits about you, these vehicles came from all directions, some honking horns, while others made us aware of their presence just with their engine noise.
The small kids enjoyed the corn pit, way better than a sand pit, and likely loved by the parents too, who didn't have to worry about sand filled socks and shoes when they got home.
We wandered over to the main event of the afternoon, the Lawn and Garden Tractor Pull. This drew a large crowd and was serious business according to everyone here. Except me. I was constantly laughing at these tiny contraptions with their serious faced riders, machines that should be cutting grass were now hammering down a dusty track, but I could have outrun them all! But it was definitely entertaining.
With heavy weights on the front to stop them tipping up, the lawnmowers dragged the sled down the track, the drivers leaning back as far as possible, while the rest of us cheered and hollered. The announcer informed the crowd that we all needed to ensure we were behind the orange fence as, "The last 2 events are gonna be some serious horsepower, so y'all be on yer toes!" I burst out laughing at that. As the tiny tractors hauled the sled down the 100ft track, their engines strained and their wheels scrambled for traction, while we spectators coughed and wiped streaming eyes through the red dust clouds.
This dude had me laughing too, he obviously took his sport very seriously and posed for a while on his mean machine, likely dreaming of the day he'd eventually make the Daytona!
This guy was awesome, roaring with mirth when we complimented him on his cool ride. He looked exceptionally serious though once on the track. Unfortunately he didn't make the finals, I was really hoping he'd win.
A couple of traction engines were in the next field with ploughs attached so we made a beeline for them. They were about to start a ploughing demonstration and wanted a couple of volunteers, so my paw went up in the air immediately, and before I knew it, I was climbing up onto a wooden platform with 4 long handles and 3 other guys. Rob grabbed my camera and took over taking the photos.
We had to crouch down to keep our balance while the huge engine crawled and lurched across the field to the start point, finding every dip and rock in the ground.
Another engine came behind us, with a plough that needed only 1 operator, and we both lined up next to each other. Our driver shouted at us to lift, and he heaved our levers into the air. They were heavy and supposed to lock in once they were upright, but it took me a while to realize that, and my poor arms trembled as I struggled to keep my handle as far up in the air as possible.
We had to stop at the corner of the field while the blades were cleared of all the corn husks and stalks that had clogged the plough so we could thankfully lower our levers and rest. When we started off again, this time I knew what I was doing, shoved my handle up above my shoulders and locked it in, then stood, feet apart, my spare hand on my hip, like the other guys, and trying to look as casually confident as them, hopefully looking as though I did this every weekend!
I think I achieved the look, judging by Rob's photo of me! We finished our stretch of the field and came to a halt. This must have once been pretty tiring work to perform all day, especially in hot and humid conditions. I was glad to have experienced a little of 'the old days' and I'm sure the farmers of today are eternally grateful for their modern machinery, fast and efficient tractors with air cooled cabs and no need for additional human labor.
We left the old Sears Handiman and other traction engines posing in the field, looking strong and glorious with their black and charcoal plumes of smoke billowing from their chimneys. The traction name derives from the Latin tractus, meaning 'drawn', since the prime function of any traction engine is to draw a load behind it. The scene looked as though it was straight from the 1920's or 30's, with no new houses or cars anywhere in the picture, just these working behemoths and the freshly ploughed field.
Rob and I found the ice cream stall, the delicious frozen treat made on site with a tiny gas engine that chugged quietly next to the van. I remembered the peach ice cream being particularly tasty on my last visit, and was delighted to be able to have another bowl of it today. The perfect finale.
Below are photos of my new bull knife and also of a miniature axe, made by another blacksmith.