Horses to steam engines – Doing it the old way

By Carol / September 5, 2011 /

I had the opportunity at the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunionthis past weekend to picture how farming was done 100 years ago. When horses were the most common horsepower. When the shift to machines was just beginning. When the power was steam instead of gas.

The evolution of farming from horses to machinery was fascinating to see. Horses pulled wagons loaded with shocks of wheat and barley up to the threshers.  Massive traction steam enginespowered threshing machines that looked a bit like the product of Rube Goldberg’s imagination.

When Mr. Van Vark of Pella – who restores traction engines – actually let me drive his 1916 Case 40 hp (for about 30 feet), he showed me how much ‘play’ there was in the steering wheel. I could spin the wheel two or three revolutions before the wheels began to turn. I learned that’s because the steering wheel reels in chains that attach to the axle and turn the wheels – just like a man driving a team of horses would have pulled on the reins to turn the team. 

I have never seen so graphic a demonstration of the step up in technology. Inventors took the idea of steering horses and transferred that steering mechanism almost directly to the ‘iron horse’ of the traction steam engine.


When Mr. Van Vark put the steam engine in reverse, I was quick to turn over the steering wheel to him.  I’ll take power steering any day.

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