Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Over 60 years have passed since steam threshing engines went out of production, yet the legendary machines refuse to vanish from the American scene. At scores of threshing shows every summer, millions of people turn out to experience the drama and poetry that is steam power. Of themselves, the machines are fascinating, but this alone does not explain the continuing interest that perpetuates the anachronistic rituals of steam threshing. The rhythmic tuck-a-tuck of the exhaust, the drone of the separator, and the lingering aroma of coal smoke and valve oil provide a vital link to the age of our fathers and grandfathers. For many, observing a steam engine at work is a profound emotional experience.
In the Cache Valley of Utah and Idaho, the steam threshing phenomenon is alive and well. When steam was retired in this part of the Wheatbelt, collectors scoured the area to preserve examples of the venerated machines. Their annual threshing bees delighted the rural community. Today, most of those original collectors have gone to their reward, but their engines continue to operate at a local agricultural museum, the Ronald V. Jensen Living Historical Farm. Out of many special events on the museum's calendar, steam threshing consistently draws more visitors than the others combined. The high level of sustained interest demonstrated by local residents indicates that steam threshing is perceived as a significant part of their history and culture.
Surprisingly, little has been written on this topic by local or, indeed, national historians. Almost four decades have passed since Reynold Wik published Steam Power on the American Farm, the only comprehensive book to deal with agricultural steam engines in the United States. This remains a fine and informative monograph, but it ignores that part of the wheatbelt that fell within the Mormon sphere of influence. An in-depth exploration of local steam threshing would reveal a great deal about lifestyles and values in Cache Valley, especially during that critical period that Charles Peterson has dubbed "the Americanization of Utah." But before such weighty issues can be tackled, a good deal of basic information must be assembled. That is the purpose of this work.
The following pages endeavor to chart the rise and fall of the steam era in Cache Valley agriculture. Because the equipment and many of the customs evolved in other areas, it begins with a national overview. It then establishes the beginnings of steam power locally as a precedent for its eventual adoption in agriculture, and it describes the conditions which made that adoption a reality. going further, it addresses local sales practices, steam plowing, the training of enginemen, what harvesting methods, and the hazards of engine operation. The demise of the steam engine is discussed as a consequence of the internal combustion tractor. Finally, a brief retrospective examines the significance of agricultural steam power in Cache Valley history and culture.
Johnson, Michael W., "Coal Smoke and Valve Oil: The Steam Era in Cache Valley Agriculture" (1987). All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 911.