Raising steam to raise crops

Paul, Nebraska farmer Henry Schmitz (in the broad-brimmed hat) stands next to the new Rumely Advance steam-traction engine. He is joined by someone identified as a salesman.

Local farmer Henry Schmitz (who would have been about 21 at the time the photo was taken) of Paul, Nebraska, may have been on the cutting edge of agricultural technology if he acquired the new Rumely Advance Straw-Burner with which he is standing.

The traction engine (the term “tractor” was not in the vernacular at that time) could do the work of multiple horses, mules or oxen. A traction engine is a self-propelled steam engine used to move heavy loads on roads, plough ground or to provide power at a chosen location.

According to Discovering Traction Engines by Harold Bonnett, traction engines were cumbersome and ill-suited to crossing soft or heavy ground, so their agricultural use was usually either “on the belt” – powering farm machinery by means of a continuous leather belt driven by the flywheel – or in pairs, dragging an implement on a cable from one side of a field to another. However, where soil conditions permitted, direct hauling of implements (“off the drawbar”) was preferred – in America, this led to thedevelopment of the steam tractor, Bonnett said.

According to Chris Epping of the Oilpull.com website, home of the “Chris & Rod Epping Rumely (and other old tractor and gas engine) Homepage,” the traction engine in the photo with Schmitz is a 16-horsepower compound straw-burner (setup for wood burning with a cast iron stack) built around 1911. Normally, it would feature a black stack and front section, with a blue cylinder and red wheels.

Paul is an unincorporated community in Otoe County.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net

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