In 1885 oxen and horses were the principal sources of power for agricultural operations, but by 1920, while horses were still in evidence on many farms, the processes of breaking, ploughing and threshing were more mechanised.
Steam driven ploughs and threshing machines first appeared on the prairies in the 1880s. They were very expensive machines, and few farmers could afford to own their own units, relying instead on travelling custom ploughmen and threshing crews. Most steam engines designed for use in agriculture made use of straw for fuel, although some burned wood or coal. Generally, they were equipped with driving wheels so that they could move under their own power or pull a plough, and they would also be equipped with a large flywheel. This flywheel turned independently of the drive wheels, and by means of wide belts, a stationary tractor could be used to drive a threshing machine or another piece of equipment.
Steam engines and threshing machines were fragile, complicated machines, and they required knowledgeable individuals to operate them. The success of a threshing or custom ploughing operation rested on the engineer and the separator man. Their job was to constantly monitor the machines, oiling the bearings, lacing and setting the belts, and adjusting the engine and sieves to accommodate changes in the crop being fed.
These individuals were supported by a cast of less skilled workers. A fireman was responsible to keep the engine fed with straw so that the pressure in the engine remained constant. Teams of tankerman hauled water to the engine to keep the water level high enough for steady pressure. Finally, there were the bundlemen, teamsters with wagons who collected the stacked (stooked) grain and brought it to the threshing site. An efficient operation could keep as many as six teams of bundlemen at work in the fields, scrambling to feed the hungry machine.
Although expensive to operate, steam ploughs were significantly more efficient than horses, and they did not need to be fed all year. Steam threshing was certainly faster than the old method, which involved a separator turned by horses on a treadmill, but the machines were not without their drawbacks. With their heavy boilers, steam engines were very heavy, and could only be used on relatively dry fields. Their weight also posed a transportation problem. In addition to the risk of becoming stuck on a soft road, many steam engines were too heavy for local bridges, often necessitating long and time consuming detours. Steam engines were also limited by water supply, and often several teams of waterman had to travel over long distances to keep the boilers full.
The biggest drawback of steam, however, was the need to build and let down steam. This process, which could take an hour or more, consumed vast quantities of fuel and limited the number of hours in a day that a crew could operate. With the perfection of the internal combustion engine and the availability of inexpensive, reliable gasoline tractors which could run from dawn to dusk without long firing-up delays. After 1913, the age of steam came to a rapid close, and few steam engines were still in use by 1920
Page revised: 27 August 2009