Back in the Day

April 4, 2019

Written by Art Petrosemolo

I recently returned from a European river cruise with my wife Tina….that’s another story for another blog. But shortly after I returned, the editor of Lancaster Farming asked me to illustrate a story for their March 31st edition on tobacco.

The tobacco harvest is still huge in Lancaster County and you know that if you are a former farmer or someone who has lived here for more than a few years. Tobacco helped to pay the mortgage for a lot of farms.

Well, tobacco isn’t what it used to be as a cash crop but it is still planted by a lot of farmers here and this is the time of year when farmers are transplanting seedlings from their greenhouses to the field. Soil quality, plant health and weather all play a part in the timing.

The editor knew I had done a lot of photos of the tobacco season from seedlings to stripping and wanted me to find something new. Well my brain was still on European time and I was at a loss, really at a loss.

Early in the last week of the month as I arrived at the Garden Spot Wellness Center I ran into Adam Zimmerman, a Sycamore Springs neighbor and former tobacco farmer. I said “Adam do you have any ideas for me on a tobacco photo? Lancaster Farming is counting on me to come up with something as I have been their go-to guy for the page one photo for the past few months.”

Adam thought for a moment and said, “You really want to get a photo of a ‘steamer.’ It is used to prepare the ground for planting and will make a great photo.”

It sounded good to me. I figured I’d find a farm steamer, get the owner to fire it up and get a great photo of the ground being steamed…. was I in for a surprise.

For the past few years, if I have a farm question, I head to Reidenbach Road and talk to the Old Order Mennonite Hoover family. I have written about them several times on horse training, tobacco harvest and the wheat harvest.

Well, the Hoovers were not much help on this one other than to say they thought that Marcus Martin on Kramer Mill Road in Denver might have one. In my mind, I am looking for a 50-gallon drum, a propane heater and a hose; what’s the big deal?

I confirm the Martin lead with some other Plain Community farmers I stop and talk to on the way to Kramer Mill Road and they say, “Just stop at the first farm on the right.”

Well I get there and I do find a Martin on the first farm on the right but not Marcus. I find his younger brother who points the way to Marcus’ farm, a half-mile away.

I am not sure Marcus Martin was happy to see me when I told him I was from Lancaster Farming and wanted to see his steamer and talk about how it operates. He finally gave in to my charms, put on his coat and said “Follow me.” With his 17-year-old nephew Curtis Hoover, who works on the farm in tow, we headed away from the house toward a couple of large, metal barns.

When we rounded the last barn, my jaw dropped as I was looking at a steam engine. Who knew? Maybe Adam Zimmerman and David Hoover did, but they didn’t give me a clue. I was looking at a 1921 Frick steam locomotive—a steamer—built in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and still in operating condition. It had worked on several farms in the fall of 2018 and would be called into use again this fall.

When I got over my shock and Mr. Martin’s little chuckle, I told him what I thought I would find (the 50-gallon drum) and that gave him another smile and he said, “In the day, before greenhouses to start seeds and plastic to cover produce crops from the frost, the only way to get the land ready or ‘fit’ early planting was with a steamer.” It was used often on Old Order farms and still is used today but not nearly as much as it had been in the early and mid-20th century.

I learned that the steam engine fire box was fed with wood or coal (preferred) and it took about two hours to get the water in the tank hot enough to make steam. The 42 HP engine was driven to the site (at 4 mph) and with chain steering. It was set up near the field where it would be used and moved as needed.

Long hoses were attached to the steam fittings on the engine and the steam was pumped into a pair of four foot by eight foot “pans” that were set out in tandem. After that section of ground was steamed and cleared of fungus and any pesky wheat seeds that might choke young tobacco plants, the pans were moved and the process begins again.

Martin said it was a 24/7 operation until the field was done and could take four or five days with a two-person crew working several hours and then getting relieved. Martin also told me that besides the steam used for preparing the land for planting, the “steamer” also could, and did, power sawmills, threshers and other farm equipment. It was more than cool.

I asked him when he would run it again and he said in the fall and I’m going back to watch that. I got the photos to Lancaster Farming and they were as surprised as I was to learn about a piece of Lancaster farming history as no one had heard of a farm “steamer”…. So, the city boy one-upped the farm writers this time.

I honestly have learned something new here every day of the two years plus we have lived in Sycamore Springs. I could not have picked a better community to retire to.

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