Orange County, Virginia
Orange County, Virginia
I love the smell of coal smoke. When I was a boy in the 1950s, my grandparents heated their house with coal, and that smell brings back many memories.

If there is no coal-fired locomotive handy, the next best thing is the working steam powered tractors at the annual Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party which I attended last weekend.

Steam power for agricultural use was introduced in 1849. A few years later, self propelled steam engines were available, but it was not until after the Civil War that steam power began to be widely used for farming.

Steam power increased the amount of land that could be farmed and began a revolution in farm labor that had been dependent on human and animal power for centuries. The massive tractors were able to plow and run threshing machines and corn cutters.

Because of their size and weight, often upwards of 30,000 pounds, the steam tractor was not suited for planting and cultivating. Horses were still needed for those tasks. In addition, the tractor was expensive to buy and maintain, and needed a knowledgeable operator. Farmers often pooled resources to buy a tractor which would service several farms.

After 1900, the use of steam power in agriculture declined, and by 1920, steam tractors were obsolete, replaced by the internal combustion engine.

The day in Somerset brought alive the technology of a bygone era, briefly visible through the mists of coal smoke and steam.

Edd Fuller

2 thoughts on “Editor’s Notebook

  1. I remember being fascinated by steam tractors at some of the local museums growing up but also perplexed by the idea that these things that looked to me like steam locomotives didn’t run on rails. Eventually I learned that a steam engine didn’t necessarily have to run on rails and that they came in many shapes and sizes. Steam tractors just happened to share a lot of design elements with contemporary locomotives.

    I love the colors in this photo, Edd. It’s a very appealing range of tones and hues.

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