Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gasoline powered Maytag - Somerset Steam and Gas Association Pasture Party

At first blush, the idea of a washing machine powered by a small gasoline engine seems a bit wacky. But in the first half of the 20th century, electricity was not always available, particularly in rural areas. The gas engine was adapted to power many labor saving devices, easing the burden of farm and household chores.

This machine was probably demonstrated during my visit to Somerset, but I missed seeing it in action. The video below shows a similar machine running.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Quincy Gasoline Tractor - Somerset Steam and Gas Association Pasture Party 

I came across a farm implements catalog from 1916 that lists the Quincy Gasoline Tractor Company, along with dozens of other tractors from various manufacturers. Most of the companies on that roster are long forgotten. One of the forgotten companies on that list, along with Quincy,  was the Waterloo Gasoline Tractor Company. A few years later, Waterloo was bought by the second largest manufacturer of farm equipment in America, and the name was changed to John Deere Tractor Company.

A friend mentioned to me the other day that black and white seems particularly appropriate for these photos of old farm equipment. The black and white pictures above were all shot on Fuji Acros 100 film except the picture of the John Deere tractors, which was taken on Kodak Tri-X 400. I like the smooth tones of the Acros 100, but the Tri-X certainly has a distinctive look.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

After steam - Somerset Steam and Gas Association Pasture Party

Steam tractors, large, difficult to operate and expensive, were never practical for the small farmer. In 1892, John Froelich pieced together the first gasoline powered farm tractor, but the first commercial tractor sales did not come until 1902.

One of the problems early gas tractors shared with their steam powered ancestors was the inability to cultivate row crops. Farmer still needed horses for cultivating. When the Farmall tractor was introduced in 1924, it was capable of plowing and cultivating, and the future of the gasoline farm tractor on the small farms of America was assured.

Even the earliest gasoline powered tractors were dramatically smaller than the steam tractors they replaced.

The internal combustion gasoline engine made possible the automobile, which became perhaps the defining technological change of the 20th Century. The car would reshape the cultural landscape of this country.

This 1947 Dodge pick-up and I have something in common: we both came off the assembly line in the same year. The truck is better preserved, I'm afraid.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Summer is gone - Greene County, Virginia 

My wife and I drove across the mountain yesterday in a light rain. Autumn arrived last week not in a blaze of color, but in a blaze of record breaking heat. Yesterday, that changed abruptly with temperatures topping out in the mid sixties. Fall was in the air.

The poplar and sycamore trees are dotted with brilliant yellow leaves, which glow against the rain-darkened trunks in the woods like a pointillist painting. Higher up in the mountains, maple trees are starting to turn red. Oak trees, less showy than maples, will turn color in the coming weeks. It is the oak's persistent leaves that will provide the last traces of  Autumn color before Winter arrives.

Overnight, the rain became a steady downpour. The long summer is over.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Month of Sundays

Wood frame churches, painted white, are a common feature of the American landscape, particularly in rural areas. Many are simple utilitarian structures, but some of these churches are among the best expressions of American vernacular architecture still in existence.

Almost every Sunday morning since the beginning of the year, I have published a picture of one of these churches. Last Sunday's church was the 31st -- a "month of Sundays." There are pictures of all 31 churches, along with a link to the original post on a new page called A Month of Sundays. I have added a link to the new page on the sidebar, under Pages.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Goldenrod - Greene County, Virginia 

This week we visited the Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party with the emphasis on steam power. Next week we will look at gasoline powered tractors, cars and even a very common household appliance that was at one time powered by a gas engine. I hope you will join me as we go back to Somerset and focus the camera on gasoline power from the first half  of the twentieth century

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumn in the field - Greene County, Virginia 

 The Autumnal equinox takes place today. Scientists and astronomers prefer to call it the September equinox because, of course,  in the Southern Hemisphere today is the beginning of Spring, not Autumn. But 'autumnal' is such a lovely word that I hate to give it up so I will continue to say "Autumnal equinox." I hope there is an equally lovely word for Spring in the languages of the Southern Hemisphere.

Not only is today the first day of Autumn, but there will be a full moon tonight. The full moon closest to the Autumnal equinox is known as the Harvest Moon. Shine on, Harvest Moon.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A steam engine requires constant attention - Somerset, Virginia

The tractor above is powering a machine just outside the picture to the right by way of a flat belt and pulley.

The gasoline powered tractor in the background represents the next development in farm technology after the steam engine. In just a few short years, the internal combustion engine replaced steam on the farm.

All the black and white photographs from the show in Somerset were taken with the Pentax MX with the Pentax SMC M 35mm f2.0 lens on Fuji Acros 100. The color photos were all taken with the Pentax K10D and the Pentax FA 35mm f2.0 lens.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Steam power in the field - Somerset, Virginia 

Not too many people walked back to the field where the tractors were plowing, which gave me an unobstructed view of the action. This is pretty much the way I imagine plowing with steam looked 100 years ago. It was my favorite part of the day.

This engine was one of my favorites. It is beautifully restored and the bold graphics on the water tanks caught my eye immediately.

The Somerset Steam and Gas Association holds a steam school every year to train people interested in operating a steam engine. For a lucky few, the knowledge is passed down from generation to generation

Operating a steam engine of any type is not a job to be taken lightly. As steam technology advanced and boiler pressures increased to provide more power, the skill of the operator at managing the engine was essential for safe and efficient use of the tractor.

The tractor on the left is providing power for the sawmill which is located in this shed. A large flat belt transfers the power from the tractor to the saw. This type of work was typical of the tasks assigned to steam tractors, and in some cases, tractors became permanent fixtures in small sawmills.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party - Orange County, Virginia 


Steam engines fascinate. Dark smoke, white columns of steam, valves and sliders, gauges and wheels attract young and old alike. The heat and the smell of burning coal; it is all irresistible and the Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party makes the experience alive. Alive because this event is not a static display of steam engines, but a working display of live steam from small stationary engines to the massive tractors.

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 and horses were still needed for these 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.

Firing the boiler

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

Somerset - Orange County, Virginia 

Last Saturday I spent the day at the Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party. The event is held each year on a farm in Somerset, Virginia. Next week I will be posting pictures of working steam tractors as well as antique gas tractors and other old vehicles and engines of all kinds. I hope you will stop by for a visit and see what high-tech farm equipment looked like around the turn of the 20th Century.

Constitution Day

James Madison, a local boy who became the fourth President of the United States, is known as the "Father of the Constitution." The Constitution was signed on this day, September 17, 1787.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

End of season - Madison County, Virginia 

Although we are still having above normal temperatures during the day, the nights have turned cool and the first hints of Autumn are in the air. Perhaps as a result of a hot and dry summer, the leaves seem to be turning early this year and already there is color everywhere.

As our friends in the Southern Hemisphere enjoy Spring and look forward to Summer, I am thinking about getting out my sweaters and fleece. Autumn is perhaps the most beautiful season here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When cool air flows down the mountain side carrying the scent of wood smoke and trees,  thoughts turn to home, and evenings by the fire.  Winter will come soon enough.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cornfield - Madison County, Virginia 

                                                blossom and stalk
                                                dense with sunlight
                                                wait in silence.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Late summer corn - Orange County, Virginia 

"Oh, these late, strange riches of the summer, these slab-sided pumpkins and preposterous zucchinis. Every wind brings a hail of acorns against the roof. Still, it is mild. For a while the spiders were building webs everywhere, and now those webs are all blown to shreds and tatters, so I suppose we can imagine well-fed spiders tucked up in the detritus of old leaves, drowsing away the very thought of toil."
 From Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Barboursville Baptist Church - Barboursville, Virginia 

Built in 1888, Barboursville Baptist Church is typical of rural churches in this area. It is a plain wood frame building with pointed arch windows, a steeple and belfry.

I used to pass by this church every morning on my way to work and always enjoyed looking across the field and seeing the white church illuminated by the morning sun.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Small building - Barboursville, Virginia 

If you walk along the railroad tracks for a short distance outside Barboursville, you will come upon this small building sitting in the woods beside the tracks. It is too small to be a house, and too fancy to be a storage building. Although it is a little overgrown and there are no signs of occupation, the building is neatly painted and clean.

So we end our visit to Barboursville with another strange house. I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this implausible little building. I just can't think what it might be.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Blue Dodge - Barboursville, Virginia

I received an email from Tim Barnwell the other day. He writes:
"Details are finalized about the musician lineup for the Hands in Harmony concert. The Asheville Art Museum  will sponsor the concert at the Diana Wortham Theatre on next Tuesday, September 14th from 7-9pm. The event is being held in conjunction with the photographic exhibit, Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia, based on my book of the same name. The concert will feature musicians from the book, including four-time Grammy Award winner David Holt, guitar master and builder Wayne Henderson from Virginia, and North Carolina Folk Heritage award winner Bobby McMillon, who will perform a capella ballads and tell folk stories. Also on hand will be Don Pedi , host of WCQS's weekly  traditional music program, Close to Home performing on the mountain dulcimer along with fiddle master Bruce Greene. Singer and banjo player Laura Boosinger will perform as well as Maggie Lauterer and husband Zack Allen. Ms. Lauterer, a former reporter for WLOS-TV,  will host the evenings events. Images from the Hands in Harmony project, including many not published in the book, will be shown on the backdrop during the musical performances.

Tickets are available from the Diana Wortham Theatre box office at Pack Place in downtown Asheville for just $10 ($8 for art museum members) with proceeds going to the performers, and online at My photographic exhibit will be on display at the Asheville Art Museum through October 10th."
Hands in Harmony is Tim Barnwell's latest book of photographs from rural North Carolina. If you are in the Ashville, North Carolina area this presentation is a great opportunity to see Tim's work and hear some of the musicians pictured in the book.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Morning freight - Barboursville, Virginia

Summer Reading

I recently posted about Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead here. I just finished reading Gilead for the second time, after reading Robinson's most recent novel Home. Home is set in the same location, and with the same characters as Gilead. It is neither sequel or prequel,  but takes place concurrently with the earlier novel. While Gilead is a first-person meditation, Home is more of a traditional narrative. Both books are beautifully written and moving and difficult to summarize.

In  an essay entitled "Family," (from The Death of Adam, 1998) Robinson writes:
"We have forgotten solace. Maybe the saddest family, properly understood, is a miracle of solace. It seems to me that our multitude of professional healers and comforters are really meant to function like the doctor in a boxer's corner, there to slow bleeding and minimize swelling so that we will be able to last another round. Neither they nor we want to think about the larger meaning of the situation. This is the opposite of solace.

Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family, and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life. This is more human and beautiful, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries. Perhaps it is the calling of some families to console , because intractable grief is visited upon them." 
Even though this was written 10 years before the publication of Home, it is a perfect statement of the central theme of the novel.

Marilynne Robinson's writing stands in stark contrast to the facile and shallow treatment of religious and spiritual themes that is commonplace in literature and the arts these days. But far from being other-worldly, Home and Gilead offer a clear and deep vision of the sorrow and pain, the beauty and wonder of the world around us every day. It is this vision, this ability to see, that brings me back to ponder and re-read these books.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Picador, New York, 2008

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Warehouse and siding - Barboursville, Virginia 

Towards the end of the 19th century, the railroad came through Barboursville providing a more direct route from Orange to Charlottesville. With a railroad depot, and situated at the crossroad of two major Virginia  highways, the town prospered until the middle of the 20th century, when new roads eliminated Barboursville's importance as a transportation center. By 1970, the town was almost vacant.

Today, the Norfolk and Southern Railroad still passes through. This disused siding and storage building are a reminder of the days when the trains stopped in Barboursville

Monday, September 6, 2010

Red house with green roof - Barboursville, Virginia

Color and Imagination

It was a cloudy and cool morning in November of 2007 when I saw this house just outside the small village of Barboursville. There was no sign of life around the place, but the mailbox looked new. The house invited curiosity, but did not look welcoming. It was vaguely mysterious, like an illustration in an old book of stories for children.

Yesterday, I drove by this house and found that it has been painted a respectable beige. The roof is no longer green and the story book mystery about the place has drained away with the color.

Just past this house, across the railroad tracks, lies the small village of Barboursville.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Farmers Service Center - Madison, Virginia

C R Tanner and Sons opened for business in the 1950s, but I am guessing that this building is older than that. The former feed store is currently operated by members of the Tanner family as "Feed Store Antiques." The store was closed when I was there last Sunday to take these photos, but it looks like an interesting place to visit. I may try to return when they are open and get some pictures of the inside.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

House and pick-up truck - Madison, Virginia 

Looking at these recent photos taken in Madison, one might get the impression that the town is shabby and rundown. I have chosen to photograph these old buildings because they interest me, but they do not fairly represent the town of Madison, which is a lovely small town.

Madison is the county seat of Madison County and has a beautiful brick Federal style courthouse dating from 1830 as well as several other well preserved late 18th and 19th century buildings. Like most small towns, the commercial core of Madison is almost gone, but the small town  flavor and charm have not been lost.

Madison is named for the Madison family who had extensive landholdings in what is now Madison County. James Madison is descended from this family and he became the 4th President of the United States, holding the office from 1809 to 1817. He retired to the family estate at nearby Montpelier.

The 18th Annual "Taste of the Mountains" street festival will be held in the town of Madison on Saturday, September 4th.