Albert’s Fire Engine or… do editors always know best?

Dec 17, 2010 | 8 comments

Albert’s Fire Engine

     We have lots of toys and children’s books around our house.  Some date back to my mother’s childhood when there were seven children in this household; some were mine or my son’s.  They are always in evidence, but perhaps they seem most noticeable at Christmas time.
     One of my favorites belonged to Albert, my mother’s oldest brother who died in 1904 at the age of five.   It is an 1899-style fire engine with its large water tank, its fireman sitting up front as though urging the horses to their duty.  It was one of Albert’s last Christmas presents, given to him by his adored Uncle Ed who died in 1906, not quite two years after the death of his little nephew.  My grandmother could not bear to part with it and, a few years after her death in 1954,   I found it tucked way back in her closet.
     I wrote about Albert’s fire engine in my Dear Medora book, using a description much like that in the above paragraph.  But my editor thought that I was wrong.  He had knowledge of old toys, especially of old cast iron toys, and even though the family has always referred to it as a fire engine, I bowed to his superior expertise.  The reference in the finished book reads:
      Albert’s 1899-style steam engine vehicle, with its large water tank, today is displayed on the nursery mantle in a place of honor…
     We still refer to it as “Albert’s fire engine,” of course.  It just has a better ring to it than “Albert’s steam engine vehicle.”  But, in this case, my editor was probably right.


  1. Betsy

    It looks like a fire engine to me.

  2. Cousin Ralph

    The toy is most definitely a “self-propelling steam fire engine” from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Although most such fire engines were pulled by horses, there were a rare few that were self-propelled. I would guess that the toy self-propelled fire engine is also quite rare and that this toy is worth a considerable amount on the antiques market.

    The 1874 edition of The American Cyclopaedia by George Ripley and Charles Anderson Dana on p. 211 shows a drawing of the Amoskeag engine purchased in 1873 by New York City for use in Engine House #20. The toy shows stylized versions of the major features of this actual fire engine: the bulbous air chamber immediately behind the driver (marked a in drawing), the steam cylinder for working the pumps behind that (marked c c in the drawing as this real engine has two cylinders), and finally the large boiler at the back (marked b in the drawing). The capstan or steering wheel is in front of the driver (marked g in the drawing). (To see the reference GOOGLE American Cyclopaedia “machine for throwing a stream” in GOOGLE Books).

    • sydney

      Wow, Ralph! YOU should have been my editor. Then, at the very least, Albert’s toy could have been called a “self-propelling steam fire engine” — way better than “steam engine vehicle” as it stands now. It is clear to me that the vehicle was not drawn by horses — it even has a steering wheel — but the driver is definitely wearing a red uniform and looks like a fireman. Where were you when I was arguing over those ‘corrections’ to my manuscript?! We can only hope that enough copies of “Dear Medora” sell that we can fine-tune the wording in the second printing!

  3. Cousin Ralph

    Sydney, this brings up an early memory from about the summer of 1953 when our family went to Garfield to help Grandpa Clive Gwinn and Uncle Willard Gwinn with the grain harvest. Uncle Willie (who just died on the 5th of Nov at the age of 96) let me ride in the John Deere Self-Propelled Model 55 Combine one day . Self-propelled was a rarity in the Palouse Country at that time as nearly everybody was still harvesting with “pull combines” behind large Caterpillar tractors (that had replaced large teams of horses in earlier days—in fact Grandpa Clive was one of the first in the area to switch from horses to a Cat). To keep me safe, Uncle Willie had me get inside of the grain bin and peer out the top as we went round and round the field. However, when the grain bin got fairly full we had to unload into a grain truck (probably driven by Dad) and Uncle Willie warned me to keep my feet out of the bottom of the bin—there was a nasty auger that was propelling the grain out the chute into the truck, and which could have easily chewed my feet off! Later in 1967 I actually drove a self-propelled combine in harvest—for just one day. Uncle Willie had me go back to driving truck as I kept getting the combine all plugged up by going too fast or dipping the header too close to the ground.

  4. Melinda

    I love the story about the John Deer Self-Propelled Model 55 Combine. In 1955 my family bought a ranch in Touchet. Dad’s first combine, probably bought in 1956 was a self-propelled JD 55. He used it the first year to open my uncle’s wheat field in Dayton. My uncle was using a pull combine and I think it was pulled with a D-6 Cat. Dad used it also harvesting our alfalfa seed. The concaves on the combine would get plugged easily with the alfalfa and it was my job to clean them out. My hands and arms were smaller and could do the job. Great memories.

    • Cousin Ralph

      My Uncle Willie, too, (that year in 1953 when I was just short of my 5th birthday) was “opening up” for all of the neighbors around Garfield. To our citified readers, “opening up” meant harvesting the grain around the perimeter—just enough so that the pull combine could take over without driving over uncut grain. I guess before they had self-propelled combines they always wasted a lot of grain around the perimeter just getting the equipment onto the field.

      Grain farming, at least in the days before covered cabs on tractors and combines, was most definitely a “Dirty Job.” In 1967 before harvest I recall “rod-weeding” the summer fallow (i.e. pulling a long turning rod that broke off the roots of weeds just beneath the soil in the field, or in the case of bindweed—aka wild morning glory—just twisting it up into a mess that had to be cleaned from the machinery) and coming in from a day’s work covered with a thin layer of the fine loess soil except for two circles where the goggles fit my face. The dry soil is about the consistency of flour and I think there is quite a large volcanic ash content. I recall after Mt. St. Helens blew her top back in 1980 that the volcanic ash covering everything around Garfield was indeed about like dirty grey flour! In those days before increased use of chemicals and fertilizer, farmers did not grow crop on the land every year, but on alternating years let the land lie fallow to build up the moisture level—but you still needed to keep it weeded. In drier areas to the west (say around Othello and Mansfield, to name a couple places—anybody else heard of Mansfield?) they still do summer fallow. I also recall that the barley harvest was particularly nasty. Barley chaff seems to have very small barbed bits that are particularly irritating to the skin and nasal passages. Anyway one summer working for Uncle Willie was enough farming for me!

      • sydney

        Hey, Ralph, it looks like you’ve got more than enough great stuff here to start your own blog!

  5. Stephanie Frieze

    Sydney, my mother’s brother died at the age of 13 in 1925. Like your grandmother, mine kept certain toys that so obviously meant so much to her that I’ve kept them, too. You know the opening of the movie To Kill a Mockingbird that shows a cigar box filled with the trinkets a child collects? I have Austin’s as well as a tiny cloth stuff pink bear. I like to put some of our family’s old toys out at Christmas.

    I like reading about the tractors. My father grew up on farms in the Missouri Ozarks and even long after he’d left the farm for a very different sort of life he enjoyed looking at and talking about the machinery they’d used on the farm.


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