For 76-year-old Ernie Giles of Almonte, the International Plowing Match is a chance to prove that new doesn’t always mean better. Proudly blowing the steam whistle on his 1906 17-horsepower Sawyer Massey steam engine, Giles said, “Nothin’ beats these old engines. They run on wood and water. You can’t be more efficient than that.” At the plowing match’s antique and historic exhibit, about 75 old tractors, steam pumps and threshing mills were polished and gleaming as owners fired them up and demonstrated their skill. Chugging to life, the old engines coughed out black smoke and jerked unsteadily along the grass.
Grey-haired farmers reminisced about the old days as they watched the machines sputter and cough. “I remember using one of those when I was a youngster. They sure gave you a rocky ride,” said Giles, pointing to a passing tractor. Giles was more than happy to talk about his steam engine with interested spectators.
Used for driving grain threshers, filling silos, crushing rock and sawing logs, these engines were popular right through the 1930s, he said. Giles bought his engine from an old Quebec farmer in 1964 and spent three years making new parts, cleaning and restoring it. “This sort of thing has always been in my family. My grandfather had a threshing outfit like this and I remember when I was about five or six I was quite anx ious to use it. “He said I was too young. But now I’ve got my own engine to play with.” Covered with a fine spray of black oil from the engine, Giles pushed back his cap and fondly . patted the steel wheel of the engine. “See the piston moving over here. And down here is where the steam builds up. “I’ve always been fascinated by engines and it’s a real joy just to watch it work.”
Giles said he’s used the engine for threshing several times since he restored it. “It was real old time farming. It took me right back to the ’30s. I could just see myself at 20, threshing the grain. “But back then of course you were lucky if you worked two days a week.” A member of the Golden Triangle Steam and Antique Preservers Association, Giles swears the old engines were better made than the new machines on the market. “They built them big and heavy and well. They were able to handle the job without breaking down every second day.” The noise and the smoke from the old engines were too much for some spectators, however. “I can’t imagine how anybody used one of these and survived,” said Esther Gordonson of Vars. “If the whistles and engine noise didn’t make you deaf, the smoke would kill your lungs.”