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Songs of the Iron Men

by Christian Williams

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Upon my cottage porch I sit and dream of happy days, when old steam threshers rolled along the lanes and dusty ways. I liked to watch those clouds of steam, and loved the whistles tone. I liked to hear the drive wheels ring when they would crush a stone. I’d meet it half way up the lane and walk along beside. And I’d envy my big brother as he ran the thing with pride. The engine seemed to have pride too, as though it were alive. It seemed to try to please him, and would purr when he would drive. The little modern combine has replaced the threshing crew. But modern harvests do not have the romance that we knew. So when our task on earth is done and we are called above, I hope to meet that threshing crew that I had learned to love.
So you like this country, stranger? Well, I wish you could have seen it in the nineties when the land was new and we were raising wheat; When the Valley of the Red was one great sea of fife and bluestem, raising grain enough to furnish bread for all the world to eat. It was nothing like this modern sort of farming with its turkeys, and its sheep and hogs, and cows and hens, and beets and spuds, and hay. It was something big and splendid like the swing and sweep of seasons. Seems as if the Lord intended men to farm that grander way. Those were the days of genuine thrashing - yes, I used to own a “steamer.” Nothing like those modern tractors with their sharp, staccato bark. Oh, to hear an engine chugging, and a blower’s hollow moaning. And at dusk and dawn the whistles as they talked across the dark! We’d start thrashing in September, when the lazy winds were sleeping, and the air was still and balmy, and a purple haze was spread over all the distant landscape. Evenings stillness brought the eerie minor chant of far off blowers as the sun sank round and red. Always liked to watch the bundle racks roll in beside the feeder. And the ease with which the spikes would toss the heavy bundles in. Where the band cutters could seize them - that was poetry of motion, Then the growling concaves crunched them and away the chaff would spin. Thrashed a quarter section daily; but in fields where straw was heavy, or was damp, and we had failed to clear off all the shocks by night, we would fire near-by straw pile; as the flames lit earth and heaven we would finish with a flourish in a blaze of ruddy light. Gone forever, those great straw fires, gone the blowers’ somber chanting And the giant drive-belt’s humming and the rich, warm smell of grain. It's the price we pay for progress, wheat no longer rules the Valley. With its passing went a splendor we shall never see again.
On the Farm 02:00
Down on the farm about half past four I slip on my pants and sneak out the door out of the yard I run like the dickens to milk ten cows and feed the chickens; clean out the barn, curry Nancy and Jiggs, separate the cream and slop the pigs; work two hours and eat like a Turk and then I'm ready for a full days work. (chorus) Now some people tell us there ain’t no hell but they never farmed and they can’t tell. When spring rolls around I take another chance while the fringe grows longer on my old gray pants. Then I grease the wagon and put on the rack, throw a jug of water in an oldgrain sack, Hitch up the horses and hurry down the lane- Must get the hay in for it looks like rain. Look over yonder, sure as I’m born, Cattle on the rampage and cattle in the corn, start across the medder, run a mile or two, Heaving like I’m wind broke, get wet all through. (chorus) Get back to the horses then for recompence Nancy gets a-straddle the barbed wire fence; Joints all a-aching and muscles in a jerk I’m fit as a fiddle for a full days work. Work all summer ’till winter is nigh then figure up the books and heave a big sigh; Worked all year, didn’t make a cent, got less cash now that I had last spring. (chorus)
One hay-wire sawmill, nice new location, ten mile haul to the shipping station. Half mile to plank road rest of it mud, six bridges, all condemned but otherwise good. Timber yellow cypress, very few knots, awfully sound between rotten spots. Fire box boiler, flues leak some, injector patched with chewing gum. Darn good whistle and carriage track. Nine feet left of the old smoke stack. Belts a little ragged, rats ate the laces. Head saw cracked in a couple of places. The engine knocks and is loose on its base and the flywheel’s broke in just one place. There’s a pile of side lumber and a few cull ties but they are attached by some credit guys. There’s a mortgage on the land that’s now past due, and I still owe for the machinery, too. But if you want to get rich here’s the place to begin, for it’s a darn good layout for the shape it’s in.
Old Charlie was an engineer back in the days of steam; To live again that yesteryear had always been his dream. The sound of quiet, rushing steam, of cinder-filled exhaust, The clank of bull gears it would seem were doomed forever lost. The puff of straw-fire up the stack, the whistle, full of cheer, the creaking platform at the back, he'd give his soul to hear. One day an old-time Case he bought; he scraped and brushed it bright. “I'll make it just like new,” he thought, he worked all day and night. Charlie had been a Fancy Dan, the folks who know him say, Was what is called a well-dressed man before IT came his way. Now his shirt is torn, his pants are ripped, he doesn’t wash his face; His knuckles smashed, his nails chipped, as he works upon that Case. The tractor’s got a brand new face, unmarred by passing time; But Charlie looks just like the Case when it was cached in grime. The tractor’s cared for like a pup, now it's Dapper Dan, And Charlie seldom washes up but he’s a happy man.
In August when the grain was sheared of gold And neighbors gathered where the work was due, Then last years sorties were brushed off and told To each new member of the threshing crew. They started with the dawn and worked till dark Their laughter flashed beneath the burning sun To men it was vacation time--a lark For work that neighbors share is mostly fun. And women who must feed this multitude Found pleasure heaping dinner table high With pyramids of wholesome, tasty food Fried chicken, garden corn and apple pie. But combines will outmode the threshing crew And men will lose a place where friendship grew.
He toils and moils from sun to sun; he never knows when work is done; his schedule keeps him on the run, this lazy farmer. He has no time to hunt or fish, it is in vain for him to wish, to travel slower than a S-W-I-S-H, this pokey farmer. Just wait 'til he stops working hard, plays golf, and has a Union card: the world will then with awe regard, this low-down farmer.
I am sitting here and dreaming of the days of long ago how we loved those grand old steamers as we drove them to and from. How we had to watch the water and the lubricator too and we had to blow the whistle to call the threshing crew. We would watch the feeder rolling listen to the engine bark and we worked from early morning often times till after dark. There were times when we were happy, there were times when we were blue when we hit a rotten culvert and the drivers fell right through. We would work and sweat and tussle lift and tug with might and main till we got the good old Russell rolling down the road again. The good old days are gone forever and it makes me very sad when I think of those old steamers and the pleasure that we had.
He brought his plows into my place to have them fixed one day. He said, 'I'm in a hurry, boys. I'd like it right away!' We left the other work we had, and fixed this fellow's plows, so he could get back home again to feed and milk his cows. Then when the job was finished and we helped him load his plow, he said, 'Well, Bill I'm sorry but I cannot pay you now. Now I will shear my sheep next week, and when I sell the wool, I'll come right in to see you and I'll settle up in full.' I waited and I waited 'til I met him on the street. I said, 'My friend what happened? Have you not sheared your sheep?' He answered, 'Bill I'm sorry but the money is all spent. But when I'm through with threshing I will pay you every cent.' I waited and I waited 'till the cutting had been done and every threshing outfit had completed all their run. Then I met this same old fellow and asked him for my pay. I told him of his promise on the street that summer day. His answer was the same as yore, the money was all gone and I must keep on waiting for the work that I had done. He said, 'Bill, don't you worry just as sure as you are born, I'll be right in and pay you when I've gathered in my corn.' Now the corn has all been gathered the Spring is here again, and still this fellow owes me - I've been waiting all in vain. Then I get to wondering as I stand by the fire, how a real dirt farmer can be such a doggone liar.
The smoke is gone from the prairie, and the boys from the cook shack door the whistle is silenced forever and its call is heard no more. No more in the summers darkness will the engineer rise at three and crawl in a sooty fireboxes black as black could be. No more on sunlit mornings will we load the racks with sheaves and across the fields go trailing to some old faithful Reeves. No more we'll wash together in the dishpans rimmed with dirt and dry on a towel wet and grimy or the tail of our sweaty shirt. No more we'll lay in the, hay loft and listen to the rain drops beat while the hoboes told of the charmers 'mong the girls on Tremont Street. No more we'll hear their lusty songs or the thrumm of the old guitar as a coyote wailed his troubles to the points of a lonely star. No more we'll sit in the moonlight when all was quiet and still and list to the farm girls singing the songs that gave a thrill. No more we'll follow the threshing from the place where hot winds blow to the far fields of Canada the land of the North light's glow. No more we'll eat the cook shack grub herring, beans and punk java, tomatoes, lovely spuds sow bacon by the chunk. The coffee'd come in on crutches The butter'd walk in alone. The cake they baked was soggy the bread was heavy as stone. No more we'll tail from sun to sun but know the joy of rest we grieve the threshermen’s passing and yet we know its best. The smoke is gone from the prairie and the boys from the cook shack door the whistle is silenced forever and its call is heard no more.
The Iron Horse now silent stands among the towering forest trees, like an aged man whose tired hands enjoy the days of rest and ease. Its days of youth and manhood past; its beauty and its glamour gone, its fiery nostrils cold at last, no more is heard the whistle's tone. (chorus) When the Great Recorder comes at last to check our deeds against our name, He will not ask “Have you won or lost?” but “How have you played the game?” In bygone days its handsome form with matchless energy endowed, has trodden fields and highways long and labored honestly and proud. Around it now the children play without a thought of pain or harm, the birds and squirrels feel no dismay nor view it with undue alarm. (chorus) The boiler shell is old and weak, the fire sheets are patched and frail, the aged flues are full of leaks, the furnace crown is decked with scale. Its ragged coat has lost its shine, the iron feet are red with rust, the massive gears no longer whine, the wooden parts have gone to dust. (chorus) For those of us who loved to feel the marvelous power these engines gave, fond memories around us steal that will not cease this side the grave. May we who drove these faithful steeds prove true as they were in their day. When Time and conscience test our deeds we need not fear the light of day. (chorus)
No fancy long-tailed Sunday coat or proper satin tie Need grace my grave – or fragrant flowers perfume me when I die. Just blow a whistle over me – don’t tuck it in for burying. But give it to an engine man that it go on a carrying. Steam engine joy – Mt. Pleasant way; And I shall go – still tarrying. And I shall go – still tarrying.


Before gas tractors plowed the fields, steam traction engines ruled the prairie. Now, the glory days of steam farming live on through the words of the men and women who experienced them firsthand.

These 12 poems, originally submitted to the steam engine enthusiast magazine Iron-Men Album back in the 1950s, have been unearthed and set to original music by Christian Williams. Enjoy this glimpse of a little-known chapter of American history.

"The undisputed best 'steamfolk' album
you can lay your hands on." - SepiaChord.com


released April 1, 2009

Poems written by Chestor Phalor, Eva K. Anglesburg, Harry Fischback, Ernest Pawson, E.C. Harsch, Helen Virden, Mrs. B.K. Francis, John Kelly, J.F. Loffelmacher, Chas. L. Genter, O.H. Nieman and Mae Baber.

Original music composed, performed and recorded by Christian Williams.

Album design and layout by Jeannine Snyder.

Produced by Ogden Publications, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609.


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Christian Williams Lawrence

Christian Williams is a self-taught musician, experimental composer, and visual artist. His passion for expression has led him to dabble in a wide variety of music styles, ranging from dark acoustic folk music inspired by the American prairie to abstract sound art utilizing acoustic loops and field recordings. ... more

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