Builder: David Spencer
First run: Dec. 15, 1888, Pleasant Mount, Pa.
Speed: About 4 m.p.h.
Power: About 10- 20 h.p.
Weight: About 3,100 pounds
Motion: Went forward and backward
Wheels: Rear, 60” diameter; front 54”
Featured: Boiler, smokestack, rear engines, fire blower, injector for water, auxiliary pump, grates, brakes on each rear wheel
Crew: A fireman and a driver
WHITE MILLS - It was 1888. A lumberman in northern Wayne County- Pleasant Mount - become one of the daring agricultural adventurers to develop a steam powered, self-propelled tractor.
Although the first use of such a marvel on an American farm can be traced to Ohio inventor Obed Hussey in 1855, this was still very unusual in the days ox and horse power ruled on any ground not having a railroad track.
Spencer’s massive, rumbling contraption, spewing steam and coal or wood smoke ambled along, pulling his logs. It was the talk of the day.
This was way before anyone in these parts considered the horseless carriage, but Spencer took his tractor out on the road too, celebrating July 4th and giving kids the ride of their young lives.
The Spencer tractor eventually sat idle, but a sense of its place in history was not entirely lost. In the 1940’s it was acquired by the Wayne County Historical Society (WCHS), and this marvel of its age stood proudly next to the museum on Main Street in Honesdale for several years. For a while it was at the Farm Museum at the Wayne County Fair.
Badly needing a proper shelter outside the museum, and not faring so well in the elements, the Society trustees eventually let it go, selling it sometime in the 1980’s. It was removed from Wayne County.
It had become a footnote to Wayne County’s already rich heritage in steam, the Stourbridge Lion and the horse-drawn Silsby fire engine being two other famous examples.
It came back
Then on February 7, 2004, it came back.
The Spencer steam tractor was located in 2003 by Wayne County resident and farm advocate Dave Williams, sitting forlornly outside on a property in Stockertown, Northampton County. The Society re-acquired it and brought it back to Wayne County to be restored and hopefully displayed once again in its rightful place. It was brought home on a roll-back owned by Tim Hall, of Pleasant Mount.
Linda Dix Lee, Society trustee who chaired the Farm Museum for many years and a descendant of David Spencer- as well as a Pleasant Mount native, oversaw the project for several years. She spearheaded the effort to have the tractor returned to its native soil. There were three attempts to start the restoration, but a proper site had not been found.
Eventually, however, the tractor, stored back in its home turf, Pleasant Mount, needed quick intervention. It had eventually been taken back outside in a field, and the affect of the weather was its undoing. It seemed all hope was lost- again.
Another band of hardy volunteers connected with the Wayne County Historical Society have taken on the effort to salvage the steam tractor for posterity.
Kim Erickson and Fred Murray inspected the crumbling heap of heritage that had been the once amazing engine forging the path to the future, a day when self-propelled machines would rule not only the fields but every road. Murray said that the pile of wood and iron pieces were frozen in the ground that winter day a couple years ago.
Pioneer Construction helped to remove it from the ground, in November 2016.
“Five Star Bunch”
Murray, who is retired from the longtime Murray Hardware Store, is the crew chief of what he calls the “Five Star Bunch” who have painstakingly evaluated and cleaned every piece, and like a jigsaw puzzle, have been begun the arduous but historic task of bringing David Spencer’s tractor back together, over 130 years after he built it.
The team consists of Fred Murray, Rich Robbins, Frank Ward, Rod Warner and Steve Weber.
He commented that they work well together, and worked by consensus. He said they have just the right number of workers.
Thanks to New Wave
They found a wonderful place to do the work, and it is thanks to Rudy Schemtiz, who is allowing them free use of the back end of the former Chroma Tube factory in White Mills, Murray noted. Schemitz operates his business, New Wave Custom Woodworking, Inc. in another part of the building, and has provided a lot of invaluable assistance.
Kim Ericson knew Schemitz, and made the connection, Murray explained.
We can’t undersell what Rudy has done for us,” he said.
Murray stated that finding a location to work was key. A group of interested persons wanted to get started a few years ago, Murray said, but a suitable site was not found.
In the White Mills plant, they have been able to spread out and sort the pieces, and tinker as they go.
Without the benefit of having any blueprints or manual, the “Five Star Bunch” has relied on numerous pictures of the steam tractor taken from different angles, their own expertise drawn from diverse backgrounds, help from others, ingenuity and a plain knack to visualize what goes where, who it functioned and how it looked. Measurements are taken down and plans are drawn from scratch.
New Wave has done a lot of the drilling and milling of the wood. The tractor had a wooden cab. All of the original wood pieces have to be replaced due to the level of deterioration.
Most of the iron pieces are being wire brushed, painted and reused. Some pieces have had to be fabricated. Although rusty, Murray was glad to report, “They didn’t rust beyond use.” While there are many techniques to remove rust, they found that the wire brush, and old fashioned “elbow grease” is the best way.
Noting is being welded. No one was welding when the tractor was made, he notes. Instead, everything is held together with rivets.
Steve Weber’s brother Gary Weber, and Steve’s nephew Jake Weber, have been fabricating metal pieces. They will be making a new metal smokestack, since the old one is too far gone.
Tom Myles, owner of the Stourbridge Line train excursions, provided space to store the tractor pieces before being moved to New Wave.
The wheels are a study in themselves, and make quite a display just propped up against the wall. The two back wheels are 60 inches across. The two in front are 54 inches. Made of wood, with spokes and rim like a wagon wheel, the circumference is lined with iron strap, as is the center hole for the axle. Chips of red paint are seen.
“We’re blessed,” Murray said, looking over the wheels’ condition. Of the four wheels, they have one front wheel and one back wheel in “pretty good” shape and one of each that is in “bad.” That will allow refinishing of the two good ones, to put on the tractor.
The ones in poor condition, and other parts that can’t be put back on, will be kept for display.
The goal is not to restore the tractor so it could ever operate, or even to move on its own wheels. Fabricating two new wheels is thought to be too expensive, he said.
Instead, the tractor will be set up as an educational exhibit.
Murray said the plan is to rebuild the tractor as close as possible to the original.
While suggested that they were originally Civil War cannon wheels, he expressed doubt because the cannons would not have been self-propelled.
He was also surprised to find the tractor used a differential, a gear train with three shafts. This allows for a set of gears to rotate at different speeds. He said it was his guess that the Spencer tractor was designed to be able to give power to something else.
“I have seen huge projects tackled by local volunteers for the benefit of the community many times,” said Carol Dunn, Executive Director of the WCHS. “But this project, to restore the Spencer Steam Tractor from a pile of rusted metal and rotten wood, is a project that will be remembered and pointed to as an incredible effort by a few wonderful people who took on an almost impossible task and conquered it!”
She added, “It is a one-of-a-kind machine that belongs in the history books, with a story that has never been told to the rest of the world.”
Where it will go
The work goes on normally every Tuesday morning at the White Mills location, and on Thursdays as well after the summer.
“It’s a one of a kind, made locally,” when Murray was asked why he viewed this project as important. “It was built pretty much before anything [like this] could be had commercially. It was the start of an agricultural revolution. A lot of people spent a lot of time and money because they thought this was worthwhile. Why lose it?”
He added that the heritage of David Spencer’s tractor goes along with the motto Murray has been pushing, “Wayne County- the Land of Hidden History.”
The Wayne County Historical Society plans to exhibit the newly refurbished Spencer Steam Tractor in the new addition constructed in 2018, to the Farm Museum at the Wayne County Fair. While they hope to be able to have it brought to its new home in 2019, Murray was cautious, noting they have only volunteer labor and have to expect the unexpected as they go along in competing this jigsaw puzzle of history.
Lew and Linda Lee visited the work site recently. Linda commented,”I was thrilled at the thought of finally seeing the tractor on its way to the finish line. I was not disappointed! It is now in the hands of a team of dedicated people, determined to bring it to the original goal of a restored steam tractor, representing a part of Wayne County’s transportation history.”
How to help
Dunn said that the WCHS is deeply appreciative of donations that might be made toward the completion of the restoration. Donations may be sent to: Wayne County Historical Society, P.O. Box 446, Honesdale PA 18431. For more information, call the WCHS at 570-253-3240.