A Special Toy

For our 10th wedding anniversary, Hank and I spent a week wandering to some of our favorite places. We included a visit to the museum at Washougal, Washington state, on the Columbia River. Hank is working on a legacy of family history stories for his children, and that little museum contains files of information on the early families of Washougal  (where he grew up) as well as items donated by those families. We found one of Hank’s childhood toys on display there. It brought back good memories to him. Here’s his story:

                                                          As a young boy, I loved to follow my Grandpa Huckins and his son, my Uncle Joe, around. I liked to imagine myself doing whatever they were doing.

This McCormick-Deering tractor with a Russell 
boiler powered the sawmill.

Grandpa and Uncle Joe supplemented the income from their small herd of milk cows by sawing lumber from logs on the home place. Originally, a large steam tractor powered the Huckins’ sawmill. It turned a line shaft which powered two four-foot circular saws and also caused the log carriage to move forward and backward, slicing logs into rough lumber.

In about 1945 they replaced the tractor with a steam boiler and built a brick furnace beneath it to burn slabs of wood from the mill. The fire boiled the water and produced steam to power a stationary single-cylinder steam engine. As a ten-year-old boy, I was fascinated as Grandpa and Uncle Joe heated heavy steel rods in the forge and used an anvil to shape them into hooks. The hooks suspended the huge boiler from the roof timbers of the sawmill.

The Huckins’ sawmill, with my dad in his Sunday clothes standing on a log in the log pond. 

Eager to help build the furnace, I put too much creek water in the mortar mix and Uncle Joe had to add more sand and cement to correct my mistake. For awhile, Uncle Joe’s smiling countenance clouded over, but as work progressed he returned to his usual jovial self. Imagine the smile that lit my face when Uncle Joe showed me a miniature steam engine like the one in the sawmill. It had been his toy when he was my age, and now he was giving it to me. The boiler held a pint of water. Three little burner cups fit in a drawer beneath it. He soaked cotton balls with wood alcohol and put them in the cups, then set the alcohol ablaze with a match. As it burned, it heated the water in the boiler. With the steam valve open, the steam made a whistling sound. With the valve closed, the steam drove a single cylinder which turned a large wheel, just like Grandpa and Uncle Joe’s big steam engine.

What fun! A side benefit of owning my own steam engine was a lesson in economics. Wood alcohol could only be obtained at a local drugstore at the whopping big price (in 1945) of ninety cents a pint plus three cents tax. That left barely enough of a dollar bill to buy a nickel candy bar. Since money was in short supply my steam engine seldom got fired up. Perhaps that was why it was still in working condition years later when my mother passed it on to the Washougal museum.

The toy steam engine

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