Bring Back To Life the John P. Parker Pulverizer
by Ben Schulte of Columbus, IN
photographs by Jim Scherer
In May of this year Jim Butcher of Carriage Hill Farm, Huber Heights, Ohio put to use a “Parker-Built McColm Soil Pulverizer” as part of a horse drawn tillage demonstration. This particular pulverizer is an implement that was brought back into existence as part of my college capstone project at the University of Cincinnati College of Applied Science (formerly known as the Ohio Mechanics Institute). As a Mechanical Engineering Technology major there, I took on this unique project that entailed the recreation of a farm implement known as the “Parker Soil Pulverizer” for donation to the John P. Parker Society and Museum of Ripley, Ohio for display and for use in occasional demonstrations. However, I must back up a bit further here to provide you, the dedicated reader, a little of what is much deserved background.
A Bit of History
John P. Parker was a slave who had worked in the foundry trade in Mobile, Alabama in the 1840’s. There he conceived of an idea for a new type of soil pulverizer or “clod smasher” having uniquely shaped feet and spike features on the wheels, but his shop foreman stole the idea and claimed it as his own. Later, after he had purchased his own freedom and ventured to Ripley, Ohio, he came into his own foundry and machine shop business making a variety of products. Staying busy with running a business during the day, he also worked tirelessly to help many slaves to cross the Ohio River from the banks along the Kentucky/Ohio border by cover of night, and continue on their journey along the Underground Railroad towards freedom. His story is an amazing journey, intriguing, and filled with excitement. A recount of his life can be found in the book His Promised Land and offers unique insight into the story of a stout individual’s amazing journey and participation in the Underground Railroad.
Parker’s venture manufactured a variety of products, including those agricultural in nature. The 1880’s saw the addition of a McColm’s patent pulverizer to his build and sale lists. This particular pulverizer exhibited cast wheels usually pictured in groups of eight on an axle and wooden frame pulled by two horses. These wheels looked to be approximately thirty inches in diameter or so and give the appearance of a “crowsfoot” type land roller with its offset blunt feet. Though not his patent, Parker laid his distinctive mark on this implement in casting features and craftsmanship. Whether this work rekindled his original ideas for the pulverizer he had brought to life in his scale model back in the 1840’s as a slave is unknown. However, a patent dated December 9th, 1892 was taken out for “new and useful improvements in soil pulverizers” as the Parker Soil Pulverizer. Advertisements now featured Parker Pulverizers with his patented design wheels, no longer those of Stephen McColm. Mr. Parker’s pulverizers, as well as other of his patented products like the Parker Tobacco Press (of the screw type) were manufactured well after his death in early 1900 and seemed to be quite popular in the surrounding area and elsewhere in the country.
Cast Iron Lust or The Historical Preservationist’s Lament
Enter Charles Nuckolls of the John P. Parker Historical Society. He approached Dr. Maria Kreppel and others at the College of Applied Science inquiring about having students make models of Parker’s patented devices. Dave Conrad, a teacher at the college in turn approached myself and Dave Ramsey about taking on the project for elective credit including research guidance under Dr. Jason Krupar. I have had a love for old equipment, especially farm equipment, since I was little, probably having much to do with my Mother reading me a book entitled Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Further intensifying my passion and interest was the time I spent on my Grandpa’s farm in Okeana, Ohio. My Grandpa, Joeseph Schulte, was still binding corn with a McCormick-Deering binder and Farmall H; and I was lucky enough to have bounced around on the stamped metal seat as he worked it through the corn field. So I gladly said yes, besides, we’d just be making models of equipment that already existed…
Well, all is not always easy in the field of equipment preservation and recreation, and it was in this case that much information was indeed missing. All that existed of the Parker Pulverizer was the patent document from 1890, and this patent document was in no shape to be scaled accurately as the features were hand sketched freely with what seemed to be rather exaggerated features. There were also sixteen cast wheels present at the Parker House Museum in Ripley. These were found and purchased at an auction by Donna Covert, a previous employee of Mr. Chatham who had purchased the foundry long after Parker was gone. But these wheels were twenty-nine inches in diameter and seemed to closely resemble the newspaper ads from the 1880’s for the Parker-built McColm patent pulverizer. Countless hours of research ensued trying to assemble Parker’s industrial history and it was our good fortune that Alison Gibson of the Public Library in Ripley located an ad in an 1891 edition of The Ripley Bee while scrolling through countless rolls of microfilm. And so finally, there it was before us, a detailed image of what the true Parker pulverizer looked like. After months of dreaming what it would look like, I was speechless when I gazed upon the detailed woodcut image. It was beautiful.
All in the Details of the Cut
As seen in the 1891 woodcut of what has determined to be Parker’s true pulverizer, the implement consists of eight cast wheels positioned on an axle mounted to a wooden frame and pulled by two draft animals. The operator is supported on a structure consisting of two curved straps and one curved foot guard sheet with what looks to be a cast iron seat mounted on top. It was noted that square head bolts were used to assemble the majority of the implement together. A tongue of unknown length is seen to be present with teamster’s double tree. To get a general idea of the size of the major components of the Parker pulverizer, such as the wheel diameter and frame members, the McColm and Parker pulverizer advertisements were employed. Similar features in size were identified including some of the frame components.
Since the rough diameter of the Parker built McColm wheels could be found from the wheels that existed at the Parker house in Ripley, the size of other components within the McColm pulverizer ad could be identified. Next, those features like in size between the two documents were used to find the diameter of the Parker wheel casting and other sizes of related items. Established dimensions were cross checked by using a different feature to begin the scaling process. The Parker wheel casting, for example, was found to be approximately forty-four inches in diameter from spike tip to spike tip.
To fill in the details about the unknown features and un-scalable sizes, various sources were utilized. For example, Lynn Miller of Small Farmer’s Journal was sent a copy of the pulverizer newspaper image and contacted via phone. Over the course of an hour and half he shed an amazing amount of light on missing details. Mr. Miller introduced himself as one who has farmed with horses for the past thirty years or so of his life, written and published extensively, and has made it his life’s work. He informed, for example, that the cast iron seat depicted in the image is a “square” or “long” period cast iron seat typical of early implements, complete with “crotch killer.” It was different than the standard round cast iron and pressed sheet steel seats that I was used to seeing. He also explained general size and operation of various features of the horse drawn implement including details on the “double tree,” hammer strap, tongue, bearings etc. Mr. Miller also recommended his book entitled Workhorse Handbook Second Edition which was a treasure trove of wonderful information. A day long visit to Jim Butcher of Carriage Hill Farm (whom Mr. Miller had put me in contact with) was also paid during the research phase of the project. Carriage Hill is a 100 acre 1880’s period working farm set within a thousand or so acre park. The entire day was spent with him and his crew learning, watching, and experiencing what it means to work with horses. Much additional and useful information about antique horse drawn farm machinery and their use was gained from this trip, not to mention long lasting friendships.
Meanwhile, my senior year was approaching fast, and all of us students began to contemplate what our final project would be with a bit of urgency. Being MET students our capstone project tasks us with identifying a need for a product or solution, bringing that product through the design phase, then building that product and displaying at the Technical Exposition open to the public (Tech Expo), put on each year in Cincinnati by our college at the end of Spring quarter. So I had the harebrained idea to embark on recreating not only a scale model of Parker’s Pulverizer, but to also recreate the real thing in full-scale, complete with fresh new wheel castings. The museum had a need for true relics of Parker’s industrial past to better tell a more complete story about his life to the visiting public, and I was going to try to deliver the product. Why not? My first co-op job had been in a pattern shop and besides I had the most important ingredient to make any crazy idea work, passion and enthusiasm, for such relics of our industrial and agricultural past.
Unfortunately a problem with the patterns resulted in not having enough time for correction to produce eight Parker wheel castings and still meet the project deadlines for graduation. Instead, one casting was made with defect present, and the eight Parker-built McColm castings from Ripley were employed during exposition on the wooden implement frame we had built for the larger Parker wheels. The exposition was a success, earning a exposition award and a Bachelor’s diploma for myself. Present in the booth was the one-off forty-four inch diameter Parker wheel casting we produced; beautiful even with it’s pattern defect. Also on exhibit in our booth was the rolling wooden frame complete with teamster support structure with the long cast iron seat (after scouting out a few cast iron seat auctions that didn’t bear results, I luckily ran across one on Ebay! It very strangely appeared to be almost an exact match with that pictured in the woodcut), the patterns, and items loaned to me by the museum and others such as Parker’s large tobacco press, and a rather large mechanical ladle from the old foundry.
After graduation, the problems with the patterns were corrected through many long hours of hand finishing work and patience; and they currently await an opening in the foundry’s pouring schedule. For the time being, the smaller Parker-Built McColm wheels remain on the implement’s axle, and are those seen in the pictures accompanying this article. Jim Butcher of Carriage Hill kindly tried it out recently (as mentioned above) on the ground he and others worked as part of their tillage demonstration, and the small cast wheels didn’t do too bad at breaking up the clods. It will be wonderful though to finally see how well the true Parker pulverizer wheels perform, once they have been cast, and to finally have the pulverizer exhibited at the Parker House in Ripley, Ohio. It may then very well be the first time in seventy-five years or more that a true Parker Pulverizer once again works ground by the steady hands of a teamster. After that, the pulverizer can finally be brought back home to be placed on exhibit at the John P. Parker House in Ripley, Ohio.
A Special Thank You
My last year of college was filled with countless hours of work, worry, and stress. I was lucky though to have much help in the form of funding, donated resources, and in persons willing to lend a hand or offer encouragement. Northbend Pattern Works donated the services of their first class pattern shop, Cast Fab Technologies donated the casting services necessary to produce the Parker wheels, Nick Kirst of the same company designed the gating for the mold and was a constant source of support and advice; Glenn Grismere turned the Hickory wood bearings, James McCafferty offered 3D design consultation, Vince Moore donated time and the use of his forming roll to shape the curved metal strap framework, Wilhelm Lumber Co. of Brookville, IN donated the lumber for the frame, Byron Haban offered countless hours of finishing help on the patterns, Doug Rife helped to make the college’s machine shop available, Professor Allen Arthur provided guidance as my project advisor, and countless others helped me along the way. I could not have pushed this dream as far as I did without their help.