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The Soul Steam Museum salutes metal art

By By Georgia E. Frye/staff writer
Oct. 6, 2003
Have you ever wondered what it was like in the days before electricity?
If so, you may want to visit the Salute to Metal Art Event Day at the Soul Steam Feed Works site in downtown Meridian.
Jim McRae, owner of the Soul Steam Feed Works site, and Greg Hatcher, project manager, have planned a fun-filled day of activities and tours on Saturday.
McRae and Hatcher met with The Meridian Star editorial board last week to talk about steam engines, the event and their hopes for an industrial museum.
The Meridian Star: Talk about the educational value of steam engines and why you think it's important people have an appreciation for the way things once were done?
Jim McRae: Before steam, power was dependent on the weather. If the river was low, you couldn't get the water wheel to turn or if the wind was too high, it would blow your wind mill away.
Steam power only required two basic elements water and fire. Man felt like he had made a giant step forward, which he had, and that made the Industrial Revolution possible.
In the early 1900s, Lauderdale County had dozens of steam-powered saw mills and they all used steam engines such as the one will we have on display Saturday.
The Star: Steam is a clean form of energy. Is there any possibility of steam making a comeback?
McRae: Not in a practical matter. There is not enough fuel to fire the engines that would be required to replace what we have now.
We do have nuclear power, which is a misnomer, because it is actually steam power. The nuclear fission is what furnishes the heat that makes the steam that drives the turbines that turn the electrical generators. So, we still have steam power in that sense, and we do have coal fire generating plants. That is the primary use of steam at this time, other than a hobby.
There is a large live steam group of hobbyists in the U.S. particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast where industry and farming used a lot more steam than we did down here. They have a hundred or more steam meets scattered throughout the country in the fall that are well attended.
There is lots of interest, and we think it might be of interest in this area.
The Star: Tell us how you came to be interested in this issue?
McRae: As a child back in the 1930s, my father ran several of these steam engines on small saw mills. We lived in Whynot. I can remember seeing the steam engines run, and in the late 1930s, the diesel power unit came into being and that replaced the steam engine. They were easier to operate and easier to get out into the woods and didn't require as much labor and that was the next generation of technology. The saw mills after that were powered with diesel fuel. We don't have a single steam powered lumber mill left in Lauderdale County.
Soul was very instrumental in making the lumber industry function. If it hadn't been for Soul, most of the mills could not have operated. Not only did they furnish the mill supplies and fix broken parts, but they sold the twin cylinder steam engine.
That is where the name Soul Steam Feed Works comes from this little engine fed the wood through the saw. A lot of people confuse "feed" with animal feed or something like that, but it was feeding the log through the saw and the engine was small but powerful.
Those engines were sold all over the world, and a number of them are still in use in India and South America. They weren't just for saw mills. They were used for hoisting engines because they were controllable. They were used on boats and in building construction.
The Star: Tell us about Event Day at the Soul Museum.
Greg Hatcher: We start at 10 a.m. We will have some blacksmiths there giving demonstrations. Linda Crevitt will be there with her broom-making machine. Jim McRae will have his Frick Eclipse Steam Engine there and he will have that operating, and he has also fixed it so the Soul engine will be working that day. Then, we will have a catfish fry.
We will give tours of the building, and Alabama Art Casting will be there doing the mold-making class and they will also explain some procedures and things that go on in the foundry.
We will light off the cupola furnace at 5 p.m. and it will run until about 8 p.m. and the iron will be ready to pour at about 6:15 p.m.
The Star: What should people do if they want to help the site become an actual museum?
McRae: That day we will have people stationed with forms that people can fill out. Our lowest sponsorship fee is $15. We have some that are higher, and we have some people who are sponsoring it at that level.