Barney was young, big, and brawny, but he was mentally handicapped. In the late 1850's he worked at Thomas Scott Morgan's steam mill in Stark Township. This mill was located on what is, in 1994, F highway, north of highway 54 in Hickory County, Missouri.
Barney was, as fireman, supposed to keep even heat on the fire box to insure an ample supply of steam from the boiler to operate the mill. Long saplings had been hauled to the mill. It was Barney's job to cut the wood and carry it to the engine room. He kept his ax sharp on a large grindstone.
Barney had a key to the engine room and was supposed to arrive early to start the fire and get up steam. He locked up and left for home one hour before the mill closed.
Barney was strong and a good worker. He even took over the job of janitor and swept up the soiled feed. He fed this to the hogs in the feed lot.
Morgan walked to the mill each morning from his home south of the road. He was proud of how well Barney did his job. Sometimes he even bragged about his own ability to find such a good fireman. The day would come when he would doubt his own sanity in hiring Barney.
One morning as he neared the mill he heard an unusual amount of noise coming from the boiler. He began to run. The noise got louder and Morgan ran even faster. He rounded the back corner of the mill and saw steam coming out of the engine room. Looking inside he saw a weight on the steam pop-off valve. Barney was climbing up the homemade ladder to hang another weight.
Morgan knocked Barney off the ladder but the ladder fell over too. Quickly, Morgan reset the ladder and he scampered up it to knock the weight off the relief valve. Steam roared out and filled the engine room.
Morgan went out to sit on the wood pile to catch his breath. He looked up and there was Barney glaring at him for knocking him off the ladder. Morgan thought how close Barney had come to destroying the mill. He had half a mind to thresh Barney, forgetting that Barney was young, strong and bigger than himself.
Luckily just then a customer drove up the mill ramp with a load of grain. He didn't thresh Barney but he never trusted him again. When Barney went home that night Morgan found the weights that Barney had used and threw them away as far as he could. He used the ax to chop the ladder into small pieces.
For his part, Barney pouted and had as little to do with Morgan as possible. He felt Morgan had been mean to him. He never knew how close he came to reaching great heights above the earth if that mill had blown sky high.
Barney outlived Morgan by twenty years. No one seemed to want to hire him, so he became a farmer. He liked to save things. Sometimes he even cut up old shoes to use for door hinges. He never tried to save steam again.
Note: Barney was not the man's real name.
Posted: 23 Sep 2009