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March 25, 2017
Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum rises from historic machine shop to national significance
Purchasing a shuttered old machine shop to create an industrial museum seemed like a good idea in 2002. But organizers of the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum, in Meridian, could not foresee just how special the property would become.
Their efforts preserved Soulé Steam Feed Works, a steam-engine factory with a working line shaft to power belt-driven machinery, some dating to the early 1900s.
Thousands of these businesses flourished in 19th and early 20th centuries, long before electricity (and later, electronics) revolutionized manufacturing. Today, only four other factory complexes like Soulé exist in the United States, and Soulé is one of only two open to the public, according to James L. “Jim” McRae, president of the museum’s board.
“Our focus is on steam and the value of steam to our way of life,” said Greg Hatcher, the museum’s executive director and president of the Mississippi Museum Association. “Steam was the very first portable source of power. A lot of people don’t realize to this day that steam pretty much provides us with our electricity. Even the nuclear power plant uses steam.”
Founded in 1891 by George W. Soulé, Soulé Steam Feed Works manufactured steam engines used in the lumber industry from 1892 until the mid-1950s. (“Steam feed” referred to the way of feeding logs through a sawmill.)
Soulé’s rotary steam engines, manufactured until 1922, were the only rotary engines built and marketed in great numbers. But their reputation for consuming too much steam led Soulé to create the Spee-D-Twin. This two-cylinder engine featured George Soulé’s patented valving system, an improvement in efficiency that pleased his sawmill customers.
In the late 19th century, George Soulé patented and built an automatic lumber stacking system that resulted in more uniform lumber sizes and a boon to the nation’s early building industry.
Industrial, railroad and agricultural customers depended on Soulé’s highly skilled patternmakers, machinists and foundry workers to produce replacement parts for their heavy equipment.
“They could make a pattern off your part, and it would be a near-perfect match,” Hatcher said.
These workers earned an average of 50 to 70 cents per hour, the highest wages of any job in the Meridian area.
“You had to be at the top of your trade to work here,” McRae said.
During World War II, the factory’s work force peaked at an average 50 employees and operated six days a week.
“I bet I’ve had half the people in Meridian tell me that their father or grandfather worked at Soulé,” McRae said.
Historical industrial settings are recreated in museums throughout the country, but Soulé visitors walk through the actual factory with original early-20th century equipment and furnishings. They can see the pulleys spin, hear the machinery’s squeals and clangs, and smell the machine oil—just as Soulé’s machinists did. Hatcher calls it an “authentic experience.”
The line shaft overhead transferred energy from a steam engine (or other source) to machines through a system of belts and pulleys. Most manufacturers scrapped line shafts in the early- to mid-20th century and installed individual electric motors on their equipment.
Soulé updated too—somewhat. In the 1950s about 25 percent of its belt-driven machinery was removed to make way for electrified versions. When the museum acquired the property in 2003, the old equipment was reinstalled in the machine shop.
The Soulé site today includes the original machine shop, steam engine factory, indoor blacksmith shop, office, belt-driven freight elevator and employee locker room (with 24 sinks).
The two-story brick building next door houses the company’s iron foundry, core-making department and pattern-making workshop.
In addition to the factory’s original equipment, the museum showcases a large, diverse collection of antique steam engines, some donated by collectors.
A 1905 Corliss made by Watts-Campbell dominates the steam engine demonstration room. This engine powered a generator for a factory in Connecticut until the 1940s, when buying electricity became less expensive than generating it.
Four of McRae’s own antique engines are displayed at the museum, including a restored 1890 steam engine that ran a gristmill in Lauderdale County. McRae pulled it from a creek bed, where it was abandoned after the boiler failed.
A former Hemmings Wagon Co. showroom and office building on the site houses the museum’s gift shop and three exhibits of donated collections:
• Gower Print Works, featuring a steam- (or treadle-) powered 1910 Chandler & Price letterpress and a linotype machine that produces metal type for printing.
• Heblon Broom Factory, with original broom-making equipment used by the Heblon family of Meridian.
• An 1830s weaving loom, two antique spinning wheels and a sock-knitting machine from the mid-20th century.
McRae wants visitors of all ages to leave the museum with a better understanding of how Americans once made things.
“We feel that our young people need to be exposed to the type of work, and work conditions, that existed in our fathers’ and grandfathers’ time,” he said.
His wish is to hear a child say, “Mama, that was the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. I learned a lot.”
The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum, located at 1808 Fourth St. in Meridian, is open Tuesday through Friday, with guided tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Admission is $10 per person, $25 per family. Group tours and special event hosting are available. Call 601-693-9905 or visit the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum website at soulelivesteam.com.
Live Steam Festival set for Nov. 6-7
The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum will fire up its steam engines Nov. 6-7 at the Soulé Live Steam Festival, an annual two-day celebration of steam engine history held in conjunction with the Meridian RailFest.
In addition to operating steam engines, knowledgeable volunteers will demonstrate blacksmithing, weaving, spinning, broom making and letterpress printing—all with authentic, antique equipment.
Other activities include a gathering of the Carousel Organ Association of America, whose lively organ music is always a crowd pleaser, and a molten iron pour by Alabama Art Casting.
Admission is $5 per person, $25 per family.
The museum will host Santa’s Christmas Factory Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 3-19 (and other times by appointment).
For details, go to soulelivesteam.com.
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