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Column: What became of those magic pills that cut fuel costs in half?

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen. The following column first appeared June 21, 2003.

WORTHINGTON — It will be one century in August since the day Engineer Gates of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway made the run between Heron Lake and Pipestone with “magic pills” in the firebox of his steam locomotive.

The normal fuel requirement for a steam engine on the branch line from Jackson County to Pipestone County was one and one-half tons of coal. Gates, his hand at the throttle, kept close watch and close count as his engine, fueled by the “pills,” chugged over trestles and past the pastures and cornfields along the rails to Pipestone on a hot Monday afternoon — Aug. 24, 1903.

Gates’ report: He made two-thirds of the trip burning only 900 pounds of the special fuel he was testing. With a sufficient supply, he could have made the entire trip with 1,350 pounds of fuel, compared with the usual 3,000 pounds of coal.

Earlier this month, this column reviewed some of the crops which have been produced from the soils of our region. Flax was one. In the 1940s and 1950s, our region produced, along with its harvest of flax seed, many thousands of tons of flax straw that was used in the manufacture of cigarette papers.

Before that time — for centuries — flax straw was used for making tow. Tow is coarse flax fiber prepared for spinning. Tow can be made into twines and ropes. Tow also is basic in the manufacture of linen.

Go now to Heron Lake. Turn of the 20th century. J.F. Smith is among the townspeople.

J.F. was an inquisitive man, a man given to experimenting. He made his livelihood with a tow machine — he converted flax straw into tow.

J.F. Smith’s tow machine, which was actually a threshing machine, spit aside the woody refuse of the flax straw. This was of no value. It piled high.

Day by day as flax straw was being processed, Smith reflected on the refuse, the chaff. “I wonder if that stuff could be used for something,” he thought. He experimented.

From his experiments, Smith created a fuel machine. He directed the flax straw refuse from his tow machine into his fuel machine where it was “mixed with a combustible agent and an artificial binder by a current of air … and compressed into huge tablets.” The combustible agent was crude oil. Smith combined flax straw refuse and crude oil to make the “magic pills” that sent Engineer Gates’ locomotive to Pipestone for half the cost of coal.

Smith obtained patents “covering all forms of the manufacture.” He then proceeded to turn out his fuel tablets in various sizes. He made some for steam locomotives, some for cook stoves, some for home furnaces. The fuel tablets were uniform, they were neat, they were relatively-clean, they were economical.

As word got out, there was excitement through all the region. Something quite extraordinary was in the making. The flax straw of southwest Minnesota might soon be heating homes and stores and powering railroad locomotives all across America. There was reason for everyone to use J.F. Smith’s magic fuel pills — they were easy to handle, they could be made to any size or weight.

The pills also began to receive general attention. The CStPM&O Railway was interested. It was the railroad which instructed Engineer Gates to make the test run to Pipestone.

One newspaper report said, “Mr. Gates is very enthusiastic over the new fuel and thinks it will do much to revolutionize the fuel question …” The Heron Lake News judged, “Thousands of tons can be made here annually, which will mean a great saving to all consumers and at the same time be a money maker to the manufacturer.” The newspaper reported, “Mr. Smith will establish a number of plants in the Northwest and manufacture fuel on a large scale.”

I am going to disappoint you now, good reader. If there is an end to this story, I have never uncovered it. Did a coal company buy up Smith’s patents? Did the fuel pills later fail some crucial test? Maybe someone knows. There seems to be no record. J.F. Smith had the world by the tail, Heron Lake was poised to become America’s fuel center and that is where history seems to end this story.