Steam Farming in Montana: Four Generations of Steam Engineers

Since the 1880s, the Yaegers have been farming with steam in Montana

The Yaeger children circa 1909. The oldest girl was married and the youngest boy wasn't born yet. My dad, Joe, is second from the left in the back row.

The Yaeger children circa 1909. The oldest girl was married and the youngest boy wasn't born yet. My dad, Joe, is second from the left in the back row.

Courtesy of Gary Yaeger; colorized by Farm Collector

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I had the distinct privilege of growing up on a farm near Lewistown, Mont., where steam provided the power for plowing and threshing.

My father, Joe Yaeger, was one of the two licensed steam engineers on the farm. Dad was one of 16 children (eight boys and eight girls) and they all seemed to realize they were born to be the farm’s workforce.

Grandpa Frank Jäger landed at New York City in 1872, emigrating from northeastern France. In 1874, he found work in St. Joseph, Mo., with the T.C. Power steamboat packet. He had been a baker in the French army, so that was one of the two jobs he had on steamboats that plied the route from St. Louis to Fort Benton in the Montana Territory.

He also worked as a hunter (jäger is German for hunter), shooting wild game to feed steamboat passengers. Our name was Americanized twice. Grandpa learned he could “drop the umlaut” and add an “e.” He chose Jaeger but people still pronounced the name J-ger, so he changed the “j” to “y,” so they would call him Yaeger.

In the fall of 1876, he decided to stay at Fort Benton. He spent the winter hunting coyotes, and herding, feeding and tending mules for T.C. Power’s freighting business. From 1877 through 1880, he was a freighter all over Montana Territory. He tried gold mining for a short time before picking out a homestead in the Judith Basin area in May 1881, about three miles north of Brassey, Montana Territory.

Homesteader

On Sept. 28, 1881, Grandpa applied for a homestead about nine miles southwest of Reed’s Fort (which later became Lewistown). In later years, he added adjoining land parcels. He broke small fields using a horse. On the largest parcels, he hired out that work to a custom operator with a 30-60 Hart-Parr oil (gas) tractor.

Grandpa’s first major farm equipment purchase was a 1910 30-60 Aultman & Taylor gas tractor (serial no. 47) and one of the company’s wooden threshing machines. For cultivation, Grandpa purchased a “new style” 30-60 Aultman & Taylor gas tractor in 1918.

They soon found that they weren’t satisfied with gasoline power on the threshing machine and brought in a 20 hp Aultman & Taylor steam engine owned by neighbor Frank Odenwald. My dad, 11 years old in 1910, was already doing a man’s job. He was the water boy, operating the hand-pumped, horse-drawn water wagon that provided water to the steam engine’s water supply tank.

An early education

Dad was fascinated with the steam engine’s operations. In turn, Frank was a good teacher, explaining the engineer’s job with the engine under steam pressure. He also gave instruction in operation of the reverse and throttle levers, the injector (which put water into the boiler) and ejector (transferring water from the tank wagon to the engine’s water tank), the art of placement of coal in the firebox to maintain steady steam pressure, greasing, oiling and maintaining steam cylinder oil in the mechanical lubricator.

Soon, Frank got another of the youngsters hanging around to take over the water boy’s duties. He told my dad he was doing a good job and that he could “sure handle it” – and that he (Frank) needed to “run to town.” Left in charge at age 11, Dad never forgot the episode. “I never had so much enjoyment!” he told me years later.

Frank’s errand in town became apparent later that afternoon. “Frank returned from town,” Dad recalled, “and he was stewed (drunk).” The next day, Dad hung around the steam engine until Frank again said he needed to run to town. “Joe,” he said to my dad, “you can run her while I’m gone.” This time, the 11-year-old boy called his elder’s bluff. “No,” he said, “I’m afraid of her.” Frank abandoned his plans and stayed in the field.

That winter, Dad studied under Charles C. Colwell, another neighbor who was a steam engineer. My dad passed the Montana steam traction license test at age 12, becoming one of the youngest licensed steam engineers in Montana history. Current regulations require applicants to be at least 18.

Rebuilding a Reeves

In 1917, the Yaegers bought a like-new 1916 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler steam engine from their neighbor, Clayton Wright. This style of engine was an experimental type and very few were built. In fact, none in this horsepower size are known to exist today. The engine was ample, but the Yaegers decided they needed a bigger engine for plowing. They traded a team of horses for a 32 hp Reeves cross-compound Canadian Special, a very sizable plowing engine weighing about 23 tons.

This engine had been operated in a low water situation, leaving the crown sheet (the upper boiler plate or sheet inside the firebox) over-heated and “bagged” (wrinkling the boiler plate), rendering it useless.

That winter the boiler was stripped, the stay bolts (inner boiler bolts that hold the firebox suspended inside the outer wrapper) were removed in the crown sheet area and the boiler was turned upside down in order to utilize gravity to assist the hand-operated boiler tools (jacks and sledge hammers) needed to repair it. The boiler was then returned to upright. The holes were reamed and threaded for larger stay bolts, which were screwed in and upset (riveted). The engine was then put back together. On inspection, the Montana boiler inspector gave the engine the original 175 psi operating pressure rating assigned by the factory. This engine was the Yaegers’ main plowing engine from 1920 through 1938.

Steaming over ice

In about 1920, Dad traveled nearly 75 miles from home to help operate a steamboat boiler that had been wrecked on a gravel bar years earlier. The boat’s remains were pulled near the shore of the Missouri River on UL Bend, near the Musselshell River’s confluence with the Missouri.

Dad’s friend Mike Machler used teams of horses to move the small steamboat. The stern wheel had been boarded up to dip water from the river and lift it to a chute above on the river’s bottomland for irrigation purposes. Mike didn’t like the setup, so he and Dad took a trip north of the Missouri River where they looked at a 20 hp Case steam engine that could be used for the irrigation operation as well as thresh alfalfa seed. Mike paid $50 (roughly $650 in 2010’s terms) for the engine, which Dad fired up and ran to the edge of the Missouri, where it was drained of water after the fire was out.

The next winter, after a cold snap of several weeks, Dad returned to the Case with wood and used a water tank’s hand pump and hose to pump water from a hole cut in the Missouri River’s ice. Dad fired up the engine and ran it across the river on the ice. After the fire was out, the engine was again drained for the season.

The next summer, Dad put the Case to work turning a centrifugal pump in an irrigation operation. During that time, he removed the steamboat’s whistle and installed it on the Case. That engine eventually ended up at the bottom of Fort Peck Reservoir in the late 1930s. Before the water level rose high enough to cover the Case, Dad removed the steamboat whistle. It was then installed on the Yaeger brothers’ 32 hp Reeves.

Power of steam

Later in the 1920s, neighbors Joseph and Anton King hired the Yaeger brothers to do custom plowing. On a Monday morning, the brothers had to move a few miles with their 32 hp Reeves and Emerson disc plows.

The field they moved into was 400 acres. One of the Kings’ hired men, Roy Gatz, started on an adjoining 40-acre field with a 15-30 McCormick-Deering and a smaller disc plow. Roy walked over to watch the Yaegers getting their plows and harrows organized to start work before lunch. “When I finish,” Roy called out, “I’ll come over here and help you guys.” “Naw,” Dad replied, “we’ll come help you!” Dad said they “finished out the corners” after lunch on Friday, and the old 15-30 McCormick-Deering was still plowing. Dad always marveled that they plowed nearly 100 acres a day, in what was basically the horse-and-buggy age.

Setting things right

In 1930, the Yaegers’ 32 hp Reeves went down for repairs during plowing. Herman Otten, a neighbor (and brother-in-law of Uncle Frank, Dad’s oldest brother), had a 32 hp Reeves cross-compound Canadian Special. Herman offered his engine to the Yaeger brothers so they could finish plowing.

The Yaegers accepted, but during plowing, the borrowed engine’s countershaft (measuring 5 inches by 7 feet) broke, presenting a real dilemma. Reeves & Co. was out of business and no replacement shaft could be located. Fortunately, the brothers learned of a 40 hp Reeves being scrapped at Stanford, Mont. Dad was one of the brothers who went after the replacement, which measured about 6 inches by 7 feet.

Uncle Audie turned the countershaft down about an inch on a 16-foot-bed South Bend lathe. They replaced the broken shaft in Harold’s engine, returning it in the condition they received it. The fix, Audie told me later, resulted in “a couple of wheelbarrow loads of shavings.”

In the early 1930s, the Yaegers’ 32 hp Reeves was hired to heat macadam road oil at the Milwaukee Railroad siding at Glengarry, Mont. Dad took the graveyard shift (which paid more than the others) for this operation of oiling the highway between Moore and Lewistown.

The Yaeger brothers operated their farm as a partnership, but the money Dad earned on this job was his. He bought three things with his pay: a 12-ton hydraulic jack, a wedding ring for my mom (then an employee of Grandma Yaeger in her kitchen) and a Venezia diatonic button accordion. Grandpa Yaeger had been an accordion player before his death in 1920, but Dad must have wanted his own. (The tradition continues: My brother Bill, my son, Mike, and I represent the third and fourth generations of squeeze­box players in this family!)

Chasing the bull

The Yaeger brothers’ “camp” was located 1-1/2 miles from the farm home at the site of another homestead Grandpa purchased years before. The site had a well and pump; during the summer, the plowing crew’s meals were prepared and served from a cook car at the camp.

Besides engineering the 32 hp Reeves during the plowing, Dad stayed at the cook car overnight, while his plow crew brothers went back to the house. After a day’s work, Dad banked the fire on the steam engine. He’d add a couple inches of coal atop the coal bed on the grates, nearly covering the smokestack, and close the draft door. He also took a small amount of hot coal in a bucket to put in the cook car’s stove.

The next morning, Dad would arise by about 4 a.m., go to the steam engine, open the draft door and uncover the smokestack. There was usually 25 to 40 pounds of steam left, allowing Dad to turn on the blower to raise steam pressure before his brothers arrived at 6 a.m. The first trip out, Dad took coals back to the cook stove to fix a little coffee and breakfast. After breakfast, he’d return to the plows and have everything greased in order that they could “open the throttle and go plowing.”

On the evening of Oct. 18, 1935, he finished supper, lit the lantern and began playing his new squeezebox. Before bedtime, though, the cook car began rocking. Dad set down the accordion, grabbed the lantern and opened the door to go out and “chase the bull away.” It was a bright, moonlit night, but Dad saw nothing amiss, certainly no bull rubbing the side of the cook car. He returned inside and eventually went to bed.

The next morning Dad was building steam and greasing plows when his brothers arrived. One of the brothers was quick to report that, “there was a hell of an earthquake in Helena last night!” – hence the bull. (Editor’s note: An earthquake of 6.2 magnitude in Helena, approximately 130 miles away, damaged 300 buildings on about that date.)

Operating money

During the Great Depression, four Yaeger brothers used the 32 hp Reeves to plow. The other four used the 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler to move houses. Houses were available for $250 to $300 from a failed subdivision in Moore, Mont. For another $300, the Yaeger brothers would move the house to the buyer’s land and place it on a foundation. When it rained enough to stop the plowing operation, all eight brothers moved houses. “That’s where we got our operating money for the farm,” Dad explained.

During that time, they could buy pretty good coal to farm with, but there was a place in the foothills of the Big Snowy Mountains, about eight miles away, where the owner allowed farmers to dig coal from his mine at no charge. The Yaeger brothers took wagons and trucks to that mine, dug coal and hauled it home, depositing loads in piles conveniently located during spring plowing.

End of an era

It rained in early 1939 and the “Dirty Thirties” became very wet. Owners of large steam “plowing” engines in our neighborhood were no longer able to use them for that purpose. From then on, gas and diesel tractors and crawlers did the plowing. The 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler was cut up and scrapped in 1948. The 32 hp Reeves cross-compound was parked out of sight of World War II-era scrappers.

Through connections with his son Max and grandson Mike, I became acquainted with Charlie Tyler of Moore, Mont. In 1954, he offered a trade of an operating 20 hp Nichols & Shepard engine for Dad’s 32 hp Reeves. Dad thought it was a great way to get his sons operating live steam engines. I lit my first fire in a steam engine that fall. I’ve been operating them ever since.

I’ve always been appreciative of my dad’s efforts to make sure I had an operable engine or two, and especially of his way of teaching me – including his way of making me ever conscious of the water level in my boiler’s water glass. Dad and I (mostly Dad) restored a 16 hp Russell steam engine in the late 1950s. Dad bought the Russell in the Big Snowy Mountains where it had been used in a sawmill 47 years prior.

The Nichols & Shepard was traded in 1980, to my late friend Carl Mehmke near Great Falls, on a 15 hp Case “Thresherman’s Special” engine and tender. Carl didn’t have a Nichols & Shepard and I had fallen in love with this Case engine in 1956.

In late 1981, we moved from the farm to a place near Whitefish, Mont. In 2002 we moved 12 miles south to Kalispell, Mont. Like my dad did for me, I’ve taught my son, Michael, the procedures for firing and engineering a steam engine. We are both Montana steam traction license holders. Mike and his cousin, Randy, bought a 20 hp Reeves double-simple steam traction engine of their own to use in Helena, where we moved in August 2009. My grandsons, Maverik and Jacob, are promising young engineers, carrying on as the fifth generation in our family’s steam tradition.

According to my logbook I’ve operated 38 different steam traction engines and one Baldwin locomotive. I think about Dad, as a boy, running that Aultman & Taylor engine of Frank Odenwald’s, and I have to agree that running steam sure gets in your blood. Before Dad passed away in February 1975, he instructed me, “Don’t ever get rid of the steamboat whistle!” FC

Gary Yaeger, a steam man with more than 50 years’ experience, lives in Helena, Mont. E-mail him at  highwheeler20@yahoo.com .