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.
Courtesy of Gary Yaeger; colorized by Farm Collector
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.
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.
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