Steam Farming in Montana: Four Generations of Steam Engineers
(Page 5 of 6)
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.)
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.
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