Buffalo-Springfield Road Roller

A 1928 Buffalo-Springfield road roller is at the heart of a Washington man's life-long love affair with steam.

Francis Orr

Francis Orr with his 1928 10-ton Buffalo-Springfield tandem steam road roller. When he’s not running a steam engine or his roller at the Rollag show, Francis is often found playing the fiddle someplace on the grounds.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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Some boys are raised around cars. For others, it’s tractors. Francis Orr is one of the rare few who can say he grew up around steam engines. “My father’s father was a locomotive engineer who farmed with steam and ran a steam roller for the county,” he says. “My dad fired a boiler in a generating plant, creating electricity for the town.” And when Francis and his parents crossed Long Island Sound to visit his mother’s parents on Long Island, New York, they took the steam-powered Park City ferry.

“My dad flashed his Masonic ring to get us down to see the compound steam engine,” Francis recalls. “At 7 years old, seeing everything going up and down, round and round,” he says, “I was hooked.”

Launched by Daredevil Joe

A few years later, when he was in junior high, Francis discovered an abandoned steam traction engine while on a visit to his grandfather near Dundee, New York. “It was a Buffalo-Springfield three-wheel steam roller, shoved into the back lot and out of service,” he says. “My cousin and I used to go down and crawl around on it, making engine sounds and all that sort of stuff. That was the first engine I ever got my hands on.”

But not the last. At 14, during the old car race at the Bridgehampton Road Races on Long Island, he spotted a car pulled off the road. The driver, 87-year-old “Daredevil Joe” Tracy, had burst a tube on his Stanley Steamer and was fixing it. Francis was so enamored of steam that he spent the rest of the day with Tracy, “much to the dismay of my rear end,” he recalls, “when I returned to my folks!”

In the 1950s and ’60s, the first page of several mechanics magazines featured renowned race-driver Tracy at the wheel of the steam-powered Locomobile, wearing his trademark leather helmet and red scarf. “Joe Tracy got me active in steam,” Francis says. “He introduced me to collectors and the machinery.”

Starting a collection

Eventually, Francis would own his own steamroller. But it didn’t happen overnight. While serving in the U.S. Navy, he bought a Russell steam traction engine. In 1966, he picked up a 14-ton Keystone Steam Skimmer steam shovel.

Later, working as a junior pilot for Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis, Francis was looking for something to do in Minnesota during his time off. A friend suggested he use his Boy Scout blacksmithing merit badge in the blacksmith shop at the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher’s Reunion in Rollag. In 1979, he learned of a 1928 Buffalo-Springfield 10-ton tandem road roller for sale and added it to his collection.

Francis’ friend, Jerry Swedberg, hauled the roller 280 miles from Northfield, Minnesota, to his shop in West Fargo, North Dakota. “We had taken the boiler and front roller off,” Francis says, “but it was still all the truck could carry. At 2 a.m., we blew a tire just outside of Albany, Minnesota. Luckily, John Peternell (of the Albany Pioneer Days Show) and Jerry were good friends. John got out of bed and hauled us to his shop.”

At about the time the engine rebuild was complete, Francis pulled up stakes. The airline had reassigned him to Seattle. Work on the steamroller took a 20-year hiatus.

Rebirth of a road roller

Meanwhile, back at the yearly Rollag show, Richard Rorvig asked Francis to run Richard’s J.I. Case 80 hp steam plowing engine, which he did for many years until Richard’s death. When the Case was sold at auction in 2006, Francis found himself without a ride. “I didn’t want to go back to the blacksmith shop because it had become pretty crowded,” he says. “In 2007, I decided to get the 1928 roller going that I had bought in Northfield in 1979.”

It would be no small undertaking. “I had rebuilt the engine but that was the easy part,” Francis says. “Broken pieces had to be welded together or fabricated. Some parts, like the ash pan, had to be re-invented.”

When the old road rollers were retired, he explains, they were generally abandoned without being cleaned out, setting the stage for trouble. “Soot and water form sulfuric acid,” he says, “and the acid eats the steel, so there’s nothing left but rust.”

A challenging restoration

For the ash pan, Francis was forced to improvise. He had a 1928 Buffalo-Springfield parts catalogue, but it did not show an ash pan. “I went to people who had restored rollers and found that every one of them had a homemade ash pan to control the air into the furnace,” he says. “Another friend, Jim Briden of Larson Machine & Welding, Fargo, North Dakota, came up with an ash pan for the roller. It’s a really nice ash pan with rocker grates. The bottom is a piece of sheet steel that you can slide out to dump the ashes into a wheelbarrow or just dump them on the ground. The ash pan also allows very good control of air into the fire, and that was a big thing.”

The steering engine was completely rebuilt by Peter Kiefer, Casselton, North Dakota, but Peter died in a 2009 shop accident before completing the roller rebuild. Jim Briden finished the job. “The steering engine looks like a lump of cast iron with a chain sprocket on the side,” Francis says. “Inside is a 2-cylinder, oscillating ‘V’ steam engine. When steam is exhausted into the case, it keeps that steering engine hot so that you don’t have condensation in it.”

Even more important was the need for a new boiler. “The roller is a 150 psi machine and the original boiler would have been restricted to 135 psi,” Francis says. “Operating at 150 psi, the new boiler is good for 200 psi.” The engine has a 20-1/2-inch bore and 48-inch stroke; the flywheel weighs 10 tons.

The roller also needed a new toolbox. Designed to hold the crew’s road-building tools – rakes, shovels, picks and pokers – the box fits on a tool tray above the drive roller. The tray also holds start-up wood (coal is carried in a bunker between the frames, under the driver).

A handful for the engineer

Driving the roller is a major undertaking. “Driving that engine is like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time,” Francis says. “You’re rocking and rolling. If you think about it, you have three levers: forward-reverse, steering, left and right and throttle. There are also the cylinder drains, water level and fire to control, as well as lubrication. To top it off, it is hot!”

The mechanical challenges can be compounded by scores of distracted pedestrians. “After the parade, you’re in the middle of thousands of people while trying to flatten out the parade route,” Francis says. “With whistles blowing all over, very little attention is paid to your whistle and you can creep right up behind visitors without them realizing that you are there. With 50 percent ahead and 50 percent in reverse, you’ve got to be very aware of people, but also the machine. On a tandem roller like the 1928, it is possible to run the worm gear right off the steering quadrant. It takes attention to detail, a little more so than with a traction engine.”

Unlike a traction engine, a tandem roller has no clutch that allows the operator to demonstrate the engine without the machine moving. “Three-wheel rollers can take the engine out of gear, but with a tandem roller, you have to pull a bolt, two keys and a drive pinion to idle the machine without it moving, which is a bit of work,” Francis says. “There is no flywheel to allow you to connect to an outside load, although Jim Briden came up with a tumbling rod assembly that allowed the roller to connect to the prony brake, where it produced 31 bhp (brake horsepower).”

Not designed for the novice

Over the years, Francis has run Buffalo-Springfield rollers of every size: 2-1/2-ton, 5-ton, 7-ton and his 10-ton, as well as a 12-ton three-wheeler. At the Scott-Carver show in Minnesota, he discovered a way to make the roller useful. “We couldn’t belt up to a sawmill or a separator, but the tractors had really torn up the parade route, making it difficult for ladies with heels and baby carriages,” he says. “I began to roll those areas flat, which seemed like a real public service. I continue to do that at Rollag.”

Having taught others to run the Villaume Box & Lumber Co. Corliss and the late Richard Rorvig’s 80 hp Case at Rollag, Francis had hoped to give lessons on his Buffalo-Springfield. But he soon realized the restored relic wasn’t the best option. “I found that the roller was not really suitable for teaching, especially to newcomers in the hobby. Road rollers are made to be very quick in action so they don’t leave grooves in the macadam and tar they are packing down. Compared to steam traction engines, the rollers are too tight, too hot and too fast, so I had to give up that dream. However, people with a good knowledge of running steam traction engines can come aboard and learn how to run a roller.”

Proper maintenance essential

Like any other steam engine, the Buffalo-Springfield must be carefully prepared for winter temperatures. All water must be drained. “Otherwise it freezes and breaks something,” Francis says. “The boiler must be empty and dry, as well as the piping and valves. It’s the same with the main engine, the steering engine and the water tank.” Other seasonal chores include greasing the piston rods, valve rods and guide bars. The firebox and ash pan must also be cleaned.

Besides his involvement with the roller and blacksmith shop, Francis is also credited with finding Rollag’s second Corliss engine, the Villaume Box & Lumber Co. machine. The crew that took it out got it running again in less than a year, salvaging a historic piece that might otherwise have been lost. A line from a poem (The Covered Bridge, by Anderson Scruggs), painted on a sign hanging over the engine, is a reminder of engines that have been scrapped. ”Yet, there are soulless men whose hand and brain tear down what time will never give again!”

Keeping tradition alive

Francis doesn’t see himself as the end of a dying breed. “Ed Jungst, the blacksmith who got me to Rollag, always said that the steam shows were doomed,” Francis says. “He said the old guys who ran these engines and tractors in the early 1900s were going to pass away, and soon there would be no one left with the knowledge and desire to operate and maintain them. I think we have proved him wrong.”

Educational efforts have played a role in keeping the steam tradition alive. Rollag, he notes, was one of the first shows to sponsor an instructional program on boiler operation and engine maintenance. “I have instructed young people, college students, doctors, boys, girls and even a Hollywood producer,” Francis says. “Some of those people have even gone on to make a living as engineers.”

It’s up to people in the hobby to carry the banner forward. “In this age of computers, we must continue to foster this interest,” Francis says. “And remember that when people buy tickets to come and see your show, you have an obligation to explain to them what they are looking at. They didn’t pay to watch you talking to your friends.” FC

For more information: Francis Orr, 1617 32nd St., Anacortes, WA 98221.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.