Side Trip for a Case Steam Traction Engine Pays Off

Couple veers off course in pursuit of 1913 Case steam traction engine

Case Steam Traction Engine

Side Trip Pays Off: Couple veers off course in pursuit of 1913 Case steam engine

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When Dave and Nancy Haala were driving to Phoenix in 2002, Nancy looked up from her book with a start. “What are we doing in Fargo?” she asked. “I told her we were taking the shortcut to Phoenix,” Dave says, laughing at the memory.

The shortcut took the couple to Geraldine, Mont., for a final look at a 1913 Case 40 hp single-cylinder steam traction engine. “That machine meant a lot to me,” Dave explains, “because that’s the year my dad was born.”

Dave grew up on a farm near Sleepy Eye, Minn. Both his dad and his great-uncle were interested in old iron. “We had some older machinery and gasoline engines around,” he says. “As a kid, I’d take them apart.” They didn’t always go back together, but Dave’s interest was sparked.

He bought his first gas engine while playing hooky. Instead of going to school one day, he attended a neighborhood auction where he bought a Fuller & Johnson gas engine that had been used to pump water. Decades later, the engine is still in his collection.

Stumbling onto a find

In 2002 a friend of Dave’s was elk hunting in Montana when he happened onto a 1913 Case steam traction engine on a ranch near Geraldine. “I contacted the sisters who owned the ranch,” Dave says. “They said they would sell the engine, so I drove 950 miles one way to look at it.”

He liked what he saw, so he asked the Montana state boiler inspector to evaluate the engine. “It tested out very good,” Dave says. “The boiler tested at 86 percent of new condition, which is very rare to find.” The inspector used a machine to check the thickness of the crown sheet, the metal between the fire and the water. “When the engine is running at 150 pounds pressure, if the metal is breached and it blows up, it is very dangerous,” Dave explains, “so it’s very critical that the metal thickness is what it should be. I‘ve heard of people rebuilding that wall, but it‘s very, very expensive to do that.”

Restoration, top to bottom

Parked for decades in an open-sided shed, the Case was ready for a cosmetic restoration. “We took the machine totally apart,” Dave says, “sandblasted all the parts, painted everything and reassembled the engine.”

A few parts had to be replaced as part of the cosmetic restoration, Dave says, such as the main dome valve (or main steam valve) and the pressure gauge. Other replacements were more serious. “Part of the inspection report said the piping had to be updated to heavier-walled pipe,” Dave says.

Dave was surprised to find the Case’s gearing was in very good condition. “Normally it isn’t, because these engines were run up and down the fields, and the exposed gears were ground away by the dirt,” Dave explains. “But this one ran an irrigation pump so it didn’t move around much. That’s probably why it was preserved pretty well.”

The Case wasn’t originally outfitted with a canopy, but Dave wanted one as part of the restoration. Vintage photos showing engines with canopies were a good resource for Amish craftsmen in Lancaster, Pa., who created canopy-mount castings. “It took a year, but I got the castings, which hold the posts that support the canopy,” Dave says. “They’re identical to the original castings.” After consulting with other steam engine owners, Dave used his own metal fabricating business to fabricate a canopy.

Firm grip on the wheel

The Case uses chain-drive steering, winding the chain around a worm gear. “It has very geared-down steering,” Dave says, “so to turn the engine you have to crank and crank and crank, using the knob to spin it around 50 times to turn it completely. I keep it very greased up so it will steer freely. Standing still, it’s hard to steer, but moving, it’s not so bad. I think we’ve gotten spoiled by power steering.”

Dave marvels at the sheer power of old iron. “You’re taking a chunk of wood or a piece of coal and turning it into power that can do so much,” he says. “I’m a mechanical person, and I can look at the engine from that angle and realize what’s been accomplished there and the mechanics of it. It’s fun to do that. I also enjoy working on it and hopefully understand all the mechanics of it. When I see a problem, I can fix it and keep it going.” 

Threat of fire

Dave’s father and grandfather had a Case steam traction engine that burned straw. “It had a door on back with a flopper on it so you’d push the straw in and the door would fall shut again,” Dave says. “But pushing straw in is a lot of work, because you had to continually feed straw into it.”

The other problem was sparks. “Dad said that many times you’d see a smoke cloud going up in the air in another field or farm because somebody’s straw pile had started on fire from the steam engine,” Dave recalls. “You’d set up with the wind blowing away from the straw pile but if the wind shifted, it would burn the straw pile down.”

Eventually a screen was placed over the engine’s exhaust to break up cinders, reducing the threat of random fires. “Dad always talked about his dad, who smoked a pipe,” Dave says. “Even on that pipe he had a little screen so no sparks would come out and start things on fire.”

Show workhorse

Dave’s Case is a regular at area shows, where it is used to provide power to vintage threshing machines. “I’m glad I don’t have a 75 or 125 hp engine, because they weigh 40,000 to 50,000 pounds, and the investment to move an engine of that size would be great,” Dave says. “Those are usually left permanently at one show site.”

That said, the 20,000-pound Case is still a handful. “My previous trailer had metal ramps,” Dave recalls. “Once, on a slight incline, the engine’s steel wheels slid sideways on the steel ramps. My present trailer has a plank floor and a very, very long slope to the ramps. That works nice.” He pulls the trailer at 50 to 60 mph; with the doors open, the rush of air cleans the flues.

Hooking the engine to a threshing machine invariably draws a crowd. “You have to drive the Case up to the threshing machine with precision so the pulleys line up,” he says. The 40-foot belt can easily fall off when the Case is backed up to tighten it, because the steam engine’s pulley automatically turns when it is in gear and can throw the belt. Four men are generally needed to get it right. “People love to get involved and come help,” Dave says. “When I load wood, people form a line and hand the wood from person to person up to me.”

Continuing ed essential

Dave is grateful for what he’s learned at boiler classes. “Rollag (Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion), for instance, has very, very good instructors,” he says. “What was interesting in that class was how many people attending were in their 20s. It’s something everybody involved with steam should think about.”

The classes prepare people for a hobby boiler license. “My sons are taking the boiler class soon,” Dave says, “and I hope my grandsons will continue the tradition.”

At shows people often give opinions on how he should operate the machine, but Dave takes that with a grain of salt. “The operator needs to do what he feels is right and safe,” he says. “A steam engine is totally different than a gas tractor. You can’t drive over real rough terrain where the water will slop around and expose the top surface of the boiler; that will create problems. At all times you have to pay attention to maintaining the water level and steam pressure.”

Enduring appeal

At shows, people smile whenever they see the Case. “Everybody has a story relating to old steam engines; they all seem to have a relative who worked on one,” Dave says. “When I open the fire door and they see that fire burning, they’re just in awe.”

As a collector, Dave is motivated by a desire to keep the past alive. “When I see a truckload of scrap going to the scrap yard, it hurts me,” he says. “The little value you get at the scrap yard isn’t much compared to the value of preserving and saving old iron. There’s so much nice stuff we should preserve; I just try to do that.” FC 

For more information: Dave Haala, 22098 First Ave. So., Sleepy Eye, MN 56085. 

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. 

Read more about Case steam engines in 1897 15 HP Case Compound Steam Traction Engine and The Legendary 150 HP Case Steam Engine. Find out more about the Case engine trademark in Civil War Mascot Provides Inspiration for Case Trademark. Learn how to properly start a steam engine's cold boiler in Starting a Cold Boiler.