The Alpha and Omega of Minneapolis Steam Traction Engines

Iowa man builds a life around passion for steam traction engines.

1893 Minneapolis Steam Engine

Jerred Ruble’s 1893 14 hp return-flue Minneapolis steam traction engine (serial no. 721) is the earliest known steam traction engine made by Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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After viewing a demonstration, Jerred Ruble came away thoroughly impressed with steam power — at the ripe old age of 3. “My dad had the Ruble family 1915 50 hp Case steam engine at the Albert Lea (Minnesota) Fair in 1949,” he recalls. “He threshed in front of the grandstand. I remember bits and pieces of that event, so it must have made an impression on me.”

Seven years later, Jerred’s steam education continued close to home. His dad, T.M. “Jim” Ruble, owned a sawmill at the family’s home. “In the early part of his career, he powered his sawmills with steam engines,” Jerred says. “Later he switched to Cats.”

But Jim’s love of steam did not fade. “When his boys got old enough, he switched back to steam engines,” Jerred says of his dad. “He alternated the steam engines: the family’s 1915 50 hp Case and a 1913 22 hp return-flue Minneapolis that he bought in the mid-1950s. Our job was to run the steam engines. I was 10 years old when I started running the steam engines on the sawmills.”

It was a memorable time for Jerred, who now lives in Hanlontown, Iowa. “We were exposed to steam engines early in our lives and grew up with it,” he says, “but it was still very exciting to participate in it.”

Jerred’s father was right by his side when he started out. “He was my mentor and my tutor,” he says. “Being involved with a steam engine is one of those things where you learn enough to run it but there’s always something more to learn. He was down on the sawmill, so if there was any trouble, he would come and explain the different situations that came up.”

Some were on the hairy side, like the time a handhole plate gasket blew out. “That was the first time this had happened while I was around either engine so I got a bit panicky,” Jerred says. “However, my dad was quick to come to my side. We smothered the fire and injected water into the boiler as long as there was sufficient steam pressure. The next day we replaced the blown gasket, steamed the engine up and went back to sawing.”

Repair and restore

For years Jerred kept an eye on an 1893 14 hp return-flue Minneapolis steam traction engine sitting in the front row of Joe Rynda’s collection of steam engines west of Montgomery, Minnesota. “Everybody in the steam hobby knew about the engines he had collected from the 1940s-’70s, but figured they would never become available,” he says. “That 1893 engine was my favorite. I looked at it several times and Joe ran it from time to time, so I knew it was there.”

Still, Jerred never thought he had a shot at it. “I’d had it on my list for some time,” he says, “but I never thought it would be available during my lifetime.” When the opportunity arose in 2004 to buy the engine, Jerred jumped at the chance — even knowing that it needed a new boiler. “I know of one other 14 hp Minneapolis steam engine,” he says, “so chances of finding parts was limited.”

Complete disassembly

Serious work began on the “721” (Jerred refers to the engine by its serial number) in early 2005, when he and his friends tore it down. “We took everything off down to the boiler,” he says. “We took a lot of pictures of everything so we’d know how it went back on.”

A boilermaker used the old boiler as a pattern. Eighteen months later, a new boiler was finished, incorporating some old parts that were still usable. Meanwhile, Jerred and his friends sandblasted parts and fabricated a few, including the operator’s platform and the front water tank.

Jerred replaced the governor on the 721. “It had a Pickering governor that was much more reactive and sensitive than the Gardner governor normally used on these steam engines,” he says. “Someone had changed the governor, and though it was functional, it wasn’t original. I had a Gardner in my parts inventory, so I put it on.”

The boiler was inspected by the boilermaker’s insurance company and the state of Minnesota. Assembly began in January 2008 and was completed just over a year later. “That was a very exciting day, to see it run under steam for the first time,” Jerred says. “It had a few minor issues, but nothing major.”

A smaller engine, the 721 didn’t have enough power to run anything bigger than a small sawmill. “It was probably used mainly for threshing, servicing half a dozen to a dozen farmers who went from farm to farm with a threshing rig,” he says. “Though it was a pretty small outfit in its day compared to some of the other ones, it probably had ample power for the smaller farms.”

Ambitious undertaking

Restoration of the 721 entailed a fair amount of stress. “I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but it was a little worrisome that this was the first engine I had ever totally taken apart down to the bare boiler and had to put back together again,” he says. “So making sure that everything lined up properly, that the gearing was meshing correctly, and everything else falling in place correctly so everything was lined up and came together the way I wanted, that was stressful. But it all lined up.”

Although he enjoyed the project from start to finish, Jerred had to challenge himself to stick with it. “It required working every weekend or every other weekend or else it would have been easy to get it halfway done and let it sit,” Jerred says. “We started in January 2006 and pretty much kept after it.

“It’s one of those things that spanned five years from when I bought it to when we got it running, so it took some stick-to-it-ive-ness,” he adds. “You had to keep your eye on the prize.”

Hobby demands respect

The steam engine hobby is not for the weekend hobbyist. “In terms of energy maintained in those boilers, it’s very powerful,” Jerred says. “You have to respect the potential energy in there. The operator controls a tremendous amount of power. You always have to be respectful of that and not do something dumb and release that power in the form of an explosion.”

It takes more than a little work. “You have to make sure the engines are mechanically fit, safe and sound,” Jerred says. “I think my biggest enjoyment is to hear them work, whether on a sawmill or threshing machine, whatever they are powering, and having the steam engine work the way it was meant to do.”

To keep the 721 running, Jerred says the main thing is to clean out the boiler properly in the fall and make sure the pipes are drained so they don’t freeze. “Other than that, it’s making sure that the lubrication points are lubricated properly every time you run it,” he says. “Occasionally you might have to clean out an injector or the check valves on the pump might get dirty. And you have to lubricate the traction components, the gearing and axles.”

The 721 was designed to burn straw, but Jerred removed the straw attachment so he could burn wood, which is more readily available. “Burning straw isn’t the easiest way to keep the fire and steam up,” he says. “Wood is much more convenient, so I use wood exclusively.”

Family heirlooms

Along with a dozen large prairie tractors and several smaller tractors (“I have the fever,” Jerred admits) among his 20 steam traction engines, Jerred has engines of unique distinction. His collection includes steam engines originally owned by each of his grandfathers: the Ruble 1915 50 hp Case and, from his mother’s family, the Thoreson 1924 20 hp Minneapolis engine (serial no. 8701).

In addition, he owns what he refers to as “the alpha and omega” of Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. steam engines: the earliest known engine (the 721, an 1893 14 hp return-flue Minneapolis) and the company’s latest known engine (a 1924 20 hp Minneapolis). That engine is serial no. 8701; the final serial number assigned to an MTMC engine was 8708.

Jerred’s favorite steam engine is the one he’s on. “But the fact that the 721 is the earliest one known, and it’s small and very maneuverable, that makes it my favorite,” he says. “At a show I can do a lot with it. And it’s fun to run and listen to.”

Jerred has paired the 721 with a small Victory threshing machine. “It’s the only Victory threshing machine left and it was built by Minneapolis,” he says. “Only by luck did I find one in Wisconsin a couple of years ago.” He’s planning to put the two to work in a demonstration at the Rollag (Minnesota) Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion in 2016.

In the meantime, people who see the 1893 14 hp return-flue Minneapolis steam traction engine are impressed with the way it looks, Jerred says, especially when they find out it’s the earliest Minneapolis known to exist. People in the hobby are impressed with the gearing and components. “This engine couldn’t have done much in life prior to my acquiring it,” Jerred says, “because it’s in extremely good condition.” FC


Early design delivered efficiency

Steam engine terminology can leave the uninitiated in the dust. But it’s not that complicated. Take “return-flue engine,” for instance. In a return-flue engine, the smoke (or fire) is used twice, Jerred Ruble says. The heat travels from the firebox to the front of the boiler, then returns before exhausting out the stack. “Using the heat twice makes it a little more efficient.”

Return-flue steam traction engines were common early on, but nearly all manufacturers (except Huber Mfg. Co.) soon switched to a straight flue, Jerred says, where the heat is used once and goes out the stack at front.

The best approach remains debatable, but controls are easier to see on straight-flue engines, Jerred notes, and the engine doesn’t require as big a boiler shell. “They look leaner, and I think people today want things that catch the eye,” Jerred says. “Straight flue engines have a more streamlined look, where a return flue has a more chubby look. Return-flue steam engines aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as the straight flue and straight flues were easier to steam up.”

For more information:

— Jerred Ruble, 754 342nd St., Hanlontown, IA 50444; (612) 860-9830; jerred.ruble@gmail.com.


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.