When Joyce Hoffmaster adopted a small steam engine contingent at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion as family, it came as no surprise to anyone. After all, she comes from a family of steam engine enthusiasts. “My great-grandfather had steam engines. My grandfather had steam engines, my father and mother met because of a steam engine, and I had my first ride on a steam engine before I was born.” says the Dayton, Ohio, woman.
Years ago, her father, Lyle, needed sand to restore a 1905 16 hp Reeves steam engine. “At my mother’s cousin’s farm,” she says, “Frieda took one look at my future dad and set him up with a blind date with my future mother, Barbara.”
By age 4, Joyce was a regular attendee at Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. By 6, she and her sister were turned loose at the show. “Everybody knew who we were and kept an eye out for us,” she says. “It was sort of an extended family. I grew up around all these people and their engines.”
Joyce spent so much time around the engines that, by age 6, she could fire up the big beasts. She got the job of oiling and greasing the machines, and graduated to cleaning fireboxes after a show. “I could get into the firebox a whole lot easier than my father could,” she says. “I was absolutely black by the time I came out. Nothing was white except my teeth and eyeballs.”
Work together, play together
This small group of steam engine people – her second family – regularly camped together and played practical jokes on each other. Some engines were draped with toilet paper; another was festooned with old bras. “I discovered the Reeves one morning with an enormous straw nest on the platform,” she says, “complete with a paper egg and a sign advising me to be quiet as it was a ‘rare Case eagle egg’ incubating.”
The group also ate together. “We used to cook a huge pot of chili on an open fire in camp,” she recalls. “It was delicious, and I always took leftovers home to eat months later in the winter because it tasted smoky, like the show. I could close my eyes, smell it and remember all the fun we had.”
The shows were so much fun for her and her sister, that, one night before heading home, the two commiserated. “It’s over,” Joyce said. “It’s all over for another year.” “Yes,” agreed her sister. “The day that is better than Christmas is all over for a year.”
“We were completely serious and nearly in tears,” Joyce recalls. “My father couldn’t stand it. He turned around, called our mother and told her we would be home the next day, found a couple of steam friends who could squeeze us into their campers, and we had a marvelous second day at the show. If I could pick my relatives, these are the people I would pick.”
Home cookin’ for rare engine
Last summer, when an 1891 14 hp No. 16 Minnesota Giant steam engine came up for sale, Joyce took advantage of an opportunity of a lifetime. “I’ve known that engine since 1990,” she says. “I remember it coming to the show on a trailer that year, and the first thing I thought when I saw it, was ‘What on earth is that?’ It’s such an odd-looking engine. I looked closer and saw it was in really nice shape.”
The single-cylinder engine’s history is unusual, in that it was built inside the Minnesota Territorial Prison for the Northwest Thresher Co., Stillwater, Minnesota. Joyce had become familiar with the engine (serial no. 3806) as she rode on it as a spotter for a number of years. “People watching the parade aren’t necessarily good at staying out of the way,” she says, “so I’d go along to help watch.”
With the Giant advertised on the Internet, the possibility of losing it “out of the family” to an overseas buyer was very real. “People are paying grand prices to get some of these machines to go to Europe,” Joyce says.
So, a day after finding out it was for sale, Joyce bought the 100-plus-year-old steam traction engine, surprising even herself. “Our family had steam engines at Mt. Pleasant from the mid-1960s until 2000,” she says. “After that, a friend said I’d lost my anchor. So I guess I’d been looking for that anchor for the last 15 years, and now I’ve got this kind of lovable, very easy and pleasant engine to run. It’s old and odd, and I like that sort of thing. And best of all, it will stay here in our little steam engine family, and not head off to Europe.”
When a Mt. Pleasant director discovered the Giant wouldn’t be leaving, he was very grateful, Joyce says. “This is the only Minnesota Giant I’ve ever seen, though I think there might be some others around,” she says. “It is unusual, and a nice piece at a show. Plus, the former owner lives nearby, and with the engine staying at Mt. Pleasant, he can come and see it, and run it if he wants to.”
“Lovable old engine”
Steam engine operation requires special vigilance. “You have to constantly pay attention to what the engine is doing,” Joyce says. “You just kind of develop a feel for how everything should operate, and how much fuel, oil and water are needed.”
Even today, a woman engineer gets second looks. “At shows where people don’t know me, I sometimes get the feeling of ‘Wow! A woman running an engine!’” she says. “But I’ve been running engines at Mt. Pleasant for 50 years, so everybody knows me and knows what I can do.”
Operating the Giant is a neat experience. “It’s light enough so it’s fairly easy to steer,” she says. “Some engines steer hard, and some require turning the steering wheel a lot of times to get any response from the front wheels, but this one steers easily, and had a short turning radius because it’s short. It’s easy to handle. It’s simply a lovable old engine.”
Educating a new generation
Joyce says spectators’ questions about steam engines have changed over the years. “People have always asked how old the engines were, and wanted to know about their history,” she says. “Nowadays many people have no idea what it was used for. They’ll ask, ‘What was it built to do?’ People think it’s a steam locomotive rather than an agricultural engine. I get a lot of questions about fire and steam and ‘what’s inside that big thing?’”
What does Joyce like the best about the Giant? “It’s steam, which is so uniquely powerful and so quiet, having that feeling of latent power,” she says. “The Giant isn’t very powerful, but it makes up for that in charm and ease of handling. It’s a step in the evolution of mechanical power on the farm, and that fascinates me. There are just qualities about it that nothing else comes close to. But over and above all that, what I like most of all is the people. Because of all these steam connections, I’m closer to some of them than I am with my own family.
“These people are some of my very best friends in the whole world. I would do virtually anything for them.” FC
For more information: Joyce Hoffmaster, 7790 Frederick Pike, Dayton, OH 45414.
Northwest Thresher Mfg. Co. – sometimes called Northwest Thresher Co. – began in 1866 as Sabin, Seymour & Co., in Stillwater, Minnesota. The company shifted into production of railroad cars under a new name (Northwestern Mfg. & Car Co.) in 1878. By 1886, the company was known as Northwest Thresher Mfg. Co.
Regardless of the name on the letterhead, the company employed convict labor from the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater, including such luminary workers as Bob, Jim and Cole Younger, members of the infamous James-Younger Gang. Their task? Construction of Minnesota Chief threshers and Minnesota Giant steam engines.
In an account in Independent Farmer and Fireside Companion, the author noted that, “Here are horse thieves, petty thieves, forgers, defaulters and murderers, some of whom were once lawyers, doctors, merchants, farmers and mechanics, all filing, fitting, cutting and hammering at the various parts that go to make up the perfect machine. As you go through one room, blue-eyed Bob Younger looks up from his work, and Cole gives you a look like a startled wolf, while Jim hangs his head sullenly. They are busily engaged making belts, rakes and riddles, doing excellent work.”
A person could be forgiven for thinking Minnesota Thresher Co. and Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. were two separate entities. Publications of that era (and even the company’s literature) used the word “manufacturing” inconsistently. For example, the August 1888 issue of Farm Implements & Hardware said, “Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. shows for the work done during 1888, 900 machines and 450 engines. The labor of the convicts has not been an unmixed blessing to the company and as the contract of the company with the state expires Sept. 1 we may expect to see the next season one of far greater activity outside the walls of the prison than this last one has been inside those same walls. The company will utilize several large buildings for machine shops that have heretofore been used for storage.”
On the other hand, as Farm Implements & Hardware reported in November 1889, “Minnesota Thresher Co. has made a contract whereby a portion of the convict labor at Stillwater will be employed by them. The stone building used as a machine shop has been torn down and a new building is being erected in its stead, which will be 12 feet wider than the original one.”
Then again, in December 1897, an account in Farm Implements magazine reported that, “The Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. of Stillwater, Minn., has begun the erection of a foundry and machine shop adjoining its large iron-clad warehouse in that city. The machinery owned by this company and formerly operated in the prison shops is being overhauled and will be set up for operation in their new quarters.”
The word “manufacturing” continued to surface in the company name as late as 1898,when a report to stockholders reported that, “During the past year, in addition to our usual construction and repair work, we have put upon the market a new-style separator called the ‘North West,’ which gave such excellent satisfaction that we found a ready sale at a reasonable profit for all that we were able to manufacture.”
An 1898 report also praised the Giant boiler: “As a straw burner, it is the best and most easy steam generator on earth. This is a universal verdict, well sustained … easy of comprehension to the mechanic.” The report also lauded the unit’s almost-equal distribution of weight on the four wheels, “removing the danger of tipping up when ascending hills, and obviating the necessity of loading it down with a large water tank at the front of the boiler, and what is still more unpleasant to an operator, going up a hill backward.”
Minnesota Giant engines were built by the company using convict labor until the New Giant engine came out in 1903.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.