Steam Education

The University of Rollag's College of Steam Traction Engineering provides steam education to beginners and experienced operators alike.

steam education - Gerry Parker

As part of the steam education course, Dr. Gerry Parker demonstrates the operation of a traction engine.

Photo: Farm Collector Magazine Staff

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As the steam traction engines move forward, driven by newly-minted graduates of the steam engine school, walkers suddenly fling gallon jugs of water underneath the machines, simulating a fallen person. 'The trick is that the fellow who is running the engine,' says Dr. Gerald 'Gerry' Gysler Parker, founder of the school, 'is supposed to stop before they run over this 'person', which provides a very exciting time. Sometimes we run over these 'people', and sometimes we don't.'

But classes at the annual two-day University of Rollag (Minn.) College of Steam Traction Engineering are not a lark, as any of the students or the instructors will tell you. 'Our steam education course does two things,' says Gerry, a dentist in Casselton, N.D. and licensed steam engineer. 'Safety and the good operating techniques that make the operation of the machinery completely safe — the maintenance of water level and that sort of thing. Then there's the efficient operation of the machine, so you can start it, stop it without jerking, back it into a belt, or back it up to something to hook it up to. Both the safety part and the operating part are important areas of our classes.'

Fifty-eight-year-old Gerry became interested in steam when he was 10 years old. 'My grandfather, Albert Gysler, was born in 1879, and started running steam engines when he was 16 years old. We used to talk a lot about steam engines, and I was just fascinated by it. So from that time until the time he died (when I was 22), whenever we got together all we talked about was steam. That was how my interest started.'

Albert Gysler ran steam engines at the annual Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion at Rollag, Minn., for several years, but Gerry was going to college and didn't make it up for any of the shows. After his grandfather died, Gerry decided to get involved at Rollag, 'running engines and doing those things we had talked about all these years.'

His first contact was not a positive one. 'At my first show in 1958, I walked up to an engine and asked an older gentleman — all the gentlemen then were older who were running these engines — if I would be able to ride with him in the parade. He looked at me as though I had insulted him. I walked away thinking I didn't want to ask anybody anymore. That was the way things were ran when I was first around there: if you were young, it was hard to break into the business.'

So Gerry broke in by himself, so to speak. As he became more and more knowledgeable and more and more involved, he decided that other people might want to learn about steam traction engines. In 1981 he decided to offer an evening workshop on steam. It went well enough that he decided to do more.

He hooked up with high school teacher Tom Hall of Moorhead, Minn., the other main instructor in the college, and together they decided to make it a two-day weekend school. 'We decided he would teach part, and I would teach the other part,' Gerry says. 'At first, we would do it every couple of years, or whenever we felt like it, but it just grew and grew, and now it's grown to the point where we have a demand every year, and we have to do it.'

Classes run about 70 students a year, from every state and province, and one from England so far. The 2001 class was the 21st.

Licensed steam engineer Tom Hall says his background is railroading (for one day each year during the Rollag show, he is engineer on Locomotive 353 and runs it up and down the tracks, hauling people on its 2 1/4-mile track around Gunderson Lake from station to station during each September's threshers' reunion), and stationary steam engineering.

The class has evolved over the years. 'When we first started,' Tom Hall says, 'it was strictly a lecture course, simply because that was the best we could do.' In fact, the course was held at Larson Welding in Fargo, N.D., with nary a steam engine in sight. However, the next year the class was moved to the 250-acre Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion (WMSTR) grounds near Rollag, Minn. It remained a lecture session only, at the time.

Tom Hall says, 'But four years into it, one of our former students came and said, 'Could we steam up a traction engine so on Sunday you can have the students demonstrate what you covered?' The next year we had three steamed up, and it's grown that way. So we've become much more hands on.' About 10 are now steamed up each year for students to practice what they've learned. Tom also teaches the body of steam law, inspection and certification of the machinery, for example.

Gerry's expertise is in steam traction engines. 'Before I started collecting steam engines I was collecting books, and I have an extremely large library of old original printed literature on steam, textbooks and that sort of thing.' He and Tom (their presentations have affectionately been called the 'Tom & Gerry Show') analyzed what they felt was needed in a class about steam, and extracted that information from the old books, making textbooks for the college students. These include Steam Traction Engineer's Checklist, by Jim Nowell, an outline covering things that need to be known to start up, operate, and shut down the engines. 'He teaches part of the courses at our school as well,' Gerry says. Another text is Practical Steam Traction Engineering, by Dr. Gerald Gysler Parker. 'We also hand out a wonderful book that was printed by The Case Company regarding steam tractors, Case Steam Engine Manual.'

'For years,' Tom says, 'Gerry and I have tried to make a blend. Part of our classes are for complete novices who have a strong interest in steam traction engineering but no experience. The other part is experienced operators and engine owners from other states who are here to work toward their Minnesota license. In 16 hours we try to make a blend so neither side is too bored or too snowed.'

Classes are generally held the third weekend in June. On Saturday morning, classroom work begins at eight and ends at noon. Topics include steam properties; boilers (construction and accessories); licensing, inspection, and regulations; steam engines; handling steam traction engine (starting, stopping, control, lubrication, and so on); and care and storage of steam traction engines.

The students own a full-sized cutaway Case boiler that can be used as a training aid. In the afternoons, Gerry says, 'we turn the students loose, and they go to the nine or 10 practice engines we have setup and practice a few things we taught them that day. If some of them are standing around and waiting their turn, we'll go around and show them some things that we've talked about. That lasts most of Saturday afternoon.' On Saturday evening an engineer teaches valve settings.

'Also Saturday evening we'll hook one of the engines up to the Prony Brake and just play around. It's a device used to put a load on an engine. It involves a huge pulley, and we hook the belt onto the brake. The other end of the belt goes onto the fly wheel of one of the steam engines. Just lining up one of those steam engines into a belt is very, very tricky. The Prony Brake has a lever that adjusts the amount of load you put on the engine and you can go ahead and run it up and measure the amount of horsepower being put out. It's really fun. This year we waited until dark, and loaded the engine fireboxes with sawdust, and pulled heavy loads. They blew sparks up through their stacks 50 feet into the air. Everybody kind of likes and enjoys that.'

Sunday morning classes again run from 8 a.m. to noon, after which the future graduates hook up their machines to implements, and go through a driving course. That's when the gallon jugs of water are tossed under the moving machines.

Gerry says he finds two things difficult for students to grasp: 'I think it's difficult for some of them to grasp the physiology of the steam cylinder itself, and in addition, to be able to pay attention to all the things they should as the machine is running. For example, to get on an engine and run it around and be pretty good with steering and starting and stopping, but yet forget completely about the water level and the fire. That is not uncommon for people learning how to do things. They get tunnel vision.'

Gerry says one thing that surprises the students the most, he thinks, is the responsiveness of the throttle. 'Pulling a throttle is very, very tricky, and we notice this too when people actually get on our full-size steam locomotive. When they grab that throttle and start jerking it around, they find out that you have to make very, very fine adjustments at the throttle. I think when they discover how much power is in these pieces of machinery and how carefully you have to apply it, I think that's very surprising to them.' The instructors make sure students know that all the steam machines are important, and that they learn how to operate both a single-cylinder steam traction engine and a double-cylinder. 'The single-cylinder is much more difficult to operate than a double-cylinder,' Gerry says.

Tom says, 'Steam traction engineering is as much an art as a science. It's like an art teacher explaining to someone how to try to do a painting. You can explain the technique involved, and the types of paint, and how the different types get applied to the canvas, but you can't teach them how to paint. The same with the steam engines. (Operators) have to have some talent, or common sense, or whatever, and they have to practice.'

'Every year,' Gerry says, 'we have a number of people who are really thankful for what we've done, and are so happy. Those people are usually the ones who get really involved, and come back to Rollag to be part of the show. That's the most thrilling part of the school, because Tom and I can look around now and see an awful lot of engineers that are at Rollag that own machinery or run machinery because they've been to our school. That's a good feeling.'

Members of WMSTR (Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion) are admitted free; for others, the cost is $50. Additionally, a separate $50 is charged for a Minnesota Steam Traction Engineers license, which is offered the afternoon of the last day of the course, given by inspectors from the State of Minnesota Division of Codes Enforcement People taking this test must have the additional steam traction engine operating experience (verified by a notarized affidavit - the University of Rollag course counts for 16 hours of the total needed.)

Laws, Licenses and Steam

Tom Hall says that the State of Minnesota Division of Boiler Inspection requires that all steam boilers and engines used at shows be operated by licensed steam traction engineers. Until 1980, this meant that one needed a Chief license, Grade 'A', which required five years full-time work experience with engines and high pressure boilers. In 1980, the Chief Boiler Inspector established the Steam Traction Engineer License. This license allowed qualified, tested engineers to operate steam traction engines and boilers at steam threshing type shows. This was not to be an occupational boiler license, and thus became known by boiler inspectors as a 'hobby' license, a term still used. Engineers holding the steam traction or 'hobby' license must complete training, have practical experience, and present a legal, signed affidavit before being allowed to take the state written exam. Upon passing the exam, the operator earns the Minnesota Steam Traction Engineer License.

All boilers used in hobby-type steam traction shows in Minnesota must have a current state Division of Boiler Inspection tag and certificate. The Division has been very cooperative in working with the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Engine Reunion, WMSTR, and the other shows to keep safety as the main concern.

All boilers are state inspected every other year, and hydro-tested every other inspection. Every boiler and engine operated in Minnesota must have a current certificate of inspection and be operated by a licensed engineer. FC


Bill Vossler lives and works in Minnesota. His most recent book is The Complete Book of Farm Toys and Boxes.