Steam Engine Expert

Scale model or full-sized steam engines, Gene Gay has seen it all

A close-up view of the Aultman & Taylor shipping tag

A close-up view of the Aultman & Taylor shipping tag.

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“Gene Gay is who you want to talk to. He can tell you anything you need to know about steam engines. If you’re not careful, you’ll burn that old mill down.” 

When volunteers rebuilding an old gristmill turned to Charles Sharp for advice, they were on the right track. Having inherited a Case steam engine from his father, Charles has spent his life around steam engines and is quite knowledgeable on the subject. Still, Charles deferred to Gene Gay, Springfield, Mo., as one of a very small number of experts on the topic. Like Charles, Gene has had his hands on steam engines all his life. Early members of the Ozarks Steam Engine Association, the two men have always been willing to share with others the secrets of a source of power that is near extinction.

Restoring with integrity

Volunteers from the Fair Grove (Mo.) Historical and Preservation Society in Fair Grove, Mo., worked for more than 15 years to bring a long dormant pair of millstones back into operation in Wommack Mill (see related article in Farm Collector, January 2004). The 1883 structure has been completely restored, and one run of 42-inch French buhr stones has been leveled and sharpened by a Tennessee millwright. The next task was installation of an antique single-cylinder stationary steam engine, replicating the mill’s original power source.

In the engine room, a 1939 International Harvester F-20 tractor was belted up for use as a temporary power unit. But the group set its sights on a steam engine built more than a century earlier by Southern Engine & Boiler Works, Jackson, Tenn. For help with that, they turned to Gene Gay.

The circa-1900 engine had been salvaged in poor condition from an Oklahoma sawmill. After a new piston was fabricated and fit with new compression rings and connecting rod, the engine’s slide valve was milled and its cylinder oiler reconditioned. Gene rebuilt the Gardner flyball governor to regulate its working speed. The undertaking was a success: Since 2003, corn grinding has been a regular part of demonstrations held twice each year at the steam-powered Wommack Mill.

Family heirloom engine

Gene began work as a welder at Kent Boiler Works, Springfield, Mo., at age 20. His work there was interrupted by World War II; Gene served on two U.S. Navy destroyers. After the war, in 1946, he returned to Springfield and his job at Kent.

Retired since 1986, Gene stays busy with a variety of hobbies. Last summer, Gene and his family celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks and homemade ice cream. Later that day, Gene’s son-in-law, Russell Lindsey, and grandson, Troy, fed chunks of oak into the firebox of a scale-model steam engine, the second of six Gene and his father built years ago.

“My dad spent all day with a hacksaw cutting that engine in half to make it a single-cylinder,” Gene says. “This one is the second one we built. I flanged 24, 1-1/4-inch tubes into its 30-gallon boiler. They won’t rust out because they’re copper.” The hubs of the engine’s front wheels are from a 1918 Overland automobile, center-welded into old road grader wheels. The back wheels are remnants of an old threshing machine; the governor came from an oil engine. “Dad made the roof completely by himself,” Gene says. “He just needed something to do.”

The firebox door bears the name “Globe,” unusual among steam engines. “Dad cut that out with a hacksaw,” Gene admits. “It came off of my mother’s retired cook-stove. That fancy little piece was originally made to warm a coffee pot on the back of a stove top.”

When the steam gauge registers 80 psi, Troy toots both of the little engine’s shrill whistles. He injects water into the engine and his dad helps him get it started moving by rocking the flywheel. The 9-year-old engineer is likely the only boy in his class who can operate a steam engine. “He’s probably the only one in that school who knows what a steam engine is,” his dad notes with pride. What does Troy like best about the once-a-year opportunity to operate the miniature marvel? “Everything!” he says with excitement. “I just like it all!”

Treasured collectible

Just a year younger than its owner, a full-size 1919 Aultman & Taylor 20-60 steam traction engine has been part of Gene’s collection for nearly 60 years. Gene bought the 20-60 (serial no. 9153) in 1953 from Ellis Williams, who brought it to the Ozarks from Kansas by rail during World War II to saw lumber south of Rogersville, Mo.

Gene had the engine hauled from Rogersville to a farm northeast of Springfield, Mo. The engine was rebuilt, cleaned and painted before going to work: Gene belted the Aultman & Taylor to a sawmill and proceeded to cut lumber from 600 logs. After that job was completed, he drove the engine 3 miles down gravel roads to his home north of Springfield.

In 1962, Gene and other steam enthusiasts put their engines through their paces in Billings, Mo., in demonstrations held as part of the first Steam-O-Rama put on by the Ozarks Steam Engine Assn. “That was the only time I had my engine anywhere but around here,” Gene recalls, “because I had work to do and bills to pay.” The following year, the fledgling group moved the show to its present site east of Republic, Mo.

An amazing find

About a dozen years ago, I attended the Hawkins Mill auction in Springfield. While looking for items that could be used in the restored Wommack Mill, I noticed a heavy cast iron door wired to a board. A parts number was cast in the door’s surface; a cardboard tag attached to the board read “Aultman & Taylor, Kansas City.” On the back of the board, painted in black letters, was “A.W. Dyer, Exeter, Nebr., C.O.D. $5.40.” I knew only one person who had something built by that company, so when the auctioneer began accepting bids on what he claimed was part of an old cook-stove, I said I’d give $10 for it. There were no other bids; no one but me knew that it was a steam engine firebox door.

I drove straight from the sale to Gene’s home. He came out to his garage to see what I’d brought him. “I think I have something that would fit onto your old steam engine,” I told him, “but I want to see if yours has the same part number as this one.” I was extremely happy that it did.

Years ago, a new-old-stock firebox door for a steam engine like Gene’s was tagged for shipment from a Kansas City warehouse to a Nebraska man. Who knows how it ended up in Missouri, but it found a good home with a man who’s long been fascinated by steam. FC 

Dan Manning is the miller at the historic Wommack Mill in Fair Grove, Mo. He works with photographer Ron McGinnis, whose work can be seen at www.RonMcGinnis.com.