Iowa's Youngest Steam Engineer

Meet Craig Dobbins, an Iowa steam engineer who got an early start.

Young Steam Engineer

Young steam engineer Craig Dobbins observes one of his restoration projects.

Photo: Farm Collector Magazine Staff

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If you have a young child or grandchild, go get him or her now.

We'll wait.

Now take that child's hand and look at it closely. If the child is around 7 years old, you'll probably see short, Vienna-sausage-like fingers readying themselves for a growth spurt. If he or she's about 11, you'll see fingers on the far side of a couple of growing sessions. They'll probably seem so thin - hands like two spiders. No matter what, they will not be the hands, yet, of an adult. They will definitely not seem the hands of a steam engineer.

Someone forgot to mention that to Craig Dobbins.

Now 20 years old, Craig began learning to run steam engines at the age of 7, traveling with his father to the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, from his nearby hometown of Durant, Iowa. Kendall Tippett was the first man to give him a ride on a steam engine and, after that, he would spend the five days in Mt. Pleasant on the platform of a steam engine.

At the age of 11, he sold a 'bunch' of hogs he'd raised for 4-H and bought his first steam engine, a 16 hp, two-cylinder, 1916 Nichols & Shepard. He knew to let others do what he couldn't - steam man Roy Pressley did the crucial boiler work -but he did everything he could do himself. He put in a new flue sheet, new piston rings and repiped it, removing the galvanized pipe and putting in Schedule 80 steel piping. He built, with help, all new water tanks, added a little paint and the job was done.

'It was in pretty good shape, but rusty,' Craig says. 'I got lucky.'

With nowhere to keep the engine locally, Craig stored it at the Old Threshers ground. The distance stretched the 200 hours it took to get the job done into a five-year project, as Craig was only able to work on it in the 'set-up' week before the reunion.

Still, he says, it is not uncommon to work more than 200 hours on an engine restoration. He has already invested 350 hours in his most recent project, for which he traded his first engine. 'And,' he says, 'I'm not even on the downhill side yet.'

So far, his uphill battle with his 16 hp, single-cylinder, 1898 Nichols-Shepard engine (chosen because single-cylinder engines just 'sound neater' - he likes the one-lunger's signature ka-chunk, ka-chunk) has included installing a new crown sheet, two flue sheets, new flues, new water tanks, and a coal tender. This engine required more manufacturing than the previous. He's making new axle sleeves, he machined a replacement for every moving part in the engine's governor and made a new driver's platform and rebushed the entire engine.

He says that the hardest part of working on a steam engine is working on the boiler. 'You've got to make sure you're confident with the welds,' he says.

Though it may be the hardest part, Craig also likes welding the best. 'The fact that it's harder is probably why I like it best. I like a challenge.'

Soon he will be taking on the challenge of competing in the Future Farmers of America Chevron Restoration Competition, submitting a 1910, 26 hp American Abell single-cylinder as his entry. He laughs. 'See, I don't just like Nichols, I like them all.'

Restoration has become more than just a hobby for Craig. At the age of 18, he began taking on other collectors' restoration projects as a business. Last spring, he received a Future Farmers of America State Star in Agribusiness for being the top prospective business owner for the FFA in Iowa. Right now he's restoring a steam engine from Arkansas, a water wagon from Tennessee, and a 9N Ford for a local resident. He says he couldn't do any of it without the support of his parents and his friend, Tony B. Hall.

Craig also likes to teach people about the engines. He loves it when people who haven't been around steam engines wander into the Threshers Reunion on a lark. 'Most people are kind of scared of the engines,' he says, 'because they don't know much about them.' He enjoys convincing people that steam engines are only as dangerous as their operators. He was even the first in his family to take up steam, though his father is into vintage farm equipment as well.

More than anything else, though, Craig says he does this to see the fruit of his labors put to the test, to hear those big lungs pump. 'I like to see an engine go from a big, sleeping giant to a power machine. There they are, cold and quiet until you put fire in them and they come to life.' FC