Steam Traction Engine Gets Extreme Makeover

Volunteers complete Advance-Rumely Universal steam traction engine restoration

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The restored Advance-Rumely, driven by Tom Willert, making a triumphal return to the Rice County (Minn.) Steam & Gas Engines grounds.

Photo by Cathy Werner

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When Vic Wenzel’s 1921 18 hp Advance-Rumely Universal steam engine went in for restoration, it got that and more. A crew of volunteers from the Rice County (Minn.) Steam & Gas Engines club gave it the old iron version of an extreme makeover.

Preserving a Universal

In the early 1900s, Advance-Rumely steam traction engines were considered among the best of their class in the U.S. The 18 hp was at the small end of the Universal line (which was produced from 1915 to 1924), but was a good match for threshing and sawmill use. The side-crank, rear-mounted single-cylinder engine had a 9- by 10-inch bore and stroke, and burned coal, wood or straw.

Vic and his wife, Bernice, bought the Universal at a 1975 auction in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Vic put the relic to work at shows near his home in Rosemount, Minn., cooking sweet corn and leading parades. Years later, in 2007, Vic and a former employee of his, Don Weed, Dundas, Minn., began discussing restoration of the classic engine.

With extensive experience in steam engines, Don was the right man to guide the restoration effort. “I’ve been around steam engines for 30 years,” Don says. Licensed as a Chief Grade A Engineer, he’s also gotten into ironwork and blacksmithing. “I’ve taken some steam engineering classes over the years,” Don says, “where I’ve learned the kinds of things that you have to do to adhere to today’s standards. But mostly I’ve learned from being around steam engines.”

Restoring a relic

In October 2007, the Universal was hauled to Joe Hollinger’s shop in rural Dundas, where the restoration would be conducted. While waiting for the engine’s annual boiler inspection, Don and Joe, along with other members of the Rice County club, began dismantling the Universal as the first step of restoration.

In the process, they discovered problems. “Vic believed the boiler was pretty good,” Don says. “It wasn’t, but all the teeth on the gears were.” The decision was made to buy a new boiler and proceed with a restoration that would result in a safe, working machine.

The smokestack and water tanks were rotted out, so Don fabricated steel replacements. He also built the fire door and hinges, and piping and valves were replaced. Bernice made a new fringed cover for the canopy.

Job number one was getting a replacement boiler, a job easier said than done. “Very few shops are actually licensed to build boilers,” Don explains. “They have to be an ASME-certified shop and have an ‘S’ stamp issued by the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors.”

Two Minnesota shops were located, but each was booked for a year in advance. Then Don found Bob Oliver’s shop in Auburn, Ontario, Canada, and the restoration took flight. After negotiations were complete, Joe and Don hauled the old boiler to Ontario. “We drove through Chicago and up through Port Huron,” Don says. “We made the trip up in one day and back the next, driving more than 1,100 miles.”

Working as a team

Bob Oliver delivered the completed boiler in June 2009. The next month, the group of volunteer restorers began meeting for a full day of work every Tuesday. “Many other club members would stop by from time to time,” Don says. “You never knew who was going to show up.” Volunteer restorers included Jim Code (since deceased), Joe Hollinger, Roger Caron, Roger Madden, Curtis Piper, Tom Willard, George Oman, Bill Oppegard, Jim Mahecek, Mike Peterson, Joe Thiboedeau and Don Weed.

Reassembly was completed on Sept. 3, 2009, and the final boiler inspection was successful. “The most memorable moment was on the day when we put the fire in it and blew the whistles,” Don says. “The most fun moment was seeing the look on Vic’s face when he came to see it, and how much he appreciated it.”

And a triumphal return to the Rice County club show grounds wasn’t bad either. Led by a police escort, the Universal was driven a few miles from Joe’s farm to the annual Labor Day tractor show in Dundas. Thanks to many, history lives on! FC

For more information: Don Weed, P.O. Box 266, Dundas, MN 55019. See videos of the Advance-Rumely at Farm Collector's YouTube page.

Freelance writer Cathy Werner, Farmington, Minn., does her part to preserve the past by writing about antique tractors and equipment. E-mail her at dma@bevcomm.net.