Second Nature: Steam Traction Engines Come Easily for Minnesota Woman

Anne Zimmerman has spent her entire life around steam traction engines so it’s little wonder that she’s become an expert.

1907 Baker side

A long view of Wetter Farms’ 1907 65 hp Baker steam traction engine.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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For Anne (Wetter) Zimmerman, nothing could be as natural as operating a century-old steam traction engine. Never mind that she’s young compared to many engineers … or that she’s a woman in an activity traditionally pursed by men … or that she’s educated as a lawyer. “I grew up around steam engines,” she says simply. “I’ve spent my entire life around a 1907 65 hp Baker steam engine. My father has owned it since before I was born.”

As Anne grew increasingly interested in steam engines, her father urged her to get her steam license. “My dad had given up his hobby license years and years ago,” she says, “so I made a deal with him. I’d get mine if he also went and got his.” The two took classes together at the University of Rollag (Minnesota) Steam School, took the test together and today both are licensed engineers.

Anne, who lives in Champlin, Minnesota, describes the Baker (serial no. 459) as a perfect trainer for people interested in running a steam traction engine. “It’s the best training steam engine a person can ever have, because it’s very patient,” she says. “And as an operator learns, it’s very forgiving, which is very helpful in not discouraging new engineers.”

Her mother, sister-in-law and husband are currently learning to operate the Baker and all appreciate the engine’s user-friendly features. “The firebox makes it easy to control the fire, and in turn the steam and pressure, and the injectors are accessible,” Anne says. “For example, my many-months pregnant sister-in-law was able to reach them last summer at the Nowthen (Minnesota) Threshing Show.”

Workhorse engines

The 1907 Baker is more than just a patient instructor: It’s also a workhorse. “That was the first steam engine I ever ran, and my reaction was that it was very simplistic in design because it had just a few operating levers, but it’s very complicated in theory,” Anne notes.

It’s nothing like getting in a car and turning the key. “You have to understand where the piston has stopped in the stroke and know from that position the direction you need to head to make it work,” she says, “and you have to work with the momentum of the stroke when belting and starting a machine. You have to understand a lot more of the mechanical theory behind it, because it’s more complicated than just engaging steel levers.”

For example, to move the machine forward, the engineer has to understand where the piston is aligned. The engine may need to be rocked backward before advancing, depending on the location of the piston. If it is caught in the center of the stroke, or “on center,” opening the throttle won’t cause the piston to move at all.

“When ‘on center,’ the piston is essentially stopped right in the middle of the stroke, so when you expel steam into the cylinder, the piston isn’t favoring either side,” Anne says. “The steam doesn’t push or expand on one side or the other, so the piston doesn’t get moving. When that happens, you have to get down off the engine and manually turn the flywheel to get it to operate again, moving the piston slightly so the steam will create expansion and contraction that pushes the piston back and forth.”

Because steam locomotives have two cylinders, she notes, the pistons can’t center out. One always remains off center, so even if one is stuck on center, the steam will still push the other cylinder, getting both of them started.

1919 Baker 23-90 Uniflow

Wetter Farms also owns a 1919 23-90 Baker Uniflow steam traction engine (serial no. 1517). It is a good fit for the collection. “The Bakers are very efficient steam engines and more rare than some of the others out here in Minnesota,” Anne says. “Because we already had the connection with the 1907 Baker, and this is a size larger and a Uniflow, we saw it as an opportunity to expand the collection with an engine with more power and different features, but with the efficiency that Baker is known for.”

The Uniflow has given Anne some new opportunities as an engineer. “Of all the steam engines we own, it seems the most efficient,” she says. “If you fill it with wood to get it up to pressure, it just sits there with no drop. It’s not high maintenance. When you get it up to pressure, it’s a real workhorse and a really fun engine to do things with. This engine was designed primarily for belt work, so sawmill, threshing and rock crushing are all possible with the power it provides.”

When purchased at an Ohio auction about a year ago, the Uniflow was in generally good condition. “The boiler had been largely redone and the firebox was redone in about 2000, so most of the boiler and all of the firebox are fairly new,” Anne says. “But it hadn’t been run since the repairs were done, so we could have encountered some surprises.”

After the auction, the 11-1/2-ton engine was trucked to Minnesota, inspected (hydrostatic test and ultrasound), sealed with new gaskets and steamed up. “Then we tried to figure out what we had,” Anne says.

Getting the engine in proper running condition required closing some leaks, switching injectors and jimmying the throttle, which was locked at full open. “After powering down, Dad popped open the throttle and figured out the design. It had been stuck open, so there was no control at that point,” she says. “Over the years, our other steam traction engines have had some issues with injectors and piping leaks, but nothing that could be declared an emergency. We prevent that with a lot of good maintenance and good engineering and handling.”

Meeting Minnesota standards

In Ohio, the Wetters’ Baker Uniflow was rated for 180 pounds pressure, but current Minnesota standards are stricter. When the engine was inspected in Minnesota, it was allowed only 80 pounds of pressure. Since then, the engine has been returned to Ohio, where modifications are underway to bring the boiler into compliance with Minnesota standards. That will require additional work on the front of the boiler.

“The barrel front sheet was a little thin, so a thicker sheet is replacing that,” Anne says, “bringing the engine in compliance with stringent Minnesota standards.”

In some respects, she says, upkeep is the most difficult part of the steam traction hobby, but not in the way most people might think. The annual inspection may result in need for major repairs – or none at all. Inspections are conducted in the summer, when temperatures are more conducive to working with engines, so if repairs are needed, it can be difficult to get them completed in time to display the engine on the summer show circuit. “If it’s something like welding, we can’t do it,” Anne says. “We need a specialist.”

Unique Uniflow design

In the Baker Uniflow, not all of the steam that goes into the cylinder is completely expelled: Steam valves on each side remain heated. When additional steam is pushed in, it expands more quickly and effectively because the area has not cooled. In earlier designs, the pistons used all available steam as they moved back and forth, requiring constant delivery of new steam. The Uniflow design used steam more efficiently to create more power.

The Wetters run their steam traction engines (the two Bakers, a 1919 90 hp Minneapolis and a 1910 36 hp Case) on wood, because it is cheaper and more easily available than coal. The Baker Uniflow’s boiler holds roughly 350 gallons; large contractor bunkers on back (designed to hold more water, wood or coal) will hold another 300 gallons. When the engine is working hard, it will use the reserve water and wood in roughly an hour.

An exacting process

Careful monitoring is essential during routine steam engine operation. That means listening to the engine, Anne says, watching the gearing and making sure nothing is loose. Something as simple as a subtle noise or different feel to the rock of the engine can be the first sign of trouble. “You have to pay attention to catch things early,” she says, “so major breakdowns don’t occur.”

When operating a steam traction engine, engineers must make sure the water level is adequate, procure an adequate supply of wood and build up a good base of heat to maintain constant pressure. And at shows, they must also deal with the human factor.

“You have to be extra careful that people don’t touch the engine in the wrong place, and generally keep them out of the way,” Anne says. “Because old machines move slowly, many people think they are not dangerous, but there is a greater risk in not knowing much about them. You have to be aware of people’s safety because they don’t understand how dangerous these things can be if not dealt with properly.”

Overcoming stereotypes

At shows, more than a few people are surprised to see a woman operating as a licensed engineer well-versed in steam engine mechanics. “They’re even more surprised that I’m an attorney,” Anne admits. The number of women engineers has been growing for more than a decade, but for those outside the hobby, steam is still considered a man’s world and female engineers are sometimes mistaken as window dressing.

Anne is well familiar with common stereotypes. “At first, when people ask me about the engines, the questions are less technical,” she says. “They think I’m just assisting on the engine; they assume that my brothers are the actual engineers. But when they start to realize that I’m also licensed, the questions become more technical.”

She fields the battery of questions with ease. How did you get involved with steam engines? How long has your family owned the engines? How did they come to own them? What do you do to maintain them? “They’ll also often ask why my brothers and I, who are of a different generation than a lot of the antique owners, are involved with steam,” she says. “Most people are happy to see that all ages and genders can get involved, so we don’t lose this little bit of history.”

A way to touch history

Family connections are a big part of the hobby for Anne. “The main reason I got involved in steam is because my family is involved in it and they enjoy being involved in it,” she says. “It’s something we share as a family. All of us kids – and our spouses – are involved now. It has become a family hobby.”

But the heritage of steam traction is an equally strong draw for her. “What I like about steam is that it is a very powerful piece of our history,” she says. “It really was advanced power, but not with the most advanced manufacturing. People believed they could create this kind of power using nothing more than steam and the technology that existed back then, and they did it. It’s an awesome way to touch history, and to learn why we’re at the place we’re at now, in the most basic forms.

“I am just amazed that, at the turn of the 20th century, somebody took wood and water and created something so powerful,” she muses. “If you gave a kid wood and water today, would he or she be able to think of something like that? Without the use of computers and worldwide teams of experts?” FC

For more information:

– Anne (Wetter) Zimmerman, 12124 Zealand Ave N., Champlin, MN 55316; (651) 343-5572.


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: bvossler@juno.com.