For the Love of Steam Traction Engines

A Missouri man donates his time and labor to keep antique steam traction engines running.

Russell engine

A front view of the 12 hp Russell engine steam traction engine.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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When it comes to keeping the steam traction era alive, John Brewington goes above and beyond. Not only does the Bourbon, Missouri, man own a couple of engines himself, he also helps others prepare their engines for shows – and he does it for nothing more than the fun of it.

John’s interest in steam traction engines dates to his childhood, when he spent summers on the farm owned by his grandfather, Roy Alexander. Roy began collecting steam engines in 1951. Though he never owned more than four at one time, over the years he owned 10 engines, including several he built from scratch. “We called those ‘freelance’ models. One operated a crank that worked the agitator on a washing machine,” John recalls. “He also had a true 1895 Harrison Jumbo, complete with the trademark elephant cast on the steam chest.”

Apprentice to a master

John’s hands-on activity involvement with steam engines began at age 6. “Grandpa had me go around with him and crawl under and grease all the bull gears using a big old stick of grease you stuck in a tin can,” he says. “You see people do it the same way today.”

When local church groups wanted to have hayrack rides, Roy used his engines to pull the hayrack. “Seemed like every other week, there was a hay ride,” John says, “and it was like second nature to do that at night, using a flashlight and an oil lantern so you could see what you were doing and maintain water pressure.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s, John’s interest in steam waned. “But after I got out of the Navy in 1985, I went to my first steam show,” he says. “When I saw how much people were doing, I wanted to get involved.”

At the time of Roy’s death, he owned three engines. One was sold to an Iowa man; the remaining two stayed in the family. “The 1920 19 hp Keck-Gonnerman went to my cousin, Paul Alexander,” John says, “and the freelance model stayed with me.”

As his interest in steam engines increased, John began working on one of his grandfather’s hand-built models. The engine was made of odds and ends; the boiler was a big chunk of 18-inch water pipe. “He built it from the ground up, and he knew what he was doing, because he put wash-out plugs in it,” John says. “That gave me some experience working with steam.”

Hands-on training

In 1989, John began working on a 17 hp Harrison steam engine owned by a St. Louis museum. “I got a lot of experience working on that,” he says. “When that engine was sold, I felt strange, like I’d gotten fired.”

That was Monday. By Friday of the same week, he had a new “job,” sawing lumber on a vintage sawmill powered by a 1913 18 hp Keck-Gonnerman and 1920 19 hp Keck-Gonnerman at the Owensville (Missouri) Threshers show (now the Gasconade Co. (Missouri) Threshers Assn.). Then a friend asked him to help operate a pair of steam engines (a 1920 Baker Uniflow 21-75 and a 1911 45 hp Case) at the Warren Co. (Missouri) Old Threshers Assn. show.

In 2001, John attended the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. There he worked on an 1895 16 hp (some believe it to be an 18 hp) Case return flue, center-crank steam engine. “Only two exist,” he says. “One at Mt. Pleasant and one in Indiana.”

All things mechanical

John has worked on model trains and cars, he’s been a fire patrol technician on a U.S. Navy missile launcher and today he works for the U.S. Postal Service as an electronics technician, repairing mechanical sorters. “I have an all-around interest in mechanical things, and it all started with my grandpa’s steam engines,” he says. “The first time I crawled up to slap grease on the bull gears, something made an impression. Today I’m having a good time working on these old engines, though the post office is my ‘bread and butter.’”

And he’s inclined to keep it that way. “Some people find it hard to believe that I donate my time, and some people ask why the owners aren’t paying me,” John says. But he’s quick to admit he’s no expert. Steam engines routinely require costly repairs beyond his level of expertise, and he prefers that engine owners funnel their resources into that kind of work, rather than the work he does.

“A friend and I laughed about putting up a cardboard sign that says, ‘Will Fix Your Steam Traction Engine for a Sandwich,’ because that’s what we do,” he says. “A lot of places offer you at least one meal a day and others do an appreciation supper.”

For John, his hobby gives him the opportunity to work on a wide variety of interesting (and sometimes rare) engines. “A lot of it is trying to preserve the engines,” he says, “but there’s also the opportunity to learn how to do different kinds of work, and the friendships with a lot of wonderful people. It’s like an old-time handshake. I’m having a really good time with it.”

Focusing on safety

Depending on the work needed, John spends up to two weeks getting an engine ready for a show. “Even though a safety committee goes through the engine, I do my own safety check of basic things,” he says. “I’ll look inside the boiler to make sure no rust is coming through and pull out the soft plug to make sure there are no water deposits or lime on it that might prevent it from doing its job.”

The soft plug is a safety device. Part of it is made of tin, which has a melting point of about 440 degrees Fahrenheit. If the boiler’s water level drops so low that the plug is exposed, the tin melts and the water and steam blow out, saving the boiler.

Inspections also include checking handhold openings to see that everything is washed and clean, seeing that gaskets are installed and covers are in place. “Then we fill the boilers and when it’s ready, pump it up and do a basic safety check with that,” John says. “After that, I lubricate the engine. If I start at 8 a.m., I can usually have the engine ready by noon, unless adjustments are required, and then it can turn into an all-day affair. You have to remember that these engines are over 100 years old. You have to be more careful as time goes on.”

At many shows, state inspectors check the engines on-site. John enjoys the challenge of knowing his work will be evaluated. “It’s kind of neat to have that standard to live up to,” he says.

While working on one engine, he discovered that the 8-foot rods that extend to the front flue sheet were weakened. “I had to find the appropriate type of steel, put a good thread on each end and install the replacements,” he recalls. “I was happy to see that my work passed the state inspection. Doing that makes me feel like I did learn how to do a major repair.”

Learning as he goes

The average steam engine’s massive bulk remains a challenge to many enthusiasts. Parts are heavy; configurations can be puzzling. “I’m a little baffled sometimes,” John admits. “And it can be hard to figure out how I’m going to get repairs done economically. But I always find a way.”

The 1920 Baker Uniflow 21-75 he worked on is a good example. “The entire left axle was just pieces of point steel 1-inch thick,” he says. “I fabricated the pieces and cut them. It would have been kind of pricey to get a casting, and instead it turned out to be a nicely done repair and very reasonable cost-wise.”

Some repairs, he says, are beyond his skills. “For instance, when a Nichols & Shepard engine needed a new fitting welded up in the front end of the boiler, I can’t do that with the same credibility of someone they’re actually paying to do it,” John says. “A guy has to come out and seal it up. Things like that get pricey; they’re out of my league. But I’ve learned about welding, pouring babbitt and such. It’s just kind of surprising to read about doing it and then learn to do it.”

The work he’s doing today is beyond anything he ever imagined. “For the Baker in the Warren County Museum, I removed the wheels and the clutch, and reworked all of these things. It’s a good opportunity to learn,” he says. A 1915 20 hp Minneapolis in his collection has been torn all the way down, and he’s had his hands on every part but the front wheels, which were restored earlier. “I cleaned it all up and reworked it,” John says. “I always thought I would end up parting engines out and selling them, but instead I’m still working on the stuff.”

He is constantly impressed by century-old technology. “These engines are still working like they did when they were new,” he says. “It’s the most amazing thing. I think most people would be surprised and amazed to know that a person can learn how to make all these repairs, and yet that is beyond what most people are used to doing nowadays.”

The right way to go

Through his work on the old relics, John occasionally stumbles across family ties. His granddad’s 1919 20 hp Aultman & Taylor, for instance, had been gone for years after being sold at the estate sale. Then one of the sawyers at the Gasconade show heard about a steam engine for sale in Missouri. “When they brought the engine back, I checked the pictures of Grandpa’s engine and it turned out to be the same one he had years ago,” John says. “That was exciting. I never thought I’d see it again.”

John likes the engines when they’re running. “When they’re running, I like that they are just pulling you along,” John says. “I like the fact that the engine’s moving and you can guide it. You can start it slow and speed up. Some are easier than others. The Case with the return flue is cantankerous. It’s huge and just not an easy one to maneuver, especially if you’re not used to it.”

The 1889 12 hp Russell is not that difficult to operate and it can turn on a dime (the 1885 6 hp Nichols & Shepard works the same way). “Some of that has to do with size,” John says. “I think once I got used to operating the Keck-Gonnerman and the Baker Uniflow, the Case was more challenging. The Baker is a good-sized engine, but it’s built short enough to maneuver well.”

Steam traction engines occupy much of John’s life. “I can’t imagine doing anything else outside of my post office job,” he says. “Grandpa taught me to have a good time with this. I got exposed to steam engines early, and that looked like the right way to go with my life. I’m doing stuff today that I never imagined possible.” FC

For more information: John Brewington, 1235 Plum Tree, Bourbon, MO 65441; Email; (314) 717-6534.

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.