The Boss: 18 hp Russell Steam Engine

Russell steam engine was the farmer's workhorse in steam era

The Boss

The Boss

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The Macoupin County Historical and Agricultural Association's annual Strawberry Festival in Carlinville, Ill., draws a crowd from across the midwest. People travel hundreds of miles to take in what is billed as a craft, antique and historical tour event. But a tractor show held in conjunction with the festival also draws a big crowd. And Randy Ramseier's Russell steam engine was among the crowd-pleasers there. 

Although Massey-Harris was the featured tractor, Randy's Russell stood out with the grandeur that only a steam engine can muster. Randy, who lives at Benld, Ill., said he's been enamored with steam engines ever since the first time his grandfather took him to a steam show as a child.

Two years ago, Randy "bit the bullet" and bought his first steam engine: a 1904 18 hp Russell.

"I thought I'd buy it before the price goes up," he said.

The Russell falls into the orphan tractor category: In Randy Leffingwell's book, The American Farm Tractor, the author describes orphans as "tractors without parents or offspring."

Randy's Russell seems to fit that profile. Brothers Charles, Nahum and Clement started the C.M. Russell Company. Originally carpenters, the Russell brothers made steam traction engines in a full range (6 hp to 150 hp) of sizes. Although successful in the steam engine and threshing industry, the C.M. Russell Company did not do as well when the tractor evolution shifted to gas-powered tractors. Although they did produce some gas and kerosene tractors, in March 1927 the Russell Company of Massillion, Ohio, was sold at auction.

A steam engine is nothing if not complex. Randy said his research just began once he purchased the Russell. He studied the operation and care of the steam engine, purchased books and literature, and visited with other owners and operators. Knowing how to operate the engine safely is critical. "It is a potential bomb," he  said. "You have to watch the water level, and be very careful!"

Hauling the Russell is an event in itself. Randy said he loads the steam engine on a drop deck lowboy, using a dozer to push it on. Prior to loading, he fills the engine with water, using a hose. Filling the tank is not unlike filling a small swimming pool.

"The machine should be transported with water in the boiler," he said. "The tank holds around 300 gallons, and takes quite a while to fill. With water, the engine weighs 24,000 pounds."

This is no small tractor that fits inside a garage or a carport. Fortunately, Randy has plenty of space. He lives on a 16-acre farm on the edge of Benld, where he runs R&R Machining. He keeps the Russell in his machine shop.

Once he transports the monster machine to a show, the work has just begun. Besides loading and unloading the engine, running it also takes a bit of power. The engine burns wood and coal.

"Coal works better than wood," he said, "but it is dirtier."

Lump coal works the best, but is increasingly difficult to find, since most coal is made for use in power plants. Because of that, he generally uses oak sawmill slabs. At the Strawberry Festival the Russell was the power source for the onsite sawmill. This Russell works for its fuel!

But it's also "The Boss." Emblazoned on the side of the massive engine is a painting of a bull labeled "The Boss". Randy said that was the nickname the Russell Company chose for its steam engines.

"Everybody had a sales ploy," he said "Aultman & Taylor used the starved chicken to show that so little grain was lost, a chicken would starve, and Avery had the bulldog with the motto 'teeth talk'."

Randy's aptly-named Boss was purchased in good condition. In a few years, Randy said, he may pull it all apart, sandblast the parts, and possibly replace the steering wheel or worm gears. "But right now, she runs just fine," he said.

With a machine almost 100 years old, parts are difficult to come by. If one of these steam machines needs a part, what does a collector do? According to Randy, you make your own.

"If I didn't have a machine shop," he said, "I would be lost."

For Randy, much of the lure of the steam engine is in its size. Bigger is definitely better.

"I've got other tractors, but something big and oversized is intriguing," he said. "Half the fun is in maintaining. The life expectancy of these originally was only about five years. You just couldn't keep them clean. These things just ate themselves up.

"The build-up of grime, grease and oil decreased the engines" life spans, Randy said. Before the development of the pressure cleaner, there was no way to keep the engines clean. And early grease and oil products did not match the quality of today's products. Decades ago, the massive engines were routinely retired early, cast aside to be consumed by rust, or hauled off for scrap.

Big as it is – weighing in at 12 tons, and dwarfing most other tractors – Randy's Russell is one of the smaller steam engines.

"It was used for the sawmill, or to pull threshing machines from farm to farm, or pull a water wagon," he said. "This engine was not built heavy enough, though, to plow with."

Everything about steam engines speaks of a group effort. It takes more than one man to load the engine, and another to operate equipment to move it. That teamwork is part of the fun for Randy. He also enjoys the educational aspects of showing the Russell at events like the Strawberry Festival.

The image that comes to mind when Randy stokes the burner with wood and shows off the huge engine to admirers is one of threshing. Pictures of the huge machines belching smoke as the thresher separates grain from chaff remind today's farmers of yesterday's labor, back when a massive steam engine was "The Boss" of the crew. FC 

Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, Ill.