Craig Dobbins of Wilton, Iowa, looks and acts like most other 21 year olds, but few people his age have acquired the skills Craig has for restoring antique farm machinery -especially steam engines.
At the 74th National FFA Convention in October 2001 in Louisville, Ky., Craig received first prize out of 260 entries in the 2001 Chevron Lubricants Tractor Restoration Competition. He was recognized for his restoration of an 1898 Nichols & Shepard steam engine - the first steam engine ever entered in the competition.
A member of the Wilton FFA Chapter, Craig chose the Nichols & Shepard engine, a 16-50-hp, single-cylinder engine, originally made in Battle Creek, Mich., precisely because nothing like it had previously been restored for the Chevron contest.
'I had experience restoring more steam engines than tractors,' says Craig, who bought his first steam engine at age 11. 'It seemed like everyone else was restoring old tractors, so I decided to do something different and picked a steam engine.'
Craig's steam engine entry in the contest may have been perfectly timed, and even more historic than he could have imagined. According to Amy Whelan, who works for Chevron Texaco and assists with the competition, despite the very excellent job Craig did with his entry, the company recently decided to ban steam engines from the competition because of the relatively young age of contest entrants and the potential for serious accidents. She said the decision was made in part because of concerns that arose after the July 2001 steam engine explosion at Medina, Ohio, that killed five people. If the ban is permanent, it will make Craig's machine the only steam engine ever in the contest.
'I haven't quite figured out why they think steam engines are too dangerous for the competition,' Craig says. 'I guess because steam engines can be dangerous if not supervised correctly.'
Rut, he notes, the restoration contest, even without steam engines, is an ideal way for young people to learn the operation of tractor mechanics as well as the business aspects of restoration work.
'To me it's all about learning rather than doing anyways,' he says. 'Kids can help out with the hard stuff with an adult and learn in the process of watching. That's what the FFA competition is about anyways. Eventually these kids will learn how to do the hard stuff.'
Judges evaluate the Chevron projects on overall appearance, mechanical operation and safety components, using special workbooks developed by Chevron Texaco for the contest. Participants are required to track the progress of their restorations in the work books, which are designed to help teach the students such real-world skills as record keeping, expense management and project coordination.
Craig says he thinks even more FFA members will enter their projects in the future, which will raise the level of com petition even higher.
'It's good to see kids getting involved in the hobby,' he says. 'Being a kid, sometimes I was looked down upon by the older guys because I was so young, but the FFA is changing that.'
At age 18, Craig started his own company, Craig's Restoration and Repair, which involves buying, selling and doing restoration and repair work on antique farm machinery. In the spring of 2001, his efforts earned him an FFA State Star in Agribusiness.
Craig's experience in the restoration business helped him with the Nichols & Shepard side-mounted engine, which has 50 hp on the belt and 16 on the drawbar. No one knows how many of these engines were produced, he says, because the company's offices were destroyed in a fire. He does know his engine is one of the older models produced because it has a thin, 1/4-inch-thick boilerplate. 'When steam engines were first being made, their boilerplates were thinner than later models because the steam pressure was not as high,' Craig says. 'As horsepower increased, so did the steam pressures, resulting in heavier boiler plates.'
Craig was able to compare the 1898 Nichols & Shepard to another steam engine he owns, a 1916 of the same make, to get a better understanding of the parts and how they fitted together. 'The 1916 is fascinating to look at because it has the same parts, except they're larger and machined slightly different than the older parts,' he explains.
Craig first heard about the 1898 steam engine three years ago. A friend kept telling him about an old steam engine in Peoria, 111.; eventually, Craig went to see it and ended up falling in love with it. The engine was in decent shape for its age but still needed a lot of work.
'Pretty much on these old steamers, because they can be sort of dangerous, a thorough job needs to be done on every thing, ' Craig says. 'It's a learning process; if you go through every single piece of the steam engine, you learn about every piece.' With that in mind, Craig assessed every part and either restored or machined new parts depending on the condition.
The hardest part of the restoration, Craig says, was replacing the bull gear because it had to be made from scratch. Craig made a blueprint of the gear and had it poured from molten steel specifically for his steam engine.
'The thing about restoring steam engines is that there's not a whole lot of replacement parts,' Craig says. 'I had to make most of the parts because they aren't made anymore. It's not like a John Deere tractor; you can't go and order parts at a dealership and buy them new.'
The obscurity of these old, lumbering steam engines is, in fact, what Craig loves most about them. He goes to what he calls 'boneyards,' which are junkyards for old iron, in search of steam engines to restore. During World War II, many iron tractors and steam engines were scrapped for the war effort; today, a few remaining 'bones' sometimes still can be found in old junkyards.
'I also get some of my restorations from people getting out of the hobby and wanting to get rid of their old tractors,' Craig says. 'I'd say that doesn't happen as much. It's really about luck. For every one person getting out of the hobby, there are two people getting into it.'
Restoring a large steam engine from boneyard-to-show condition is not without its headaches. Craig says the amount of time and effort such a project requires is surprising. He worked 10-hour days and spent 700 total hours on the FFA project. The job was physically tedious, often requiring him to spend a lot of time in awkward positions.
'I spent 48 hours in the crown sheet fire box alone, welding it together,' Craig says. 'Your legs get stiff, you can't breathe even though there's a fan - and my girlfriend had to pull me out after I got stuck.'
Craig says if he had it to do over, he'd start earlier on the project: he spent 39 straight hours finishing it, and the work book, before the deadline.
Now, he's working on three new major restoration projects: an 1887 Gaar-Scott steam engine, an 1.885 Nichols & Shepard steam engine and a 20-35 Allis-Chalmers tractor. His advice for other young people interested in such a hobby is to find a knowledgeable mentor. 'It's like this old man that I saw at an old thresher's reunion. He was really old, maybe 90, with a beard,' Craig recalls. 'This guy had forgotten more about the hobby than we'll ever know in our whole lives. If we can learn from guys like this, we will pass on that knowledge, and it won't be lost after he's gone.'
For more information, contact Craig at Craig's Restoration and Repair, 1029 Vail Ave., Durant, IA 52747; (563)299-1808.