Celebrating Steam Traction Engine Heritage

Restoration of a 1909 Lang & Button traction engine launched a new focus for a New York steam club.

Lang & Button steam traction engine

The restored Lang & Button. The engine has two 35-gallon water tanks. The boiler draws water through steam injection from the bottom tank; the top tank is used to fill the bottom tank on the platform.

Photo by Leslie C. McManus

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When the New York Steam Engine Assn. Inc. got the opportunity to buy the steam engine that’s featured in the club’s logo, it was a no-brainer. The engine had been present at the club’s first show, in 1960, and it was a rare New York-built piece, the only Lang & Button known to exist.

Enthusiasm built quickly for restoration of the engine, which had not been run since 1976. More quickly than anyone thought possible, donations topped the $50,000 mark. “We got a lot of publicity,” says Rick Finley, association vice president. “There were a lot of people interested in that engine.”

But no one predicted the momentum the project would generate. Paint on the freshly restored Lang & Button was barely dry in August 2014, when the club took on a new project: restoration of an A.W. Stevens engine built before 1900. “The Lang & Button really got the ball rolling,” Rick says. “Restoration of these historic engines turned out to be something the club really wants to pursue.”

The Stevens engine was offered as part of a 2014 auction. The club authorized expenditure of up to $12,500 toward purchase, but as bids blew past that figure, club members and others stepped up to the plate with on-the-spot donations. When the final gavel fell, the club owned the engine, which sold for more than $29,000. Since then, the club has raised $74,500 in donations to underwrite restoration. “It’s amazing to me,” Rick marvels. “I would never have believed that possible six months ago.”

Designed for belt work

The Lang & Button was manufactured in 1909 in Ithaca, New York, about 60 miles from Canandaigua. The 12 hp traction engine was designed primarily for belt work. “You could steer and drive it,” Rick says, “and it would do some light pulling, but no plowing or heavy drawbar work.”

No definitive records exist, but the club believes the engine was used in a Pennsylvania sawmill. Certainly it was the appropriate size for that application, and Rick says the wear found on the engine is consistent with sawmill work.

Interestingly, the engine has a 2-inch Pickering horizontal governor. “A couple of manufacturers used that as a solution for space and height issues,” Rick says. “There’s some thought that it’s a little more responsive than a vertical governor, but it’s also a little harder to lubricate.”

Lang & Button was preceded by Lang & Reynolds, which was established in Ithaca in 1868 by John B. Lang and James Reynolds. Following Reynolds’ death in 1891, Lang’s son-in-law, Ernest D. Button, joined the firm. In addition to portable and traction engines, Lang & Button built sawmills, plows, land rollers and cultivators.

The company suspended steam engine production in 1921. No production records are known to exist. “We have an original photo of the Lang & Button factory,” Rick says. “There are probably 30 workers shown in that picture. It was a good-sized operation; they definitely made hundreds of engines over the years.”

Strong volunteer support

The Canandaigua club bought the Lang & Button engine from Jim Ertle, one of the club’s founding members. He’d bought it from Barb and Dave Conroy, also founding members, in the mid-1970s. The engine sat outside for 15 years before it was moved into a barn in 1992. Jim eventually agreed to sell the Lang & Button to the club.

Club members didn’t just underwrite restoration: They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. “Several people helped with restoration,” says Rick, who directed the process. “While the boiler was being built, a lot of people worked on repairing and repainting a lot of parts.”

When the boiler project took longer than expected, the troops rallied to get the project ready for the engine’s debut at the club’s Pageant of Steam in August 2014. “I didn’t know if we’d get it finished in time for the show,” Rick admits. “If it hadn’t been such a cold spring, it might not have happened. But people couldn’t get outside to do anything else, so they helped finish the restoration.”

Searching for parts

The first step in restoration turned out to be a search for missing parts. Long-time members who were kids when they first saw the Lang & Button remembered the engine having a wooden toolbox; others recalled an extra set of wheels. Then there was the matter of a missing water tank. “We were told of several places it might be,” Rick says, “but we finally found it in the weeds.” Eventually the toolbox turned up, as did the unusual spare set of wheels (one set had been modified with rubber treads, but the club has the original lugs).

Consuming more than 18 months of the restoration schedule, construction of a new boiler (by JS Co., Middlefield, Ohio) represented the biggest part of the project. The original boiler’s walls were 5/16-inch thick; walls on the new unit are 3/8-inch. The original boiler was riveted; the new one is welded (fake rivets replicate the appearance of the original boiler). “The technology is fascinating,” Rick says. “In 1909, they built a boiler without a welder. It was all hot-riveted together.”

The platform and coal bunkers were missing, so replacements were made. Otherwise, restoration was a fairly simple process. “It wasn’t that bad,” Rick says. “We had the same issues you’d have with anything old that had sat outside that long. We had to have some new bushings made and there were a few things that needed to be rebuilt or repaired. Because the engine was basically used for belt work, the wheels and axles hadn’t moved much. It’s called a simple engine, and it is; it’s very simple.”

Short-lived reign

A steam engine is such a massive thing, that it is almost incredible so few still exist. Scrap drives during World War II, though considered essential at the time, have compounded what is today’s preservation challenge. Sheer tonnage of early farm equipment was lost to the war effort – but some pieces survived. “I know people whose forebears hid their engines in the woods,” Rick admits.

Through efforts like restoration of the Lang & Button and A.W. Stevens engines, the Canandaigua club remains committed to preservation of the state’s steam engine heritage. “There were a lot of steam engine builders in New York at one time,” Rick notes, “but it was a short reign. The steam engine replaced the horse on the farm, but by the 1920s, gas tractors started coming on strong. Steam engines were made obsolete very quickly.” FC


NYSEA Pageant Marks 55th Year

The New York Steam Engine Assn. (NYSEA) in Canandaigua was established as a non-profit organization in 1960. Supported by a membership base of 2,000, the association today produces what is widely considered the biggest annual steam show in the state. In addition to displays of steam engines, tractors and stationary engines, show features include sawmill, threshing and plowing demonstrations, as well as a tractor pull and flea market. The association’s 55th Annual Pageant of Steam will be held Aug. 5-8, 2015, in conjunction with the Ford/Fordson Collectors Assn. national show. Feature tractor: Ford/Fordson; feature engine: New Holland.


For more information:

— NYSEA, 3349 Gehan Rd., Canandaigua, NY 14424; email: rfinley3@yahoo.com.

— Rick Finley, 3342 Sandhill Rd., Marion, NY 14505; email: rfinley3@yahoo.com.


Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.