Unforgettable: Engineer Recalls 10 Favorite Steam Engines

Gary Yaeger recalls his 10 favorite steam engines.

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Author Gary Yaeger's father, Joe Yaeger, firing a 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler in about 1920 on their family farm in Montana's Judith Basin, turning an Aultman-Taylor threshing machine.

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With more than 50 years' experience as a traction engineer, Gary Yaeger has had ample opportunity to get acquainted with a wide variety of steam engines. Here he reminisces about 10 that loom large in his memory. 'They're not the 10 strongest or toughest,' he notes, 'just some meaningful opportunities.' 

Born during the World War II era in Lewistown, Mont., in the heart of the Judith Basin grain farming country, I grew up on a farm with two steam engines: a 32 hp Reeves steam engine cross-compound and a 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler, each a heavy-duty Canadian Special. As a boy I played on both engines and Dad often took time to try to explain their operation to me.

Those two cold steam engines didn't do nearly as much for me as this next situation. At age 11, I learned the true meaning of the phrase 'live steam.' The first steam engine I lit a fire in was a Nichols & Shepard 20-70 double-cylinder steam engine at the Tyler Ranch in Moore, Mont. The late Charlie Tyler was an engine collector, having seven as I recall. His grandson Mike Tyler and I have been friends since our early school days. I finally was able to stay a weekend at the Tyler Ranch in the fall of 1954.

I had befriended Charlie, as I liked his chosen hobby, plus I never had a living grandfather. Our 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler was scrapped in the 1940s, but Dad put the derelict Reeves 32 hp engine out of sight during the scrap drives of World War II. Charlie knew about that 32 hp engine and asked me to ask my dad if the operable Nichols & Shepard could be traded for the derelict Reeves. The trade was consummated the day I first lit the fire in the Nichols & Shepard. When I was a boy, Dad frequently reminisced about steam engines and he wanted his sons to learn how to operate them.

I often visited with our neighbor Adolph Kolar about steam. He had his family's Reeves 32 hp double-simple Canadian Special. They had traded a 15-30 McCormick-Deering for it during the Great Depression. I also visited with Alva Stevens who'd bought the Kolar brothers' Reeves new. Charlie Colwell was another old neighborhood steam man I visited with. I was after any steam information I could get. Dad often mentioned a Reeves 32 hp cross-compound Canadian Special owned by another neighbor, Herman Otten. Dad ran the engine in 1930, but it was subsequently sold to an area sawmill.

Before Charlie Tyler passed away in the spring of 1956 (I was his last visitor), he bought what we referred to as the 'Otten Reeves.' I had become friends of Charlie's sons, Max and Earl. They were steam men in the steam era and I listened to what they told me about the subject. Only in recent years did I realize how fortunate I was to learn from these steam men in our neighborhood.

Charlie's funeral brought the opportunity to meet Walter Mehmke near Great Falls, Mont., later that year. Walter had amassed nearly 20 steam traction engines by the time I met him. I've since become well acquainted with his son, Carl, who inherited the collection. Walter owned several Case steam engines. Taking this boy's eye were his three Case 15 hp engines. My favorite was a 1909 Case 15 hp engine and tender.

When I was a freshman at Moore High School, Dad bought a derelict 16 hp Russell for $50. Dad, a farmer, was a serious blacksmith most of his adult life. He seemed to see purchase and restoration of the Russell as 'blacksmith therapy' in the off-season. It was missing all piping, levers, tanks, platform, smokestack, smoke box door, crankshaft and countershaft bearings, plus it had 34 bullet holes. (It had been parked at a prime deer hunting spot in the Big Snowy Mountains.) Time, money and perseverance got the engine running. It also provided me opportunity to learn to operate a single-cylinder engine, as double-cylinder engines lack the inherent familiar 'dead center' problem single-cylinder engines possess on the forward and rearward points of piston travel.

I married Sharon, the love of my life, in 1964. In late 1969 we moved to Billings, Mont., where we lived for nearly four years. I became friends with the late Oscar Cooke who owned the nearby Oscar's Dreamland Museum. The museum touted '300 tractors' including more than 20 steam engines. I assisted my friend Clyde Corley in operating engines at Cooke's annual show.

By the late 1970s and back on the farm, I'd become friends with Carl Mehmke and we really hit it off well with our love of old iron. He came to our farm early in 1980 and we drove around our area looking for a crawler. He noticed the Nichols & Shepard and we struck up a conversation about how his dad and my dad and I had a trade going for that Case 15 hp engine and tender I mentioned earlier. Since Carl didn't have a Nichols & Shepard steam engine in his collection but did have three Case 15 hp engines, we took up where our dads left off and made that trade.

We had an opportunity to move to Montana's Flathead Valley, near Glacier National Park, in 1981. My friend Max Tyler said, 'You'll have to look up Austin Monk at Kalispell.' I eventually had a visit with Austin, who was helping his best friend Jimmy Schmauch restore a Case steam engine. During these years, I earned a Montana steam traction license and really began to pursue the steam hobby.

Austin had built a huge Geiser Emerson-Brantingham Peerless 40 hp engine out of parts manufactured by the Emerson-Brantingham Co., which owned both Geiser and Reeves manufacturing plants. At the time I met him, Austin had been leaving that engine at the Barnes Steam and Power Show at Belgrade, Mont. Jimmy passed away in 1987 and the next time I ran into Austin I told him 'I know I can't ever replace your friend Jimmy, but I'd like to travel to Belgrade and help out in any way I could with that engine.' Austin was 77 then.

I probably learned more about steaming from Austin, while running that engine, than I had from other engine men I'd known, including my dad. I'd never steam plowed before I met Austin. At Belgrade I got a chance to help with an engine pulling a 20-bottom plow, a feat rarely done at shows. On Sunday, after I'd worked hard filling the firebox with wood in very hot conditions, Austin informed me, 'It's your turn to go plow!' I enjoyed the privilege of helping Austin and his nephew Doug McDougall with this great engine for several years.

In 1992 I attended the Antique Acres Old Time Power Show in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and met my friend Dean Bellinger, Waterloo, Iowa. Dean and I had run engines together in that area in 1958, so this was a homecoming. A huge 40 hp Reeves that once worked as an irrigating engine in Montana was by then owned by Ed and Ray Smolik, Osage, Iowa. I really wanted to run the engine and the engineer, Randy Schwerin, helped me realize that dream. I became friends with Ed and learned much about this magnificent engine.

In 1994, Marvin Brodbeck, then president of the National Threshers Association, invited me to attend the group's 50th anniversary show. He had purchased and restored the 32 hp Reeves my father and uncles plowed with from 1920 to 1938, and he wanted a family member to be present at the show. I attended the show and had the pleasure of operating the engine I'd played on for so many hours as a boy.

My friend Carl Mehmke held several Mehmke Plow Days in the 1990s. One of my favorite memories of plowing there was being entrusted with caring for the 32 hp Case his late father had used to break his farmland with in the early 1920s.

Early last summer, word spread on a website that some of us should meet at Osage, Iowa, where the late Smolik brothers' 40 hp Reeves is operated today. My son Michael had wanted to see this engine in operation for many years and offered me frequent flier miles he had that were expiring soon. More than a dozen of us met there in August and had a great time. Mike and I both operated the oldest steam 'traction' (pulls itself, no hitch) engine either of us will likely ever run, an 1878 Blumentritt, and we both got to plow with the Reeves.

At the time, we didn't know that Mike would be soon deployed to Afghanistan for a year. I've thanked the good Lord countless times that we had this wonderful opportunity to spend time together with great people and this fantastic 1912 engine.

Steam traction engines certainly have made up a big part of my life and the one thing that has made it so wonderful is all of the great steam men I've had the opportunity to meet … and you friends know who you are!  FC 

Gary Yaeger lives in Kalispell, Mont. E-mail him at Highwheeler20@yahoo.com