Woman at the Wheel

Lifelong interest in vintage steam engines puts a Missouri woman at the wheel

"It's just an incredible piece of machinery," Valerie Bruns says of the 1915 20 hp Illinois Thresher Co. steamer. "The engine's smoke stack is not original, but was on the engine when Leonard Bruns bought it in 1973. The engine - one of just 63 built - has a 9-inch bore and 11 3/4 inch-stroke. The illinois was built in Sycamore, Ill., by William N. Rumely, son of Meinrad Rumely, founder of the Rumely company.

"It's just an incredible piece of machinery," Valerie Bruns says of the 1915 20 hp Illinois Thresher Co. steamer. "The engine's smoke stack is not original, but was on the engine when Leonard Bruns bought it in 1973. The engine - one of just 63 built - has a 9-inch bore and 11 3/4 inch-stroke. The illinois was built in Sycamore, Ill., by William N. Rumely, son of Meinrad Rumely, founder of the Rumely company.

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When steam engines were at their peak in the early years of this century, a woman's place was most definitely in the home. Eighty-five years later, the role of women in society has changed dramatically. Still, when the woman at the wheel of a vintage steam engine moves with a willowy grace, and wears an embroidered blouse with her bib overalls, more than a few heads whip back for a second look.

"One time another woman and I were driving a steam engine down the road to a show," Valerie Bruns recalls. "There were people already sitting in lawn chairs along the road, waiting for the parade of vintage of equipment to start. We saw two older men sitting, waiting, when one of them looked up and saw me driving.

"He looked down, and then up again; and then he squinted, and elbowed his buddy. He mumbled something, and both of them looked up and shook their heads, as if to say 'What's the world coming to?'

"I love that kind of reaction," she says.

Like many aficionados of vintage iron, Valerie has, simply, grown up around it.

"My dad had always been very active with steam engines," she says. "When he was very young, his uncle took him on threshing crews that traveled across the midwest, threshing wheat. My dad was really young then: his uncle would make him take naps under the water wagon after lunch."

Time moved on. Valerie's father, Leonard Bruns, served in World War II, returned home to Fulton, Mo., married, started a family. In the mid-1950s, he attended his first steam show, and was hooked. Steam shows throughout Missouri and the midwest became occasions for family outings. And the acorn didn't fall from the tree.

"I fell in love with it right away," Valerie says. "As a kid, I thought a steam engine was a train, but I could ride it, and it didn't need tracks, and it could go anywhere."

Her informal tutelage continued, and in 1973, when Leonard bought his first steam engine - an Illinois Thresher Co. engine - he had a crew of willing apprentices: his son, Len, and daughter, Valerie. Even his wife, Betty, helped.

Valerie was about 10 at the start of the three-year restoration project, which included replacement of the water tank, coal bunker and canopy; cleaning and inspection of every piece of pipe, valve and fitting; replacement of all 45 flues, reconstruction of the differential and axle, and replacement of channel iron supports.

"I was small enough that I could get into places where adults couldn't," she says. "We started working on it right away, scraping paint, painting it... I was a tomboy; I wanted to be right in there; I didn't want to be left behind."

It's not the path most pre-teen girls would choose, but it felt natural to Valerie.

"My dad and brother were always working on cars when I was growing up," she says. "I wasn't afraid to get greasy.

"It was always a challenge for me: I knew I could be very feminine if I wanted to be," she says. "But I liked the challenge of doing what boys and men were doing. I've always enjoyed the challenge of excelling at something outside my field ... it's just an instinctual thing."

Valerie's interest in steam engines only grew with time.

"As I started learning more, dad let me do more and more," she says. "At first, it was just riding, but then as I got bigger and stronger, I could steer it, which was a feat in itself. Later I got to where I could operate the throttle and the motion of the engine ... It was just a great, great experience."

Still, a woman at the wheel of a steam engine causes eyebrows to rise.

"People will say to my dad, 'Should that young lady be running that engine?' He just tells them that I've been around steam all my life, and that I know as much or more about it than a lot of men running engines," she says. "That makes me feel good."

Fast-forward about 15 years. Valerie is out on her own, establishing her career (she works as coordinator for a North Carolina research center).

"My dad had had the Illinois for several years," she remembers. "One day in '89, he called me.

"I wonder if you have any extra money you'd like to invest?"
"Oh, wow, did you find a steam engine?"
"Did your mom talk to you?"

"Mom had told him she'd divorce him if he bought another steam engine," she recalls, "so this was his sly way of getting in the back door."

Leonard suggested a brother-sister partnership on a 1919 20 hp Advance-Rumely he had tracked down.

"It had been in the family or worked on by family members, so we knew it was in good shape," she says. "It's in pretty good running order: We just cleaned it and repainted it... nothing major."

Sooner or later, Valerie's professional contacts learn of her interest in steam engines.

"Initially, they're very surprised," she says. "As a professional, I'm always dressed in a skirt and heels, and when they hear about my involvement with steam, they say 'Really!'"

The occasional tractor buff has a sense of what a steam engine is, she says, but a lot of women "don't have a clue what I'm talking about."

Valerie clearly gets a kick out of understanding the internal operations of the vintage classics. But she loves steam engines for their impact on her family, as well.

"The steam engine has always been a family event for us, a family project," she says. "It's the one time of year when the family all gets together, and stays together, and everybody's in a really good mood."

Then, too, there's the feeling of historic preservation.

"I feel like we're helping preserve part of history," she adds. "I love explaining things to people, seeing kids get big, wide eyes. I love being able to explain and demonstrate how these engines work."

She finds herself an unofficial lobbyist for vintage iron.

"I would really love to get my niece more involved in steam," she says, "although I don't think she's quite the tomboy I was. It's not necessarily that more women need to be involved, but just everyone in general." FC