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.
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.
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