Mel Kerr endured a long series of delays and troubles — including the wrath of Mother Nature — before he finally latched onto his 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine. Curiously enough, at one time Mel wouldn’t have touched old iron like that with an old pitchfork.
As a youth on his parents’ Iowa farm, Mel was antsy. “I couldn’t wait to get off the farm,” he recalls. “But after medical school and getting my ophthalmology degree and teaching at the University of California, San Diego, I couldn’t get that farm out of my blood.”
In 1977, against his family’s wishes, he and his wife, Judy, moved back to the Midwest from California. “I wanted to be a gentleman farmer with old farm equipment,” he offers as explanation. Today the couple is at home in Macomb, Ill.
Crazy like a fox
In the late 1970s, Mel’s uncle, Dallas Kerr, held an auction. Reminded of his youth spent operating John Deere machinery, Mel bought his uncle’s John Deere Model L. The next time Mel visited his uncle, Dallas insisted on firing his 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine and having Mel operate it. That did it. “It was about the time we moved back, and after he had me drive it, suddenly I thought that machine was the greatest thing going,” Mel recalls. “I wanted it.”
Dallas didn’t sugarcoat it. The engine’s boilerplate was thin and needed to be redone, many of the Wood’s flues were rusted out and the engine needed a new canopy. But it wasn’t Mel’s worry. When Dallas died of cancer in 1981, he left the Wood Bros. engine to his brother, Leonard.
Mel turned his attention to his own brand of old iron. He attended auctions to find John Deere tractors and antique automobiles to restore. He brought home John Deere corn binders, grain binders, threshing machines and corn planters (one dating to 1880) until he’d garnered 55 John Deere tractors and 35 antique autos.
Still, no steam engine.
But Mel kept his hand in the hobby. Until 1991, he had opportunity to operate his uncle’s engine, especially during the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers’ Assn. annual reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. “When my uncle Leonard had the Wood engine, the granddaughter of one of the founders of Wood Bros. Thresher Co. heard about this 1912 engine and came down from Des Moines, Iowa, to see it,” Mel says. “She did that for several years. I rode on the engine with her in the parade. She was pretty old at the time, but she thought it was a real thrill and she really looked forward to it.”
Maintaining county roads
The 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine was purchased new in Hancock County, Ill., and used to grade the roads around La Harpe township. “My uncle Dallas was a county Extension agent and he was aware of the machine,” Mel says. “When it was retired after World War II when the county went to regular maintainers, he purchased it from the township and took it back to Montrose, Iowa. His interest had been piqued when he was young by working on a threshing crew, moving north all summer from Oklahoma to Canada.”
Though Dallas had a small farm and didn’t work the steam engine, he loved to have people come over and see it. He’d fire it up and go for drives with friends, Mel says. Later, Leonard took the engine to Mt. Pleasant, where he was told the engine’s boilerplate needed work. “It wasn’t safe to raise the pressure up very high,” Mel says, “but that work was never done, and in 1991, Leonard died.”
Leonard’s children weren’t interested in the machine. Mel finally got a chance to buy the engine that year. The 20 hp Wood Bros. (serial no. 300) was his.
The honeymoon ended fairly quickly. After talking with knowledgeable people at Mt. Pleasant, Mel realized the same work that his uncle Dallas had said needed to be done — boilerplate, flues, canopy — was still needed. The next few years were consumed by finding the right restorer for the job and contending with Mother Nature (while the engine was torn apart, floodwaters covered some of the parts). Once the work was complete, Mel took the Wood to Mt. Pleasant, where it’s been ever since.
Mel’s engine has chain steering. “I’ve always thought that it steered amazingly easy, much better than other chain-steering machines I’ve seen,” he says. “The gearing makes it very easy to handle and very easy to turn. Like any of those machines with big steel wheels, it rides hard if it’s on hard ground.”
He says people are particularly interested in big steam traction engines like his. “They’re big, they’re powerful, they look different and they sound different,” he says. “If they’re not moving, they’re totally quiet, as opposed to those old thundering tractors that make a lot of noise. Steam traction engines make no noise at all, and when the Wood Bros. starts moving, the little noise it makes is beautiful.”
Mel says he’s heard that engines like his burned straw when they were used on the prairie. In Iowa, though, fires would have been started with wood and fueled with coal. “Coal was abundant in Iowa,” he says. “Iowa was a big coal producer, third or fourth in the nation in the 1920s, so that whole area south of Des Moines to the Missouri border was coal country, particularly around Centerville.”
Sharing a collection
For the past five years Mel and Judy have held the occasional open house as a fundraiser for the Macomb Historical Society and Library. “They always need money,” Mel says, “so we open up our place to show the tractors, cars and other old machinery, and they charge a fee and provide refreshments. We generally get 200-250 visitors.”
It’s a chance for others to see Mel’s collection and his restoration work. “I restored all of these myself,” he says, “all the body work, mechanical work and painting.” Some of the old John Deere Model D’s in his collection were in pretty tough shape, he says. His favorite tractor is a 1921 Waterloo Boy, “because it’s old,” he says with a laugh.
The automobiles were another breed. Most, abandoned to the elements for years, were in poor shape when he got them. “I like the old ones from the 1920s and 1930s,” he says. “My favorites are two 1923 Studebakers, a touring car and a sedan. They were upscale, plush cars at the time.”
Mel takes good care of his restorations. “If you have to keep them outside, they’ll just get rusty and get ruined again,” he says. “So we keep everything inside, which means you have to build more barns and have your wife ask why you need another barn!”
Keeping the tradition alive
The Wood Bros. engine has a lot of sentimental value for Mel. “I’m interested in the old-time farm machinery in particular, especially threshing,” he says. “I threshed when I was a kid. We didn’t have a steam engine and when we had our last threshing bee here, the Wood Bros. wasn’t working. I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be to see that steam engine on my threshing machine, but it’s too difficult to move it from Mt. Pleasant to my farm and back again.”
He and Judy take considerable pleasure in a new generation’s enthusiasm for the 1912 engine. “Chris Heaton, Judy’s cousin’s son, has all but adopted that steam engine,” Mel says. “He put new bearings in it and does all the little things it needs to run at Mt. Pleasant. He gets it ready and drives it or has a driver for it. I don’t operate it anymore; I just ride along. Chris just loves that thing, and has a passion for it that you don’t often see in young people, and we’re grateful for that.” FC
Read more about Wood Bros. in The Wood Bros.’ Masterpiece.
For more information:
— Mel Kerr, 545 Maryland Rd., Macomb, IL 61455
— Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Aug. 28-Sept. 1, 2014
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.