A Cracker jack Steam Engineer

Steam engine

Carl and the old Buffalo Pitts double cylinder steam engine, about 1910-1912.

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1745 Redwood Road Kirkman, Iowa 51447

This story is dedicated to my dad, Carl Mickelson (August 14, 1881-Julyl3,1964), 'The Cracker jack.'

This is the story of how my dad, Carl Mickelson, acquired steam in his blood and became known throughout Shelby County, Iowa, as a cracker-jack steam engineer.

A Love of Steam Is Born

Dad was born August 14, 1881, in Avoca, Iowa, the only child of Marius and Olina Mickelson.

He became interested in steam engines at an early age. When he was still a small boy, his mother would send him to the butcher shop to buy meat (usually about 25 cents worth of steak was plenty). The butcher shop used a little steam engine for power to run the sausage grinder and a steam boiler to heat water for rendering lard. He watched fascinated as the machines worked.

In 1886 his parents purchased a farm in Shelby County, Iowa, between Kirkman and Irwin. This farm, located on a green ridge, became known as the Greenridge Farm. This is where Dad grew up.

His parents sent him to Capitol City Commercial College in Des Moines for business courses. They were, no doubt, hoping he would become interested in banking or business. However, the love of steam won out, and after a year of college he returned home.

An Apprentice for Mr. Sonneland

At the age of 19 years, Dad started helping August Sonneland operate a Huber steam threshing rig. In no time at all he caught on how to operate the engine, fire the boiler, grease and oil the parts, and keep the water level where it should be. He also learned how to start and stop the engine while August tended to the thresher. Back then Dad received one dollar a day for this work, The 'day' began at 4:30 a.m. and sometimes went until after dark.

They had many breakdowns, such as pitchforks and other things going into the thresher. One of the breakdowns happened when they were threshing a stack of oat bundles for a man by the name of Tobe Olson. All at once August, who was on top of the thresher, waved his hands to stop the engine. One of the pitchers lost his fork and it hit the cylinder, causing quite a noise and dust. It bent some of the teeth in the cylinder, and as they were straightening them Carl mentioned that it was sure a good thing it didn't break the concave.

Carl Mickelson's and Lars Axland's 15 HP Rumely and Buffalo Pitts thresher after installing a new Farmer's Friend blower and stacker.

August was a man with a quick temper. He turned to my dad and said, 'Break a concave? In a Huber? What are you talking about? That would be impossible!'

'Well,' Carl replied, 'it might have happened.'

They fixed the problem, and August gave the 'high sign' to start. Dad gave two toots on the whistle and they began to thresh. They hadn't run five minutes when another big bang was heard. The dust flew out of the front of the machine. August waved his arms yelling at the top of his voice. Dad shut the throttle and pulled the reverse to stop as soon as he could.

This time they found what caused the problem. A monkey wrench had gone through, breaking the concave in half. Albert, Tobe's son, remarked, 'Why, that's our monkey wrench. Gosh, I'm glad we found it! I noticed that wooden handle was gone. That's the only wrench we have!'

August was almost ready to explode, he was so angry.

Later I asked my dad if he said anything to August about the concave not being breakable. He told me he didn't dare, as August would have fired him on the spot.

Another breakdown that could have been a bad one almost happened.

August went in to eat breakfast while Carl stoked up the boiler. He was beginning to get a head of steam when August came out to the engine so Carl could go eat. Dad said when he came back to the engine. August was taking the main bearing caps off. Dad said for a while he didn't dare to ask why. Soon they had everything loose and, with the help of several men, lifted the crankshaft and flywheel off.

The reason August took it apart was that as he started the engine, he noticed the disc crank wasn't running true. As August barely tapped the disc it finished breaking the crankshaft next to the disc. They thought they still had enough shaft and they would just move the flywheel over and put the crank disc back on. In the process, however, August hit the crank a hard lick, breaking the disc. August had to order a new crankshaft and disc out of Des Moines, which took a couple of days to get. After installing that, they finally were back threshing once more.

Carl worked for August Sonneland several years. Those days it was mostly stack threshing until late in November. Then it was to go back home to pick corn.

Mr. Sonneland's outfit was one of the first steam traction engine outfits in its day, so it was very much in demand. Most of the threshing done before was by horse power with a few portable steam engines that had to be moved by several teams of horses.

After Mr. Sonneland sold his rig, Carl took jobs as engineer for others, and learned to operate different makes and sizes of steam traction engines, threshing and filling silos for several years.

10 HP Russell Steam Traction Engine

In 1902 Carl became 21 years of age and his father, Marius, gave him $100.00 for neither chewing nor smoking tobacco. With this money Carl purchased a 10 HP Russell steam traction engine which he located three miles west of Harlan, Iowa. He and his cousins, Enoch and William Erickson, steamed it up in late summer and drove about a mile and a half north to where the boys lived. Late that fall they steamed it up to saw some wood. The wood they were burning was wet, and they couldn't keep up steam. Dad got several sacks of cobs. Both Carl and his cousin, Enoch, had new blanket-lined jackets. While working around the engine, pieces of red hot coals got into their pockets. It nearly burned and practically ruined both jackets.

They received $3.00 for the woodsawing job. Enoch kept $1.00 for use of the buzzsaw and Carl got $2.00 for the use of the engine. William worked all afternoon just for the fun of it. They drove the engine back to the Erickson farm and drained the boiler.

Carl discovered the stay bolt was broken. He had never put in a new stay bolt, so he had to find someone who could give him instructions on how to remove the broken stay bolt and install a new one. He drilled it out and threaded a bolt and replaced the stay bolt with a new one.

One time the rear wheels froze down. He talked to August Sonneland and together they came up with a way to get them loose without breaking a bull pinion or gear. He built a fire in the wheel.

Willie helped Carl when the weather got nice in the spring; he drove a team with fuel and water while Carl drove his little 10 horse Russell from four miles west of Harlan to the Greenridge farmclose to 20 miles that day. Carl had planned to pull his comsheller with the Russell but decided it was too unhandy.

The engine sat in the yard by his blacksmith shop for some time. Finally, Carl let a friend, Jasper Groat, who was a sort of trader/dealer in threshers, swap it off. It was shipped out to someone down east of Council Bluffs, perhaps Silver City.

About ten years ago an old Russell traction was found buried on a farm by a friend of mine. He dug the boiler up and the wheels out. He brought the boiler up north of here, about six miles. He left the wheels, and another friend of mine down near the site of the boiler bought them. He later advertised them in Iron Men Album. It wasn't long until a man from Kansas came by and took them home, very pleased to find a set of wheels for his engine he was restoring. (I wonder, could it have been the little 10 horse Russell my dad bought with the $100 some 90 years ago?)

Buffalo Pitts Engine and Thresher

Finally, somewhere between 1908 and 1910, Carl and a farmer, Lars Axland, purchased a Buffalo Pitts engine and thresher. It had changed hands a couple of times, so it needed some repairs, which they did over the next several years. During that time they installed a new Farmer's Friend blower and a new feeder on the thresher.

Dad really liked the 18 horse Buffalo Pitts double cylinder engine, but it used so much water that they traded it off for a used 15 horse Rumely single cylinder engine. Later on it was discovered that the Pitts engine had a steam feed pipe inside the boiler that must have frozen and cracked. This fed wet steam into the engine causing it to be very uneconomical.

The only Buffalo Pitts engine and thresher I have been able to locate since I have been attending steam and gas antique shows is up at the Western Minnesota Show at Rollag. The thresher is much the same as Dad's Pitts thresher, with the old blower that was in sections and had to be put together. In fact, they weren't even round, but a sort of oval shape.

Also, the engine I believe was newer. It had round spokes instead of flat spokes as on Dad's engine. Perhaps it was the other way as to the age between the two engines. Carl really liked the Rumely as it was a powerful little engine, never light in front because it was rear mounted.

A Threshing Story

The following threshing story was told to Carl and Lars. It supposedly happened to another threshing crew. It seems like when they threshed with the old hand fed threshers, the man who could eat the most dust was considered a really tough person. A man was bragging about feeding a thresher which was a Gaar Scott rig, probably 10 or 12 horsepower with a 28 inch separator, which in that day was a common size. This man claimed he was feeding the machine so fast that the engineer came up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to please slow down because he couldn't keep up steam. Lars asked the man why the engineer didn't toot the whistle so the man would slow down. The man said the engineer would have, but he didn't have enough steam!

33-54 Russell Thresher

A new Russell thresher, size 33-54, was purchased from Clark Implement Company in 1915. Carl and Lars did not trade the old Pitts thresher in, as they could use parts off of it for repairs on the Russell if need be. The blower feeder and elevator were the same. The new Russell thresher was shipped on the Great Western Railroad to Irwin, Iowa, just three miles from where Carl lived and where I live now.

The thresher was unloaded on the side track. They must have pulled it off the flatcar with Charles' team of Morgan horses, a wonderful pulling team, named Carson and Nellie. Once it was off the flat car, Carl put his team on the front of the thresher and pulled it up Main Street, a pretty good incline, about a block to the Green Bay Lumber Company building so it wouldn't get wet if it rained. Shortly after, they came to town with the Rumely 15 HP and took it out to the first job, threshing at Cyrus Monson's farm, two miles south and a half east of Irwin. Carl and Lars seemed to be well pleased with the Russell thresher. It was used until the late 1930s. A couple of years, perhaps 1934-1936, were dry years with a poor crop of oats. They left the rig in the shed.

Shredding Corn in the Wintertime

In the winter of 1919 (approx.), four farmers, two sets of brothers Cyrus and Pete Monson and Bruce and Thomas Barrattpurchased a corn shredder. They had each cut a lot of corn fodder that fall on their farms. In January, the dead of winter, they hired Carl and Lars to bring the Rumely over to pull the shredder. (How they could talk Dad into such a job I never could figure out!) The mile road on the north side of our farm was blocked with snow. They fired up the engine and headed out, following the ridge, all the way taking down fences. When they had to turn a corner, that required hooking a team of horses on the front to make the turn.

Lars hauled the water. The teams of horses all had to be shod with never-slip calks in the horseshoes so they could pull the loads. The fodder shocks were frozen down and had to be chopped loose with an axe or pulled loose with a team and a log chain hooked around the shock of corn. The pipes on the engine and the tank pump on the water tank would have to be heated with a steam hose because they would freeze. After a day of shredding, the old Rumely was covered with the canvas they used for the thresher during the threshing run. I can't remember how many days they shredded corn as I was only four or five years old.

I do vividly remember Mother harnessing Carson and Nellie to the bobsled, covering my two older brothers and me and our little fox terrier dog with a horse blanket. We drove two and a half miles to get Dad and bring him home after dark. The old bobsled didn't have grooved runners so, when going down some hills, the rear end of the sled would try to pass the horses which made it really exciting.

I remember one night it really got cold. The wind came up. Dad began to worry that the engine would freeze. He got out of bed, bundled up, and walked across the field a couple of miles to check the fire even though he had the fire banked with lots of coal in the firebox. Then he walked back across the field, nearly frozen, I imagine.

The last job of com shredding, he leveled the engine up out in the field, pulled the fire, and when the engine cooled down (which probably didn't take too long in the winter), he drained the pipes, covered the stack, and slowly drained the boiler. It sat there the rest of the winter. In the spring after the field dried up, Carl and Lars went over and brought that old faithful piece of iron back home.

For many years they threshed two runs a season, a shock run in our neighborhood and a stack run in the next township north. The stack run lasted almost until cornpicking time.

Finally one of the farmers in the run up north bought a small thresher and pulled it with a 10-20 I.H.C. It did not go as fast, but I think they were tired of stacking oats, especially the younger guys. They shock-threshed from then on until the small combine came into use.

Case 65 H.P.

Around 1920, Dad and Lars traded the old Rumely for a secondhand Case, 65 HP. It had been purchased by a man over at Gray, Iowa, to grade roads. In fact it graded the Lincoln Highway, now U.S. Highway 30, from Carroll to Denison.

The engine was five years old. Outside of the gears being worn and somewhat noisy, it would do a real good job of pulling the 33-54 Russell thresher. That was the first it had been used for belt work. Then, when fall came, it really handled those ensilage cutters, filling 80 foot silos without any trouble. Plenty of power!

As the years passed, Dad taught me to run the steam engine. When I was 24 years old, Dad left me alone while he went to town. A couple of young fellows thought they would have some fun. They lapped the bundles until the cutter stopped when the pipe plugged, but NOT the 65.1 had pulled the reverse down in the corner and it slipped the rubber belt on the covered pulley. That delayed the filling for about an hour. They didn't try that trick again, especially after having to clean the pipe and scoop up the mess off the ground.

This incident took place in September 1940. Up until then Dad had threshed and filled silo every year, except the few dry years, with the Case 65. In other words, he threshed all through the. 1920s and 1930s. The fall of 1940 was the last time the 65 was ever steamed.

World War II Hits Home

On May 8, 1941, I received my call to enter the Army. The U.S. Government called it 'selective service.' I was only supposed to be in for one year's training. It ended up I served for five years and was stationed in California, Mississippi, Ohio. Pennsylvania and overseas in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands. I returned home in 1946.

During the period I was stationed in the States, I would get furloughs for a couple of weeks at a time. While home I never failed to go up and check out the Case 65.

While I was in the South Pacific, some torch-happy iron bandits approached my dad regarding the selling of the 65 Case. They told him that selling the engine for iron to be used in the war effort would help bring his son home. I guess Dad didn't realize the love I had for that old hunk of iron from the time I was five years old until I came back at age 30. In any event, Dad sold it.

These iron bandits, as I called them, used that story to prey on many people whose children served during World War II. They got their hands on many fine engines.

While I was in the service, Dad, even at the age of 70 , was called on to help fire the boilers at the Harlan, Iowa, canning factory, canning sweet corn for a few weeks in late summer.

In 1960 I arranged to fly Dad down to Mount Pleasant to the Midwest Threshers Show. It was the last steam show he was to attend. He passed away in 1964.

For the Love of Steam

In 1971 I traveled to Montana, where I purchased a 1915 50 HP Case portable steam engine. It took me three and a half years to restore it. This story was written up in the Iron Men Album in the July/August 1975 edition, pages 14-20, entitled 'Kirkman Man Has Steam in His Blood, A Smile on His Face.' The Greenridge Steam and Gas Antique Club was born from the purchase of this engine.

In 19851 began building a half-size M Rumely steam engine. The story of this engine was featured on the back cover of Iron Men Album in the January/February 1991 issue.

The Greenridge Steam and Gas Antique Club purchased a 65 Case in 1981, exactly like the one Dad owned. I have trained my son, Danny, to operate it and my own engines. He enjoys running them at our steam show every September. Danny, in turn, is teaching his son, Kris, to operate the engines.

My son-in-law, Clark Ahrenholtz, also has the love of steam in his blood. And why shouldn't he? He is the great-grandson of August Son-neland who taught Dad about steam engines and took him on as an apprentice almost a century ago!

The farm where Dad grew up is now the sight of the annual Greenridge Steam and Gas Antique Show held the third full weekend in September. I still live on the north of Greenridge farm.