A Legend In His Own Time

January/February 1990
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Jim Rabas and the crew in one of the many parades he was in.

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A rare and very old steam engine

Collector has a lot of questions regarding his small, stationary steam engine.

'He didn't intend to be, it's just the way he was,' writes Bruce Vander-vest, N8193 Cty. C, Casco, WI 54205, in a letter about the late Jim Rabas, Sr., who died August 27, 1989.

'Jim owned, collected and ran several steam traction engines and related equipment. This did not start out as a hobby, but as a way of life, custom threshing in northeastern Wisconsin. Jim Rabas, Sr., in my opinion, symbolized what rural America was and what old engine collecting is about. I am thankful I was born in time to have known Jim and men like him,' Vandervest continues.

According to newspaper accounts from the Algoma Record Herald, Jim Rabas Sr. purchased his first steam engine, a 75 HP Minneapolis known as 'The Big Jim,' at age 17. With the engine and a separator, he did custom threshing in the Pilsen and Stangelville, Wisconsin areas.

'Jim's favorite place to be was on one of his steam engines pulling a polka band in a parade,' the Record Herald's report continues.

An earlier article from the same newspaper tells more about Rabas: He continued threshing until 1948, then afterwards maintained his steam engines for shows and parades. The longest trip for 'Big Jim' was on the highway from Algoma to Milwaukee to exhibit at the State Fair. For exhibits and transportation, he replaced the metal wheels with large tires.

A founder of the Wisconsin Historical Steam Rodeo, Inc., Rabas is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Mildred Kirchman, two sons, two daughters, and thirteen grandchildren.

The following poem was written by Bruce Vandervest as a tribute to 'Big Jim'.

Big Jim

I remember a noise to the west,
HUFF-CHUG describes it best.

Then came a whistle, so loud and shrill,
It scared me and gave me a thrill.

The sun soon will set, it's almost dark,
As they approach I could see spark!

Black smoke and embers flew.
Here comes Jim Rabas and his crew.

Experienced threshers, they'd even race,
On a fine steam engine made by Case.

Now coming home from the county fair.
The sight exciting and rare.

Air in their wake would actually glow.
A roof covered float still in tow.

A Polka band continually playing
As the wagon went by, swaying.

There was no need to fear;
Jim knew every bolt and gear.

He kept his engine running and clean;
They owned each other at seventeen.

Of the stuff that legend is made.
A favorite in any parade.

I've seen them move a barn for pay,
Before moving it, he would pray.

For the safety of all involved.
All question of strength then resolved.

Almost nothing could separate,
Man and machine, except for fate.

After eighty years the man to rest,
His machine remains one of the best.

Jim was given one last concession,
The engine in his funeral procession.

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