A Tale of Two Steam Road Rollers

A Pair of Steam Rollers Highlight Case's Role in Road Building

Left: A front view of the Case 40 HP steam road roller at Rollag, Minn., owned by Jim and Lynette Briden, Fargo, N.D., and Jerry and Claudia Axvig, Hawley, Minn.

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It gets stuck easily. Its parts are not interchangeable with any other steam traction engine. It has limited uses. Yet everywhere the Case steam road roller is shown, it draws a crowd.

"People are used to a steam engine having four wheels," explains Lynette Briden, Fargo, N.D., who along with her husband, Jim, and Jerry and Claudia Axvig, Hawley, Minn., owns a rare 40 HP Case steam road roller They show it every year at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minn. "People like it too because it's a little smaller than the other steam engines - I noticed it first with the interest in the 9 and 18 HP steam engines - although the huge ones do have a certain draw," she says.

A 35 HP Case steam road roller is also shown at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, each year, owned by the Duane Coonrod family, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"It's a crowd pleaser in the parade," says Bob Gilchrist, who got involved with the Case road roller through George Bare, a mutual friend of the Coonrod family. "I showed up at Mt. Pleasant in the late 1970s, and George gave me all the dirty jobs to find out if I could come back the next year." He did, and one of the perks was working with the Case 35 HP steam road roller.

Bob says he figures the Case road rollers are rare because most businesses or the military who had them discarded them when something else came along - like the internal combustion engine machines that did the same work. "Businesses scrapped them quicker because they didn't have an orchard or fencerow to push them to, and the call for scrap metal during World War II was the demise of most steam engines, including many of those steam rollers."

A Touch of History

The first Case road rollers were produced in 1906 when a 10-ton road roller, serial no. 17093, appeared along with about 40 others. The quantity manufactured increased each year through 1911, when they sold for $2,200. After that, the number of road rollers manufactured fluctuated, until 1921 when the greatest number (the exact number isn't known, but was probably several hundred) was constructed. None were produced in 1922 and only six in 1923.

Twelve-ton road rollers appeared in 1908, but weren't as popular as the smaller 10-ton. In fact, there's scant advertising for the 12-ton road rollers at all. In 1914 they sold for $2,500.

Case steam road rollers had either an 8-1/4-by-10-inch simple engine or a 6-1/8-inch tandem compound engine and a 9-inch bore by 10-inch stroke.

A period advertisement for Case road building machinery said it, "… plays an unusually important part in building the good roads of the nation. Wherever you find good road construction you will invariably find Case road building equipment. Each year hundreds of additional contractors, municipalities and townships choose Case machinery. On the basis of first cost they may not be the cheapest, but, we believe, they are most economical in the long run."

Road rollers could be protected from the elements overnight by a roll-down canvas canopy option that could be secured to cover the machine. But it was so expensive that few people bought them, although the Briden-Axvig machine does have one. The tarp covers the machine completely so the smokestack won't freeze at night in cold weather. Others without the canopy were forced to use a bucket over the smokestack.

Most of the Case road rollers had a power steering device to help turn the front wheel, as C.H. Wendel writes in 150 Years of J.I. Case: "It consisted of a rather simple friction clutch arrangement which imparted motion to the steering shaft. This movement was controlled by the engineer with a simple hand lever. Adding the power steering attachment substantially reduced the engineer's work, particularly if he was also responsible for firing the boiler." This is the same option that was available for the huge 110 HP Case steam traction engines.

The front wheel is something of an enigma. "If you look closely at the front end of a Case road roller, you'll see that basically it is made up of four belt pulleys from Case steam engines," Bob says. "So Case found another use for their belt pulleys." The four are joined and turn as one. The front wheel was made to work on uneven ground, and will tip sideways up and down depending on obstacles.

Operating the Case steam road rollers isn't much different than the standard steam engine. "Firing the boiler is basically the same. The major difference is the steering mechanism," Bob says.

Steering is accomplished not with a wheel, but a bar, Bob says. "You push it one direction and the worm gear winds up the chain and the road roller turns." But not much, he says. "Basically the road roller was built to go two different directions, forward and backwards, and a little bit to one side or to the other side. All it did was go back and forth, back and forth"

A good illustration of the back-and-forth is shown in a story Elmer Bare told about his earliest experiences with a Case road roller during World War I, Bob says. Elmer made the mistake of raising his hand one day when soldiers were asked if anyone knew how to run a steam engine. He was put on a road roller that was making a parade ground, so after the initial jubilation he got bored with going back and forth and back and forth. "So he filled the road roller with water so the level was really high in the boiler," Bob says. "Then he got over near a bunch of commanders, people with a lot of brass on their chests, and opened the throttles."

Water was drained out of the boiler and the oily liquid sprayed all over the brass. One of the commanders said, "Get that fool off that engine! He doesn't know what he's doing."

"But he knew exactly what he was doing," Bob says, laughing as he recalls the story.

The Workings

Case steam road rollers had limited uses: roadwork, construction leveling and powering rock crushers. However, they could be converted to regular traction engines with an unusual front axle, Wendel says. Road grouters were also furnished for the rear wheels. In 1921 the 1,800-pound conversion cost $175.

Though the front wheel gets most of the attention, the back certainly deserves some as well. Back wheels on the road rollers are basically flat, with no cleats on them, which means the machine can easily get stuck - although "stuck" might not be the correct word. "Lots of times we've gotten it stuck in wet grass," Jim Briden says. "It will just stand there and spin in a low spot." If it isn't stuck in any serious way, a tractor can pull it back onto firmer ground, he says.

If you ever got one stuck in mud and started spinning, Bob thinks there's no way you would ever get it out because it has no cleats and no traction of any kind. "The front and back wheels have a nice smooth surface, so we're pretty careful with it. We always laugh that when it's raining, it would be nice to follow the roller during the parade because it would have all the mud squished out and you'd be driving on dry dirt."

Bob says the Coonrod family built a tongue for the 35 HP that can be hooked on the top of the roller to pull it out of any situation. "That way you don't even need somebody to steer it," he says. "I'm not sure the tongue was made out of necessity, but it sure is handy, because the machine has to be moving for you to really turn it one way or the other. The tongue makes it easier to transport when it's not under power."

Pins could be added to the back wheel to make a sheepsfoot (used for compacting soil), says Tom Delaney, who has worked with the Mt. Pleasant road roller. He says the road roller has been at Mt. Pleasant as far back as he can remember, which is 36 years.

For packing, the three wheels are set to complement each other so there's a flat rolling surface all the way across from the outer edge of one back wheel to the outer edge of the other one.

The boiler on Case steam road rollers is different from other Case boilers, Jim says. "It's 1-inch smaller in diameter than the regular 40 HP Case steam engine." Bob has noticed the smaller boiler on the 35 HP machine, but notes that it's not as long. "Basically, I think they figured out all they needed was power to roll it. And they couldn't pull anything with it because of the lack of traction, so my guess is that made the smallest boiler that still had enough weight on it and power to do what they wanted it to do."

Tom says the road roller is quite comparable to other Case steam engines. "The injector pulls water out of the water tank and puts it into the boiler, and there's also a water pump that runs with the engine that will pump water from the same tank into the boiler as long as the engine is running."

Though no new Case road rollers were made after 1923, it appears the company still had stock, as both the 10- and 12-ton road rollers were offered for sale in 1927 at $4,000 and $4,400, respectively.

The last vestiges of the Case road roller was a gasoline version designed in 1923, but other than a prototype, nothing came of it.

Today's Uses

The 40 HP Case steam road roller at Rollag is used to run a rock crusher, and the rest of the time it's just driven around. "It has too small of a flywheel for running a regular threshing machine," Jim says.

The rear wheels are the size of the 65 HP Case, so if the road roller was used for a regular threshing machine, the spikes on the rear wheel would hit the flywheel. "It was designed strictly for running a rock crusher or packing the road," Jim says. "It was made for construction."

The road roller is run yearly in the parades at Rollag, and it has been used to do dirt work as needed, Lynette says. "It's probably not as efficient as the modern construction equipment, which we don't have accessible to us, but it does a good little job for us. It's a machine we run a lot at Rollag because it's a smaller engine. And it's very popular during our June kid's day, when K-8 kids come and gets hands-on at Rollag. The kids drive and ride the steam engines and get familiar with them."

Lynette says she remembers her first time going to Rollag. "I figured if Jim wants to go, I can go with him. When I got there, I remember thinking, 'What's the excitement about this old junk? We farmed with it, so it's nothing new.'"

But appreciation came as she got older. "Now I realize how hard my father and my grandfather worked to farm," she says. "My grandfather talked about the threshing crew and how my grandmother had to work in a cook car, and all the work involved for a crew to thresh down a field. They didn't have the equipment we have today, so it's good to educate the youth so they know how they got where they are today. I never thought I would be this involved in the hobby, but now I have a real passion for it. It becomes part of you."

Bob says a few years ago they did some work on one of their museums with a rock floor at Mt. Pleasant. "That's where we store some of the steam engines. We went in and were grading it down and leveling it, until finally somebody said, 'Wait a minute, we have a road roller out there.' So we brought it in and spent a day and half inside the building leveling down the floor. When we were trying to figure out how we were going to do that to the floor, we almost forgot we had one. So once in a while we actually use it for the purpose it was meant."

Road Roller Upkeep

Like all steam engines, the road rollers need basic upkeep. In addition, Lynette says their 40 HP road roller, which was originally owned by the late Kenneth Kelly from Pawnee, Okla., needs a bit of work. "The inspector dropped the pressure on us when it was inspected this year, because there's one area of the boiler that needs work. But we're lucky, because it's something we can have fixed as long as we have an ASC-coded person do it. It's not the boiler itself, but a thin spot on the door, so it's a fixable thing."

Bob says there are repairs common to all the engines. "The firebox might need some work, the material around the soft plug might need to be replaced, things like that." He adds that "people have to realize the engines were made to last perhaps 10 years. And now we're basically trying to keep 100-year-old equipment going."

Tom Delaney adds that the upkeep on the circa 1912 35 HP Case road roller has mainly been paint work since he's been familiar with it. "We've put it in the shop and taken some of it apart and painted the boiler by hand with brushes so it doesn't rust. Some of the piping on it was not painted and that has some surface rust, but it takes a long time for it to rust clear through. The painting is mainly for looks. We wouldn't want rust running down the boiler." He adds that the bunkers were restored on the 35 HP machine, too.

"There are only six or seven of the Case road rollers left, I think," Jim says. "The last one I know of that sold at auction brought $36,000. The Case road roller is just different than a lot of the other engines around. It's unique."

Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com