All in the family

Learning about steam from the in-laws


James Martino got a crash course in steam engine operation on a 23-90 Baker from his wife's Uncle Walt, who gave him a lesson he's never forgotten.This engine is a 1919 21-75, serial number 1511, owned by Scott A. Wiley, Marion, Iowa. It was shown at the 2008 Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

By Christian Williams

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When one marries into a family, it is quite an interesting experience.

I knew that my father-in-law had been a farmer years earlier, but knew nothing about the uncles I inherited. It was not until a few years later that I learned that the three uncles had been part of a steam threshing ring in their earlier days, and that one the uncles had steam traction engines. He was talking at a family gathering about selling one of his engines because he couldn’t find anyone to help him with it. I was interested in learning about steam engines and offered to help him with the engine. Nothing more was said until several months later, when on a Thursday evening, I received a phone call from Uncle Walt. “Are you interested in helping me with my engine?” he asked. I was and said so. “Be at Greenville at 9 a.m. tomorrow,” he said and the phone went dead. He was a man of few words.

Being a chemistry teacher, I knew a little about steam, and having fired a coal furnace as a child, I thought I would be ready for the experience. What a mistaken notion that turned out to be!

Arriving at the appointed hour, I found the engine and was told to shovel some wood from a pick-up truck into the firebox. No problem! I was about to light the fire when I heard, “Stop! Are you sure there is water in the boiler?” Since there was water in the glass, I assumed the boiler had water in it. I then taught to empty the water out of the glass and see that it refilled from the boiler. Only then is it safe to light the fire.

Finding the grease fittings was a challenge, as a 23-90 Baker has some hidden fittings which only show up when the reverse lever is in a certain position. I was then taught to check each of the drip oilers. Even if they have oil in them, that does not mean they will work as they should. Always make sure they are dripping oil before starting anything. I was getting a real education.

The next lesson occurred when there was enough steam to move the engine. I knew steam condensed when cooled, but had not thought about water collecting in the cylinder and pushing out a cylinder head if not properly vented.

Shoveling the bunker full of coal and getting the coal started was nothing new, but only feeding the fire when the engine was not pulling a load was something new. I knew the sound of a steam engine came from the used steam being vented up the stack, improving the draft, but soon I learned that it created enough draft to actually lift the fire off the grate. Amazing!

Uncle Walt felt that I was ready to steer the engine by this time, and he had me drive it around the grounds some, starting and stopping the engine along the way. I even learned what happens when a single-cylinder engine stops on dead center and what to do about that.

During the afternoon, it was our turn on the saw mill. I was not allowed to belt it in because if the engine wasn’t lined up properly, the belt would slip off. No problem there. After belting it in, I was allowed to be on the platform by myself while Uncle Walt talked to some of his friends. Before leaving the platform, he told me that he wanted a good fire because they were going to saw some big logs and he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the engine bogging down.

I kept putting in coal at every break and had it nice and hot by the time the sawyer got to the big logs. It was too hot, actually, but by using the injectors, I was able to keep the safety valve from constantly wasting steam. We had just started sawing when one of his friends came on the platform and noticed that I was standing very near the flywheel. “Be careful about standing behind the flywheel, because if the belt breaks, it could cause you serious damage,” he cautioned. “They are going to saw watermelon later so you will want a good fire for that,” he said as he left the platform.

Another friend came on the platform later, introduced himself and again mentioned the watermelon sawing and that I would need a good fire when they started. I continued keeping up the fire and watching the sawyer for instructions, also nursing the steam by adding water to the boiler but not letting the glass get too full. Between the injectors and the draft, things remained quiet and I did not receive too many nasty looks from Uncle Walt.

After sawing a few logs, it was time for the watermelon. The sawyer kept making me slow the saw blade until I could actually see each of the teeth. Needless to say, I could no longer keep the engine from blowing off lots of steam. I could not add water and could not lower the draft enough to control the fire. I then realized that I had been “had.” I could see Uncle Walt and his friends laughing at my problem and displeasure.

That first day left me wondering why there had not been more boiler explosions with these engines as there was a lot to learn to run them safely.

I did get to play with the engine later in the day, though, as some of the engineers held a “belt into the thresher” contest. I tried it and did not throw the belt, but that is a tale for another time.

Contact James T. Martino at 4713 Booth Rd., Oxford, Ohio 45056 or by email at