Auction Sale Sends Steam Engine Home

Kitten steam engine

Content Tools

The following story is a reprint of one written by Toni Rae Mayo for the June 12, 2000, edition of Huntington Herald-Press, Huntington, Indiana. Some corrections and additional information have either been incorporated into the story or are noted in footnotes, token from a letter written by Mike Theis to Jerry Kitten, of RR 2, Box 6, Slaton, Texas 79364. Jerry sent everything to us. The story is reprinted with permission. 

"We're happy to see the engine come back home," explained Herman Theis of the 1927 Kitten Model #219 steam engine. Theis, 70, and his older brother Charles, 75, of Tell City, owned the engine over 40 years ago when their family operated the Theis Saw Mill.1 

Only 224 Kitten steam engines were built in Ferdinand, a small town near the most southern tip of Indiana. Model #219 has survived the rigors of rust and time, but the fact that this steam engine is fully operational made the sale historic.

Bob Plasterer kept the steam engine sheltered in a barn. A few days before the auction, Plasterer decided to fire up the steam engine. Two wheelbarrows full of wood were used to fuel the firebox. Tony Daniel said of the afternoon, "Bob built up 85 pounds of steam in the boiler before the gears moved the wheels. It was moving pretty good once the steam built up."

After Plasterer drove the engine around the field a couple of times, he jumped off the back of the iron beast and yelled, "Grandpa, I know you're proud of me. I can feel you inside of me everyday!" Obviously, Eiffel Plasterer handed down the tenacity it takes to maintain and operate a steam engine to his grandson. Eiffel Plasterer who used the steam engine to run a sorghum mill.

On the day of the auction, the Theis family drove from Tell City to Plasterer's property on Division Road. The Theis clan did not take the sale of "their" steam engine lightly. They came to Huntington with serious intent to purchase the steam engine at any cost, which they did.

Once they arrived at the auction, family members took turns keeping an eye on the engine and its costly appendages. A single brass whistle will cost $600 to $800 to replace and a new steam gauge approximately $1,000. Patiently males from the group let out joyous war whoops.

The family had another reason for wanting to take the engine back to Perry County from whence it came. Mike Theis, the oldest son of Herman and Carolyn Theis, explained, "My wife's grandfather, Lawrence Troesch, bought the 1927 Kitten Model #219 steam engine the year it was manufactured. Grandpa Troesch used the engine to thresh wheat and run a saw mill."

Neighbors Henry and Philip Kempf, also of Tell City, have for years kept track of the engine and others like it. As a side note, Henry Kempf bought the water wagon at Plasterer's auction; he and his brother own a 1930 Kitten Model #222 steam engine.

Carolyn Theis added, "Another steam engine is right down the road from us. Model #219 won't be lonely."

Sunday, June 11 was Herman Theis' 70th birthday.2 

Terri's family is also serious about steam engines. They operate the Troesch Antique Steam Engine Barn located in Adyeville, also in southern Indiana.3 

"It takes years of experience to know the fundamentals of how to keep a steam engine in line," remarked Herman Theis. Between Herman and Charles, the second generation of Theises will have quite a pair of steam engineers to learn from.

Charles Theis, Herman's brother, remembered the day Model #219 came into their possession.

"I believe I was 19 when I drove it on the road. Dad worked the boiler and I done the steering. I blew the whistle, too," Charles Theis said. "We pulled a log wagon and sawmill."

It's hard to say when the major renovation project will end; it hasn't even started yet. Weak points on the boiler will be cut out and patched back in place. Everything will be scraped and repainted. "We are going to restore the engine to its full originality," said Mike Theis.

"The engine can go back home where it can be given all the attention it needs," said an emotional Bob Plasterer after the steam engine left his open field.

Some Additional Notes

Michael Theis added some more information in his letter to Jerry Kitten as follows:

"As I understand it, Terri's grandfather, Lawrence Troesch, purchased #219 new from Ferdinand Machine Company in 1927. He bought a Kitten steam engine and a Kitten sawmill and log wagon. He already had a Kitten threshing machine. He used them until around 1914, when my grandfather, Ferdinand Theis, bought the Kitten steam engine, sawmill, and log wagon from him. My grandpa used #219 on the sawmill. My dad was around 14 when they bought it and it was his job to keep the engines fired up and pressure up. They used the two pulleys on it one for the sawmill and the other for a line shaft, which ran a cut-off saw and a gang-rip saw edger. They also used #219 on a threshing machine which they worked around the neighborhood. They used the Kitten up until 1955 when it developed a bad leak in the boiler, which still has the patches on it from where Eiffel had it worked on. But in checking on getting the Kitten #219 repaired, Grandpa Theis came across a Keck-Gonnerman at a good price, purchased it, and put it on the sawmill. It was around this time that my father, Herman, joined the Navy and pulled two tours during the Korean War. Grandpa Ferd Theis died and while my dad was in the service, Charles kept the sawmill running. Then Eiffel Plasterer was in the area and heard about #219 not being used. He purchased it along with the other one that you see in the picture. Eiffel Plasterer and family were then the last people to own and operate the steam engine, primarily on a sorghum mill. So now as of June 3, 2000, the Theis brothers own it."

One final note, I heard Dad and Charles tell an interesting story I had not heard before. Lawrence Troesch had #219 nicknamed "Ole Charlie." When my grandfather bought it, he continued to refer to the steam engine as "Ole Charlie." So I guess you could say "Ole Charlie" has come back home. Home was in Ferdinand where it was built from the ground up and home to these southern Indiana hills which it traveled over and worked on for many years, either on a sawmill set or a threshing machine.

It is our wish to restore Ole Charlie #219 to full operating condition and have it painted and detailed as it was when our Grandpa Theis brought it home, and the days that Terri's Grandpa Troesch owned and operated it

1According to Michael Theis' letter, the sawmill is still in business, a small family operation: 'We have the equipment and all where we buy standing timber, cut, log it, and run through the mill. We primarily saw railroad ties, grade lumber, pallet stock, and building material orders. If my brothers and I keep the mill going, we will be the 4th generation, possibly the 5th generation of Theises to be in the timber industry.'

2Mark, Danny, Jason and Michael Theis are the purchasers and owners of #219 financially, but it is now a Theis family heirloom which will take all of the family to restore. As Michael Theis says, 'Herman, our dad, and Charles, our uncle, are truly owners of it, as they will be teaching and instructing us on the repairs and operation of the steam engine.

3Troesch Steam Engine Barn, which is now owned by Michael Theis' wife's dad, Victor Troesch, and his brother, Walter Troesch, has two steam engines for view, one Kitten #221 and one Keck-Gonnerman.