Collecting Steam

Francis 'Franz' Lindauer

Tim Myers

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Photos by Tim Myers. Reprinted from the Dubois County, Indiana Herald.

Sent to us by Jerry Kitten, R.R. 2, Box 6, Slaton, Texas 79364

It takes Francis 'Franz' Lindauer the better part of five family farm buildings to store a priceless collection of primitive steam engines, rare tractors and poplar-wood threshers.

The 66-year-old retired Ferdinand farmer enlists his family to help preserve and demonstrate dozens of hand-built relics of yesteryear. The Lindauers are one of several area farm families who belong to the Early Day Antique Club, an organization dedicated to preserving old farming methods.

Ten farm families, scattered in three counties, bring mule and draft horse teams to club demonstrations. 'They've all got the strongest horses and this and that,' Francis says.

Tending draft horses and restoring steam-powered monsters create a peck of trouble, Francis says. So the Lindauers, though they enjoy horses and horse-drawn equipment, stick with steam, wood and iron rather than hooved mammals.

Retired farmer Francis 'Franz' Lindauer of Ferdinand has been collecting antique farm machinery for 10 years. He and his sons are part of the Early Days Antique Club that restores and demonstrates farming relics.

'We've got enough trouble keeping enough hay for our cows, much less feeding horses,' says Phil, one of Francis' two sons who help restore tractors and threshers when they're not milking dairy cows.

The family spends many hot days demonstrating their gargantuan toys at area events and fests. Their next full-blown threshing demonstration is planned for Fulda's birthday celebration in 1995.

'To me, this is something that should be carried on,' says Mike, Francis' other son.

Foremost among Francis' collection of shredders, clover hullers and antique tractors are two Kitten traction tractors and a Kitten thresher, all rare and all made in Ferdinand.

An ingenious Ferdinand resident named Florenz Kitten founded a large foundry and machine works in Ferdinand during the late 1800s. He began making horse-drawn steam engines not long after the Civil War on the second floor of his house. When his steam engines and grain separators gained popularity, he built a two-story factory and foundry adjoining his home, near where the Ferdinand Library is today.

Soon he perfected steam-powered tractors traction engines that could chug from farm to farm pulling threshers along with them. They featured a stocky horizontal boiler custom-made for the steep, hilly fields of southern Indiana. When a Kitten traction engine went up a hill, its design would not allow one end of the short boiler to run dry of water and blow up.

'They've got just tremendous lugging power,' Francis says.

Two hundred and twenty-four Kitten engines were hand built between 1880 and 1940. Twenty still exist, six within 25 miles of Ferdinand.

'Most of this heavy equipment was destroyed during World War II when they were looking for scrap iron,' Francis says.

'These engines were just hauled to the scrap yards, cut up and melted down.'

Francis owns Kittens No. 176 (circa 1912) and No. 214 (circa 1924). He keeps track of the other Kitten engines' whereabouts.

John and Ed Weyer, uncles of Francis' wife, Juliana (Weyer) Lindauer, bought No. 176 when it was a brand new Kitten. Francis bought it from the sixth owner near Cadiz, Kentucky.

Francis traveled to Pennsylvania to buy No. 214 from the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association. Frank Arnold, Mariah Hill, originally bought the traction engine. His son, Walter, who is alive today, helped drive the tractor home when it was new. It takes two people to drive a Kitten, one steering the chain actuated tractor and the other working its controls.

Walter Arnold saw the restored No. 214 at the Lindauer farm and said, in German, that he never thought he would see the machine again, let alone totally restored. 'He was overjoyed,' Francis says.

One Kitten devotee, owner of traction engine No. 217, parked it above his last resting place as a graveyard marker at Adieville, Indiana.

Children from area elementary schools were treated to a steam demonstration at the Lindauer farm last month. Later, they sent stacks of thank-you letters. Children drew and colored Francis in his striped overalls as well as the flowers and other designs painted on the canopies, flywheels and boilers of the Kittens. Francis' daughter, Joan, paints the engines, which look as if they just rolled out the Ferdinand foundry's door.

'Most kids mentioned the ice cream donated by Holland Dairy,' Mike says. 'They liked that the best.'

Kitten charged $100 per horsepower, so the 24 HP traction engines Francis owns listed for $2400 each when new.

Sometimes farmers would chip in to purchase them. Then co-owners would rent their services to farmers, as well as to the county for road grading.

Mike says the county would dump coal at its bridges. Steam tractors could then make a single stop to fuel up on coal from the stockpile and water from the creek. 'Years ago these things were used rough and hard,' Mike says. One owner flipped No. 176 and had to replace its boiler.

The Lindauers operate a large farming operation on Ferdinand's northeast side. They keep 100 dairy cows on an 89-acre core operation. They farm on 600 acres of local ground, 300 that they own and 300 that they rent.

Mike, 43, and Phil, 41, leave restoration work to their father, but pitch in when asked. 'He's retired,' Phil says. 'We're not. We milk and take care of the cattle about eight hours a day.'

Mike and Phil are interested in the hobby, but 'there's so much doodling around involved,' Phil says. 'You could work on the littlest things for hours and hours just to get an boiler to work.'

'And it's not like working on a new piece of equipment,' Mike says. Many parts have to be machined from scratch in the Lindauers' shop.

'As long as I had a debt to pay I didn't spend my money on this either,' says Francis, who immersed himself in collecting after retirement.

Francis' grandfather owned a Kitten engine and thresher, which Francis helped operate. 'We were pretty late around here to go to modern equipment on this land,' Francis says. Combines made threshers obsolete by the 1940s.

Francis' most fond and exciting memories revolve around threshing time.

'When we were little kids, we didn't hardly get to town very often. You didn't get anyplace, except to church,' Francis says. 'Whenever the threshing machine came down the lane, it was the biggest event of the whole year.

'There were about 10 farmers in the neighborhood who formed a threshing ring, working together to help each other,' Francis says.

A half-dozen of a farmer's closest neighbors were also known as 'butcher neighbors,' Francis says. Butcher-neighbor wives would fry freshly butchered chickens and bake pies on threshing day.

'What the women prepared for eating was just the best,' Francis says. 'You'd eat like kings.'

Francis talks with children who took a school field trip to the Lindauer farm recently for a demonstration of steam-powered machinery. In the rear is Francis' son Mike.

'. . . .and work like mules,' Mike adds.

Mule teams pulled wagons used to gather cured wheat shocks from the fields and to haul the grain to the barnyard.

Long belts, 80-feet long or more, connected a thresher to a steam engine. 'A long belt gave you more traction and a smoother-running machine,' Francis says. 'Another reason for the long belt was due to a danger of the steam engine blowing chips out and starting a fire. You always had your engine as far away from the straw stack as possible. Whenever an engine was workin' hard, the exhaust blew cinders out.'

Farmers fired their engines with coal instead of wood at threshing time to cut down on cinders. Raising steam took about an hour.

'There were lots of little coal mines around and we'd take our horses and box wagons and get the coal that had been dug by hand,' Francis says.

'Over two dozen men and boys served as off-bearers, bundle pitchers and water fetchers. The engine used about 1,000 gallons of water for a days threshing.

A man assigned to a horse-drawn water wagon stayed busy on threshing day. 'When we were kids, before we were big enough to help thresh, us boys would fight to get on the water wagon and drive out with him,' Francis says.

The youths took turns at the lever of a hand pump that filled the wagon. 'The fella that operated the wagon was real happy. I thought about that many times years later. That guy probably thought, 'Boy, this is great.''

Back at the farm, two-bushel sacks of grain weighing about 120 pounds each were toted to the grainery. 'A lot of places it was 100 or 200 feet away and then up a set of steps,' Francis says.

Threshers blew straw from the threshings onto stacks behind the farmers' barns. 'Everybody had a big straw stack in back of their barn, which you used for bedding,' Francis says.

When the rattling pulleys and hissing pop-off valves quieted, crews would move to the next farm down the road.

Those were the days when men plowing with teams of mules and horses would stop mid-round and spend hours talking to each other over a fencerow. 'Today, without tractors and things, we hardly have time to wave,' Francis says. 'It was harder work then, but you were together more. The older guys say it was a good experience to have gone through, but you really wouldn't want to go back to it.'

Francis feels a kinship with the equipment he worked with as a child. And he harbors great admiration for the men who designed the equipment and built it without the aid of welders and other modern shop tools.

Kitten and his machinists whittled wooden patterns of the things they wanted to cast. The patterns were used to make molds from which the castings were made. Most parts were made in two halves and then fitted together to make one large part, such as a flywheel.

A wise man would do well to restore just one steam tractor, the better to learn about its design and operation, Francis says. He, however, can't stop at just one.

His collecting 'is kind of a sickness,' he jokes.

Pieces currently in working order include 10 stationary, antique gas engines; assorted, steam-powered tug boat whistles, pumps, dynos, and turbines; 10 antique tractors (they run on kerosene); four large steam tractors; 10 smaller steam engines; and assorted shredders and separators. And that doesn't count the equipment that's dismantled and stored in cleaning solvent.

'When we get something, it gets fixed up,' Francis says.