Dad's Steam Engines

Remembering dad and his steam engines – steam runs strong and true.

The 30 HP Advance in 1986

inset: Vernon Haffner.The 30 HP Advance in 1986.

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I remember being about 4 or 5 years old, and knowing just that Dad ran an “engine” with yellow flywheels and a diamond-shaped smokestack. Now, being a bit older, I know all the details I couldn't be bothered with before.

Born Nov. 1, 1920, my father, Vernon Haffner, became a third-generation steam traction engineer. It started with his grandfather, Anton Haffner of Frankfort Township, Minn. He ran a small sawmill not far from St. Michael, Minn. We're not sure what exactly Great-grandpa had for engines, but we do know for sure about one in particular.

In 1896, Great-grandpa bought a 12 HP center-crank Case steam traction engine. He bought it for some of the “small jobs” around the farm and neighborhood. It ran a small wooden thresher that Grandpa burned when he found my two older sisters playing inside, afraid they'd hurt themselves. (You'll see a growing trend with this later in my story.)

When Dad was a boy (knee-high to a grasshopper, as Grandma would say), he took an immediate liking to this thing that made all these things work without having to hitch-up the horses.

Dad's first job on his grandpa's steamer was to watch the water level. Great-grandpa tied two strings to the water glass. Dad was told to watch it. When the water reached the bottom string, he was told to “open this valve,” and when it reached the top string, he was to turn it off again. For Dad, as he got older, running that little steam engine became as natural as breathing. They worked perfectly together as a team, and it didn't step on his feet like the horses did.

Well, time went on and Great-grandpa was getting to the age where he just couldn't deal with it anymore. The most natural thing for him to do was to give the steam engine to the one person he knew would love it and take care of it the way he had: His grandson. When Dad got the engine home, two miles away, and told all his friends, they swarmed over to see what the hubbub was about. All the engine really did then was give rides to the neighbors, it seems. Oh, she still did some of the chores around the farm, but not as much as before.

At one point, Dad even wrote to J.I. Case to find out more about his new best friend. He sent them the serial number and waited for a response. Around the first week of December 1948, he received a letter back. It turned out to be a 12 HP, a fact formerly unknown now that Great-grandpa had gone to join the others in threshermen's heaven, and had neglected to pass on certain information.

Okay, remember that “growing trend” I was talking about earlier? Well, this is it. With all the neighbor kids around all the time, and back in the days of no license being required to operate a steamer, Grandma and Grandpa were afraid someone would get hurt, or worse, so they made Dad sell the engine.

We're not sure how old Dad was when he got the little engine, but he was about 30 to 35 years old and living on the family farm when he had to sell it. The man he sold it to was Ray Ernst. He restored it, sort of, and in 1957 sold it to the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

In October of 2000, my husband and I were looking at the WDM website and saw that a 12 HP Case center-crank steamer was getting a new boiler. I contacted them and asked if they had J.I. Case engine number 6559 in their inventory. At noon, on the exact day Dad would have turned 80 years old, I received a response from Ruth Bitner. It was there, and they were looking for any information and photos we could give them. They had nothing of its history before their acquisition of the engine.

And so, here I am, finally getting this written down. The pictures I have are being reproduced and labeled, and everything should be ready for the major new exhibit they're planning for the Saskatchewan Centennial in 2005. But, Dad's story doesn't end with losing his childhood friend. It continues on, picking up years later, at the Rogers' Threshing Show in the early 1970s.

We're not sure Dad ever really forgave Grandma and Grandpa for making him sell his Case, but we know for certain they didn't do anything to make Dad's love for steam die. He rediscovered it when he found a similar engine, which needed an engineer. Walter Dehn, Rogers, Minn., owned a center-crank Case almost exactly like Dad's. Walter and Dad got to talking one day, one thing led to another and Dad had found a new hobby to fill a void left empty for too long. That's where my earliest memories of steam engines start.

Dad ran that little center-crank every summer after that. He and Walter Schmidt of Buffalo, Minn., could be seen plowing occasionally, but threshing about 90 percent of the time. That was the first engine I played on. Dad noticed right away I was going to be as addicted to steam as he had always been.

The years went on, and one of our more distant neighbors decided he might try this “steam show thing” out on his place. So, about 1979 or so, he did. He had an old 30 HP Advance straw-burner that needed some major TLC, especially on the rear end. How much TLC? Well, it had a 50-gallon oil drum for a water tender and the wood kept falling out of what, I guess, was supposed to be the wood box. There were a few other problems, but these were the first things you saw. It needed help, lots of it, and fast.

About a year after Dad started running that engine for Jerome Weldele, also of Buffalo, he started noticing that Walter's little Case was in need of some major repair work of its own. It was getting to the point where Dad was beginning to get a little leery around it. Flues were leaking and the flywheel key kept working its way loose, along with the flywheel. There were other issues, and Dad's thoughts were also starting to look towards that other engine he'd met.

Mom and Dad started talking more and more about that Advance, and how Dad was bound and determined to own his own engine again. Both of his parents were gone (well, Grandpa was and Grandma didn't care anymore), and both of my older sisters were either married or in college. It was really just the three of us. Dad and Jerome finally decided on a price and that big monster of an engine had a new home. Dad almost immediately called the one-lowboy driver he could trust, John Schoening of Maple Plain, Minn., and we had a new member of the family.

Dad set to work totally revamping the entire rear end of the engine. He cut an 8-inch band out of the center of an old round fuel barrel and had it welded back together for a water tank. On any other engine it would have looked very out of place, but on ours, it fit. Boyd Bailey, of Champlin, Minn., came over, and in about one day he and Dad had finished the wood box and passenger seating/toolbox. When the whole thing was finished, we had a two-story platform with a top-level hinged area so you could stoke the fire without cracking your head open, and room for about eight passengers. It was great! And it looked awesome.

John was called again and this time our monster was taken over to the Rogers' threshing show grounds where it would stay until 1988. I remember hearing John say that up to this point, it had been the heaviest load he had ever hauled. He was in the excavating business.

Dad was easier to find now than he ever had been before. If it was lunchtime, you had to listen for which direction the deep-throated chime whistle came from, and if that failed, head for the threshing area. The odds were always in your favor that you'd find him there. The perfect threshing rig was on display: a 30 HP Advance straw-burner and a 40-inch double-wing Minneapolis thresher. The two largest pieces of machinery there, an awe-inspiring sight coming down the parade route at you.

During the 1980s Dad had also undergone major lung surgery – thanks to his job. In the summer of 1988, he had the engine moved to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion at Rollag, Minn. Dad had to ride on the engine he'd spent so much time operating because by that time his health was failing fast. By August 1989, Dad was gone. Mom sold the engine, and another piece of our family's heritage was gone to a stranger.

They say that steam gets in your blood, and it is next to impossible, if not completely impossible, to get it out. I'm a fourth-generation steam freak, and the fifth-generation was born in December 2001. At three years old, he already knows his way around a steamer and has a good handle on the firing. His sibling will be born this fall, after steam season has finished.

My husband has his license, and where there is usually diesel running through the veins, well, for a few weekends every summer, steam cylinder oil replaces it. He doesn't seem to mind a bit. We sold our non-running 28 HP Minneapolis steam engine, which needed a boiler, but have a line on another engine that is in great shape and runs.

Steam runs strong and true in my family. If people aren't careful, they could get just as addicted as we are. It will run you down and plow you under before you know what's happened. And with any luck at all, the result will be a bigger, even more well-loved hobby than already exists, and it will be worth fighting very hard to preserve it.

Contact steam enthusiast Katherine Smith at: shcollectors@loretel.net