Oscar O. Cooke owned a unique collection of steam engines, which he turned into Oscar’s Dreamland Museum, near the Yellowstone River south of Billings, Mont. At his shows, the threshing demonstrations were thorough productions, and the parades were no less spectacular. Cooke always led the parade with his oil-fired Best 110 HP steam engine, and the 300-some tractors on display were his own. Among the items in his collection was a 20 HP Reeves cross-compound, and a prototype of the famed Rumely OilPull tractor. This is Cooke’s story, and images from his stunning collection.
I was a young man the first time I visited Oscar’s Dreamland Museum near the Yellowstone River south of Billings, Mont. The late Max Tyler insisted I needed to go out and meet Oscar Cooke the next time I was in Billings. Oscar owned a bunch of crawler-type tractors, and although Max had been a real steam man from the original steam era, his real love later in life became “Cats.” Both men had their Holts, Bests, Caterpillars, Monarchs, Allis-Chalmers and Cletracs, and Oscar even had McCormick-Deerings. Max wouldn’t own one, as he’d grown up running Cats while in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and had his personal reasons for disliking them.
I ventured out to meet Oscar the next time Sharon, my wife, and I went to Billings. Cooke had just opened his museum to the public in 1968. I was very pleased to see a huge old Corliss engine out front that once powered the Great Western Sugar Co. in Billings greeting the public.
I remember seeing this 16-foot (I believe) flywheel engine in operation at “the Sugar Factory” in my boyhood. I remember walking into Oscar’s shop, where he was working on a small, steel-wheeled gas tractor. I sort of felt like an unneeded interruption, as my age didn’t quite qualify me as anything but another “question asker.” I soon turned our conversation to my love and ability with steam traction engines. Oscar came right to life. After checking me out a little further, Oscar insisted I needed to become part of his engine crew for his shows. He set down his wrenches, cleaned his hands and insisted on taking me around his museum on a personal tour.
I don’t recall the size of the three (red, white and blue) sheds at Oscar’s Dreamland, but they must have been close to 75-foot-by-150-foot or possibly larger. Some had lean-to roof extensions on the outside, where he stored his steam traction engines. It was phenomenal the amount of equipment he stored inside. One building was pretty much filled with huge prairie-type gas tractors. Another was filled with smaller tractors and the third was a mixture of antique aircraft, antique automobiles and other memorabilia, at that time.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was when we passed by the scrap iron pile and the remnants of his “Kerosene Annie,” the prototype of the famed Rumely OilPull tractor. She lacked so much. There were massive amounts missing – gearing, steering gear, engine parts, and it looked completely hopeless to me.
I don’t remember which tractor magazine publisher visited the museum and passed by this same tractor, photographing it for placement in his magazine. Anyway, this publisher didn’t realize who he was dealing with when he printed something like: Kerosene Annie – It will never run again.
I don’t feel I can use, nor could Steam Traction print, the actual language the somewhat flamboyant Oscar used when I’d stopped by to visit him after he’d read that edition. It boiled down to Oscar was going to show him. He had major, massive parts cast and had that engine torn apart and put back together. I don’t know how many other Kerosene Annies there were, nor do I know how many remain, but I think this is the only one remaining today.
One thing Oscar did that was unusual in our part of the country, was gather types of engines out of the area that didn’t make it in any great numbers during the original steam era. We got to see engines like Harrison Jumbo, Kitten, Keck-Gonnerman, Port Huron and Frick, which weren’t ever popular out west. The Geiser-Peerless in larger size plowing engines were quite popular out here, but not the smaller size like Oscar had.
I lived in Billings for nearly four years from late 1969 until mid-1974. Oscar kind of expected me to visit at times. I’d remembered a 30-60 Aultman & Taylor gas tractor on the John Campbell farm at Utica, Mont. Oscar was able to purchase the tractor and this gave him a 30-60 with square radiator and exhaust stack. He already had a 30-60 with the later roundstyle radiator with cooling fans and really wanted the early type. After he purchased that, I always felt special treatment and very welcome at Oscar’s.
I didn’t have a Montana steam traction engine license at the time, so I was never in charge of an engine. My good friend, the late Clyde Corley, often ran the 20 HP Gaar-Scott double-simple. I have only recently learned the rear-mounted, double-cylinder simple engines were referred to by Gaar-Scott as their “Montana Special” engines.
My son, Mike, and daughter, Michaelle, went to Oscar’s shows with me, which were likely their first recollection of a steam show. Oscar’s shows were quite a production. His engineers stayed pretty busy plowing, usually with steam and often with a 25 HP sidemounted Nichols & Shepard engineered by Dick Tombrink. However, I remember the first time I ever saw a Pioneer 30-60 gas tractor running, it was plowing at Oscar’s.
Threshing seemed to be more than just “a sample” as is done at most shows today; they made quite an extended production out of it, kind of like it really was harvest.
The parades were spectacular. The antique car club from Billings would have pretty fair attendance, and with Oscar’s 300-some tractors, many of them participating, the parade was nothing short of awesome. Of course, Oscar’s engine was always the Best steam engine, and as I remember, he led the parade.
Oscar told me his oil-fired Best was rated at 100 HP at 100 psi and 150 HP at 150 psi. I can’t refute that, although most of this style is referred to as a 110 HP Best, today.
I know there are much larger steam shows in the eastern part of our country, but when you consider that everything of the tractor and equipment nature at Oscar’s show belonged to that one man, it was stunning. He once told me he’d started gathering engines during World War II, as he didn’t like seeing so many of them going to the scrap yard.
Oscar moved in old buildings, including a church, store, saloon and school, and he named his town Cookeville and the museum sat on 19 acres. Three sides of the museum grounds were fenced with threshing machines on both sides and across the rear, next to the Yellowstone River. There had to be at least a hundred of them.
I’d never viewed Oscar’s Dreamland from the air, but Oscar had been an old-time pilot and was sure proud of how his establishment looked from the air. He had his own hangar and airstrip across the road from the museum.
He once told me he’d set up his sons with Allis-Chalmers dealerships in Nebraska or Kansas, if I remember correctly. I believe Oscar had also been an AC dealer somewhere in those areas in earlier years. He was also a major stockholder and board member in one of Billing’s major banks. This bank had the world’s largest revolving clock built atop it in the late 1950s, and when they decided to remove it in later years, guess where that clock ended up!
Oscar was inducted into the EDGE&TA Steam Hall of Fame before his death in 1995, as was Marcella, his wife, at a later date. I have a few old photos I took at Oscar’s shows on a $7.95 camera in the 1970s, and have often wished I’d had a better camera at that time. After Oscar died at age 95, I thought I’d better make the eight-hour drive to the museum and get some photos, and I am so glad I did. Marcella was still living and so graciously opened everything up for me. She had hopes of keeping the museum operating and everything going but died within the next year or so. Naturally, with two deaths and two estates, the IRS became a great part of the reason for the dispersion auction, later attended by many steam and tractor men.
The state of Montana toyed with purchasing Oscar’s Dreamland Museum, but the circa 1864 gold town of Virginia City, Mont., was also vying for state funds after the Bovey family had all passed away, creating the estate for that historical place. There wasn’t overwhelming support to salvage a tractor collection, but everyone wanted their grandkids to be able to pan gold and ride the steam train at Virginia City.
There had been speculation that Oscar had gathered engines from everywhere, so maybe he wanted his collection to go everywhere. It could be, but he’d never stated that to me.
Lynn Simpson, my father-in-law, often said to me, “Nothing stays the same.” I guess Oscar’s Dreamland Museum was a good example of what he referred to. Oscar had planned his “Cooke Cemetery” and it did me good to know his ashes were out there in that little old Huber return flue, which he’d placed a wrought iron fence around for this very occasion.
Now that I think of it, Oscar could still go out and plow fields with steam … if he really wanted to, and the way I knew that one-of-a-kind man, I am rather surprised he hasn’t attempted it!
Contact steam enthusiast Gary Yaeger at: 1120 Leisha Lane, Kalispell, MT 59901; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org