Elmer Gray Steams Up

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The following story by Ronald J. Rice is reprinted with permission from the Great Falls, Montana Tribune. The photo on the back cover is of Elmer Gray, and the article originally appeared June 4,1987.

Sunday was 'steam up' day on the Gray Ranch on Little Belt Creek and friends came from miles around to watch 81-year-old Elmer Gray build a head of steam in the boiler of his one-fourth size model of a Case 65 tractor.

It was almost as much fun watching Gray stoke the fire box with dried chokecherry wood, monitor the gauges and check the fittings on his black, brass, green, red and silver tractor as it was to watch him run it.

Martha and Carl Mehmke, who have the Mehmke Steam Museum on US 87-89 between Great Falls and Belt, were among those attending the afternoon 'steam up' at the Gray Ranch, which is on Ewing Lane northeast of Belt. Rains had washed down the area during the morning.

When Elmer was asked if it was his toy, he answered, with a grin, 'Oh, it's worse than that. I was down in Stanford and I saw one of these. It was a two-inch (to the foot) scale model and it could pull two men so I decided I would build one which was three-inch scale.'

That decision was reached nearly 30 years ago. It was on July 16,1959, that Elmer went to the Great Falls Iron Works and purchased the material for the boiler. The Iron Works rolled the wrapper sheet and fire box sheet and cut the eight-inch piece of well casing to fit the length of the boiler barrel.

Elmer and his younger brother, Raymond, were actively engaged in farming at that time so it took six years of Elmer's spare time to complete his model. It was also difficult to obtain the parts he needed to build his tractor.

His plans came from Coles Power Models in Ventura, Calif. They did not have any plans in the scale he wanted so he purchased a set of one inch to one foot plans and tripled the size of everything.

Most of his castings came from C. E. Jack Kauer of Wichita, Kan., who also was an expert machinist and did machine work for Elmer for free. Other castings came from Alexander Enterprises of Kansas.

His master gears and pinions are the drive gears and pinions from a Myers pump jack; a 1924 Chevrolet steering worm and gear were used in the chain steering. Elmer did as much of his own machine work as he could but he continued farming until 1975 so others did much of the needed work most of it without charge.

The T-shaped water tank on the engine, called contractors bunkers, were made from copper so that he would not have a rust problem but he cannot stand on them or they would cave in. To get around this problem, he constructed a water wagon on four wheels that the tractor tows.

Elmer rides atop the water wagon and controls the engine from there. The water wagon is connected to the engine so he can draw water directly to the engine while he has the machine in operation.

Gray said he burns dried choke-cherry wood because it is harder and burns with more heat than other available woods. He cuts each piece to size so it will fit the small fire box.

But starting the fire and bringing the boiler pressure to near 100 pounds per sq. inch requires considerable effort because the boiler has small flues. To offset this problem, Elmer puts a special 'T' on the end of a vacuum cleaner hose on which he has attached a special plug which he plugs into the steam engine's stack.

He reverses the motor on the cleaner and this produces a strong draft to make the fire burn hotter and draw the heat through the flues, thus shortening the time required to build steam pressure.

It isn't just any water that goes into the boiler of Elmer Gray's tractor. He only uses rain water which he collects through an intricate gutter system he devised. This gives him water that has very low mineral content and reduces mineral buildup inside the machine.

During its construction stages, the miniature tractor had to share quarters with the regular farm tractor and had only a very cramped space. It was not until the Gray brothers ceased their farming operations that Elmer's Case 65 model got a home of its own.

'I didn't get to steam the engine up for the first time until Dec. 5, 1965,' Elmer said, 'and it ran perfectly.'

And it still runs perfectly it purrs quietly like a sewing machine. It is then that Elmer puts it into gear, advances the throttle and 'chuffs' slowly across the yard, giving all of the ladies present rides if they want them.

The ride is a tour from near the tractor shed, northeast to the garage area where he turns right and moves along the edge of a hill past the end of of the chicken house and then up toward his extensive garden. Another right turn brings the tour back to its point of origin.

At this point, Elmer stops, tips his engineers cap and stokes the firebox with more wood as the smoke and steam swirl around him.