FARMER'S 'MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES' Steam Threshers Fascinate Visitors

Collection of steamers

A LINK WITH FARMING'S PAST - Walter Mehmke with part of his collection of steamers on his farm near Great Falls, Montana. Some of the machines date back to 1878.

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Sent in by Tom Karstetter, 25394 E. 19th St., San Bernardino, California 92404, and with the kind permission of the Los Angeles Times newspaper. Thank you, Gordon R. Phillips, Assistant Director of Promotion and Public Relations, for giving us the 'go' signal. And you have asked we print the credit line as follows: 'Copyright, 1968, by the Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission.'

(Incidentally Tom Karstetter grew up in Enola and lived two doors from The Ritzman's and of course knew of the magazine and when he saw this out in California where he now lives, he sent it along to Enola Thanks Tom.)

BY CHARLES HILLINGER

Times Staff Writer

GREAT FALLS, Mont. Everybody keeps stopping in farmer Walter Mehmke's front yard to ask: 'What are those damn things?'

Lined up in front of Mehmke's farm house are 20 Rube Goldberg-like monsters steam plows and threshers used on the western plains up to 40 years ago.

Mehmke, whose 4,000 acres are 10 miles east of here, says:

'My collection is a mystery of mysteries. Younger generations have never seen anything like it.

'Steamers were really something,' said Mehmke. 'I was raised with them run one ever since I was 10 years old.

'In the old days it would take 30 men to thresh a crop of wheat with one of these 20-ton machines now, it takes only one man with a combine.'

Mehmke is a lifelong steam enthusiast.

'I can't help it. I've always been a nut on this stuff. By 1926 plowing and threshing with steam was finished in the United States.

Wheatland Areas Hunted

'In no time, all the old steam engines were cut up for junk. I began searching Wheatland areas all over America and Canada beginning in the late 30s to make sure they wouldn't disappear completely.'

It has taken the farmer years to collect and cost him thousands of dollars to restore in good working condition his 20 steam plows and threshers. It is the largest collection of its kind.

He also has 75 old gasoline tractors and various antique farm machinery stored on his farm as a memento of the 'tough old days.'

Mehmke's collection of steam plows and threshers includes machines built as early as 1878 and the most recent, one of the last made, a 1914 model. Huge silver eagles adorn the old Case steamers. There are Gear-Scott (The Tiger Threshing Line), Ault-man and Taylor, Reeves & Co., Advance, Minneapolis, Avery, Rumley, Russell and many other restored steamers. And they all work.

Mehmke has one of the country's finest collections of paintings and photographs of steam threshers at work in wheat fields.

'Oh boy, do I remember the old days,' recalls Mehmke. 'It'd take three to four hours for the boilers to steam up. We'd keep the fire in them for 90 days without shutting it off. Take too damn long to fire them up again.'

The steamers burned coal tons of coal. They were equipped with 500 gallon water tanks and had elaborate fire boxes.

Every September Mehmke has a big threshing bee on, his farm, running all 20 of the old steamers just as in the old days.

At his last threshing bee more than 18,000 farmers, steam bugs and a few city folk from all over the United States and Canada came to his farm on the Montana plains just to see him fire up his monsters.