I Hate Steam Shows!


LaFrance steamer pumper from Wichita.

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101 S. Main Ave., Suite 201 Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57102

I hate steam shows: the heat, the soot, the noise, the dirt. But I like the steam enginesand I love the steam people. My husband is one of these people, with a shed full of the engines occupying space desperately needed by vehicles in daily use. The shed has achieved a certain residential quality, as he spends evenings, weekends and holidays 'working' on the iron tenants. And the money poured into this 'work' transforms the engines (at least in my mind) into huffing, puffing, lumbering versions of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Like the spouses of other steam people, I surfer these indignities in comparative silence, with an occasional long-suffering smile, accepting them as among the many compromises necessary to maintain 'marital harmony'. But I draw the line at attending steam shows.

My husband knows all this, of course. I've explained my feelings on the subject in gruesome detail with the occasional angry outburst which emerges when my spirit of compromise fails me. So I was mildly surprised at the insistent tone in his voice as he suggested I accompany him to a steam show in Valley Center, Kansas, over Labor Day weekend last summer. It wasn't near anything I would enjoy, like a big shopping mall. Where is Valley Center? For all that, where is Kansas? Isn't that the place Dorothy ran away from? 'Auntie Em, hate Kansas. Have taken dog.' It was at the wrong time of year. Anytime is the wrong time for a show, as far as I'm concerned. But summer in Kansas has little appeal to a woman who vacations in northern Minnesota in the winter. There would be nothing for me to do. That is, of course, unless one views sweating and getting dirty as 'doing something'. But two arguments persuaded me to ignore my better judgment: First, he would be there. Second, I would enjoy all the other people, particularly Tom and Lois Terning who run the show.

4 Avery engines in a row: Tom Terning's 40-120 with Avery Sullivan at the throttle and John Tomey at the wheel. Linda Britton and Joe Heath with their scale Avery built by Paul Kusnefsky. Dick Burd with his scale built by Paul.

So we loaded up our scale Case 65, which was built by Tom Terning, and a scale Avery we had purchased from the Paul Kusnefsky estate. In spite of my husband's glowing accounts, I was ill prepared for what lay ahead: The amount of engines, machinery, and equipment on display, the exceptional condition of everything present; the number, variety and novelty of events and displays; the willingness (to say nothing of ability) of every exhibitor present to keep everything running full tilt every day of the show; the remarkable collection of knowledge and skills spread through the exhibitors and their unfailing willingness to share know-how, tools, parts, and tall tales. And last but, for those of us not enamored of steam shows, not least, the presence of some semblance of civilized living including enough toilets to meet the needs of large crowds without long lines, food suitable for human consumption at a going rate, places to sit down, shade, music from both live and recorded sources throughout the show, religious services on Sunday, and smiling people with IQ's larger than their shoe sizes who want to pass the time of day. I was impressed if not entirely converted.

I'm probably a poor person to make this report. What's of interest to 'engine ignorant' me might not stand out to this readership. But it will probably bear some interest to the 'significant others' of the 'engine aficionados.' Here's what caught my eye and kept me hoppin' for three days:

When I came onto the 20 acres of show ground, I crossed a narrow gauge railroad track. Throughout the show, a 5/8 scale model of a Baldwin steam locomotive made endless trips around the show, pulling four cars full of guests, on a mile track.

We'd come a day early to get set up, and I soon became entranced watching Herb Ottaway and his son, Jerry, assembling their 1894 Herchell Spillman Steam Carousel, one of six known surviving. Like so many exhibits and events I would see in the days ahead, I gradually became as fascinated and charmed by the operators and enthusiasts as the 'stuff' they brought to display with such care and pride. The condition of the carousel and the Ottaway's gentle efforts to persuade it together were as close to a definition of true love as I hope to see in this lifetime. The carousel, like the train, ran continuously throughout the show, thrilling children and anyone who looked on at their delightor anyone who could hear their organ, for that matter. And if someone was too much of a grinch to enjoy the carousel, they would surely have to give at least a moment's notice to the world's largest hot air engine, running endlessly and effortlessly right behind the organ. Later, I would see Herb riding with considerable enjoyment in one of the many steam cars which drive through the exhibit grounds at the will of the operators.

With the locomotive, carousel, and organ providing a steady hum in the background, the sawmill swung into operation. It was built by Paul Kusnefsky (1895-1987), something of a legend. (For some background on Paul, see Lois Terning's article in the July/August 1989 issue of Iron Men Album.)

As the last log was ripped for the day, the LaFrance steamer pumper which put out fires in Wichita from 1901 to 1925 began to shoot fountains of water up and up into the clear blue air of Kansas summer. The operator wore a red shirt, suspenders (probably invented by firemen as 'quick hitches' to answer the fire bell), red bandanas artfully hung from each hip pocket, and would-you-believe a handlebar mustache complete with wax. He poured on the coal as if he hoped to extinguish the fires of hell. He must have failed because he pumped valiantly on and off for three days. If you grew weary of the carousel, the sawmill and the steam pumper, then you could study the grist mill and threshing going on almost continuously.

And everywhere you look, every step you take, the engines, engines, enginesall running and most moving throughout the day from place to place as prideful exhibitors, not content to simply display, turn themselves magically into engineers, operators, steam people. While I have no knowledge of such matters, my spouse says this is by far the largest and best assortment of scale engines he's ever seen. And even I, in all my ignorance, was impressed to see three Avery engines of varying sizes side by sideTom Terning's huge 4120, a scale owned by Linda Britton and Joe Heath, and our scale.

My eyes were drawn to Fay 'Avery' Sullivan, operating the big Avery. He was wearing John Lennon style sun glasses (he'd be horrified to know how modish he looked), and carefully caressing the huge Avery into locomotion. I thought there must be a story behind his pale, kind eyes. But, try as I might, I could not draw it out. About to give up and move on, I absently patted the underslung engine of the old Avery and commented on its beauty. And the story came out: As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, Fay had seen a big Avery unloaded new onto a neighbor's farm. It was, apparently, love at first sight. Fay still clearly remembered the dress she wore: The 'trademark' plate and bulldog on the front were gleaming brass. He left his love behind in Oklahoma and went to Wichita to make his way as a young man in 1927. And there he began working at a Ford dealership where he remained until he retired at 72. But the Avery lingered in his mind. He saw that same engine again in about 1958. It was sold to a Mr. Willits of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. So Fay dropped him a line. Mr. Willits wrote back two pages. And the correspondence was on; Fay couldn't write fast enough to keep Willits answered. That Avery led an odd life: Instead of being driven by a little old lady on Sundays, it was fired on any day except Sunday. Mr. Willits played the organ at his church and wouldn't hear of working up a sweat on himself or the Avery on a Sunday. Fay went to a show in Mt. Pleasant. After the show, Mr. Willits' letter beat Fay home. It was filled with apology for becoming absorbed with the show and neglecting to offer operation of the Avery to Mr. Sullivan. Fay went again the next year and served as engineer. The love affair deepened. Fay said he saw that Avery pulling two road graders in Oklahoma. He claims it will pull two Cases backwards. He wasn't smiling a bit when he made these claims, but I'm not sure the truth lay behind those pale eyes.

As for the Terning's Avery he was operating, Fay said that engine had originally been used on the Ringling Brothers' ranch in Montana. The engine was purchased by a fellow named Judson Henging in Iowa. His wife sold it to another Iowan who, in turn, sold the engine to a doctor in Terre Haute, Indiana, the last of several bought by the good doctor. Tom Terning bought it from him, removed the jacket, installed a safety valve as a backup to the throttle, and put in six new flues. Under Fay's steady hand, the restored behemoth Avery moves confidently.

There are steam races, both fast and slow, for every kind of engine, every kind of 'racer'. If you grow sick-to-death of steam power, try horse power; get aboard the stagecoach for a ride with John Hogo-boom from El Dorado, Kansas. Or you could watch the radio controlled model planes. Perhaps the WW II military vehicles would spark your interest. If you simply don't want anything whatever to do with engines at any time for any reason, there are always the art and craft exhibits and vendors and lots of food concessions.

But in the end, with all the steam engine razzle-dazzle dancing before my eyes, it was the people who left the lasting impression. I think especially of Mahlon Griffin, a retired aeronautical engineer. He exemplified the best of what I saw. Day in and day out he kept his scale Case 65 fired up. But I rarely saw him operating it. Instead, there were two young boys always on the engine or at Mahlon's elbows, eager to learn all he knows and Mahlon just as anxious to share.

What draws Mahlon and all the other engine people into the heat, the soot, the dirt, anyway? It is not just a love of the engines. It has more to do with the people themselves their appreciation of the beauty of enduring workmanship. And their belief in the values that cause people to create with care.

Tom and Lois Terning have 'created with care' as fine a show as can be seen. They reflect the best of the world they live in. This particular show deserves particular attention. It brought me to a genuine appreciation of that which I could not earlier understand. That's a very fine show, indeed, in Valley Center, Kansas, over Labor Day weekend each year.