If A Little Kid Asks To Help, Give Him a Break!

Content Tools

1288 Lexington Ave. Winfield, Iowa 52659

I am a senior in agricultural engineering at Iowa State and am 22 years old. I caught sight of a steam traction engine for the first time when I was about eight years old at the Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Show, and have been fascinated by those engines ever since. We had a book about the Old Threshers Reunion in the grade school library and I remember staring at the pictures for hours at a time, especially those of the model engines. I would often ask engine operators at the show if I could help, but more often than not they said that they already had plenty of help and would not need me.

When I was 14 years old, I heard about a fellow who lived a few miles from us and had some old gas engines. Using the directions given from a neighbor, I set out on my motorbike for his farm, not knowing that that day would be a great turning point in my life.

My eyes popped wide open when I saw that he owned not only a few old gas engines, but also a 1/3 scale Case. I soon forgot about those gas engines that I had come to see, and started asking questions about the model.

He told me about how he had just bought it a year or so earlier, and how he just got done replacing a chain drive with gears out of the corncrib. There were many other things he explained, which I soaked up like a sponge!

Never before had anyone been so willing to explain a steam engine to me. He talked about a big engine he had, or something, but my fascination and concentration were solely on the model Case.

We took the model to Old Threshers that fall and I got my first lessons in engine operation. Before I even touched the throttle, though, he had some important things to teach me mostly safety. Where to keep the water in the glass. How to make an injector work if it gets hot. What to do (and what not to do) for about every emergency.

We ran that model at the show every year for seven years. During those years those first 'lessons' and many more were repeated over and over again. The most important thing I learned, though, was to respect the power and potential deadliness of steam. Over and over, safety was emphasized. 'Don't get nervous and run away,' he would say. 'People have been killed running away.' I'll never forget his words.

When I was 15,I learned that the 'big engine' he mentioned now and then was his very own 16 HP Gaar Scott. It was stored in a drafty shed, the contents of which I'd never bothered to ask about.

It was six years later that we ended up getting the old girl out. The excitement of seeing a steam engine for the very first time as a young boy re turned to me as I stared at the lines of the old Gaar Scott. I'd never seen it outside before.

We cleaned the mouse nests out and washed out the boiler. He had sprayed fuel oil inside the boiler to help prevent pits. This left us with some oil floating in the water but it paid off as the boiler looked really good inside. We made new hand hole gaskets, oiled, greased, scraped, dusted, and lit a fire.

I'll never forget the time I ran that Gaar Scott. Now, I had run several different 'big' engines, as well as models before, but never had I run such an engine as that Gaar Scott. No knocks, no pounding of any kind the engine ran perfectly. After over 10 years or so of sitting idle, it still ran as good as ever. We didn't have any trouble with the injectors or lubrication or anything.

As I ran the reverse lever and throttle, I felt as if I 'melted' into that engine. Never before had I felt so comfortable on a traction engine. The engine and I became almost as one being, to speak figuratively. I'll never forget that experience. I felt as if I had 'graduated' to a higher 'class,' on my way to becoming more like the man who taught me everything I know about steam traction engines the man who had given me a chance seven years earlier.

Now, I don't claim to be even close to being a steam traction engineer, nor will I ever claim to be one; the real engineers are almost gone. But thanks to my 'teacher,' I've come to know at least a little bit about those fascinating machines that men once relied on for their livelihood.

For all you engine operators out there who can remember when you got your first 'break', I hope you'll think twice about the little kid who asks if he can help, before sending him on his way. I will!