Iron Man BILL VOUK

Bill

Bill, third from right, about 1925. His father Frank is on his right.

Content Tools

703 County Road 2 South St. Stephen, Minnesota 56375

W. F. (Bill) Vouk Sr., at 86 years of age, is one of the few men surviving who actually operated a steam traction engine during the glory days of steam power. This is the story of his involvement as a steam engine owner, sawmill operator, thresher man and showman.

Bill was born May 21st, 1911 to Frank and Regina (Smoley) Vouk in Brockway Township, Stearns County, Minnesota. His father farmed, did custom threshing in the surrounding area and custom sawing on his farm and owned a general store and saloon in what was to become the village, and later, the City of St. Stephen, Minnesota.

Ever since Bill was old enough, he helped his father on the farm and with the threshing and sawing. He tells the story of a horse-team runaway which happened to him, when he was going out to do some plowing with their J. I. Case foot-lift sulky plow. He was thrown off the seat and the plow passed over him, one wheel on one side and the beam on the other.

During Bill's early childhood, the custom threshing and sawing were done with a 60 HP Case traction engine. In 1917, his father bought a new 80 HP Case engine in company with his engineer at the time, August (Gust) Schuneman. When Gust had to leave for the World War, Frank bought out his share. In some years, the threshing run, using a Minneapolis 36' wooden separator with wing feeders, lasted for up to 80 days. The sawing, on a #2 Howell mill, was done for several weeks each spring. When his father died in January of 1930, Bill, at the age of 18, took over as head of the family, which consisted of his mother, three older sisters, four younger sisters, and one younger brother. He continued with the farming, threshing and sawing and in 1938 went into the auto repair business in the garage that his father had built in 1927 for rent to Mr. Schuneman, out of which he also ran a New Idea farm equipment dealership, selling most of the farmers in the area their first tractor machinery. After this, the farmland was rented out.

In 1939, Bill put another threshing rig into operation, consisting of a 1919 10-ton Holt Caterpillar and a 36' Huber steel separator, also with wing feeders. Both this rig and the steam engine were run that year. After that, the steam and the Minneapolis separator were retired, although for several years the steamer was fired up each fall to clean the Caterpillar and Huber.

Plow ville, USA Melrose, Minnesota, September 1961. Bill is in the white cap, Gust on engine in coveralls. 65 HP Case purchased that year and a 32' Red River Special separator.

In 1948, Bill started his own plumbing and heating business at which he worked until his retirement in 1976. In 1949, while his threshing ring was getting smaller due to more rigs in the area, the roads in the area were beginning to be paved, so Bill replaced the Cat and 36' separator with a 1922-36 McCormick-Deering tractor and a 28' Huber separator, both on rubber tires. This rig was used until the last custom threshing run in 1961.

Bill continued sawing with the Caterpillar until about 1953, when he and Gust decided to get the steamer going again, so they put it on the sawmill that spring and the next, with Gust as engineer. After that, the sawing was discontinued due to the lack of customers.

All of the above-mentioned equipment was retained and stored on the farm, except the 36' Huber separator, which he had sold to Henry P. (Horsepower) Lahr of nearby St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Bill started attending steam shows in the mid-50's with Gust and Henry, and in 1961, at the urging of Mr. Lahr, he bought a 65 HP Case engine at the Merle Jones auction in Little Falls, Minnesota. Also in that year, he was invited to give a demonstration of steam threshing and plowing, which he did with this engine, at 'Plowville, USA,' the National Plowing Contest, which was held in Melrose, Minnesota.

All this renewed steam engine activity gave Bill the urge to fully restore what he now calls his 'pride and joy,' the 80 HP Case engine which still sat at its old resting place at the end of the barn. (See '80 Years With An 80 Case' in IMA Volume 52, Number 2, for the story of this engine).

In 1965, with the encouragement of his sons, and a brother-in-law, Val Hlebain, who offered to provide logs to saw and grain to thresh, and since he had the two steamers and all the other equipment mentioned including the sawmill, Bill decided to start the Vouk's Steam Engine Threshing and Lumber Sawing Show' on the old family farm.

In 1966, before the second show, he was able to re-purchase the 36' Huber separator from Mr. Emil Rosen of Swift Falls, Minnesota to whom Mr. Lahr had sold it. In the ensuing year, Bill's collection of old iron has grown with the acquisition of an 18 HP Advance-Rumely traction engine; a stationary four-cylinder, 480 HP Ames steam engine connected to an electric generator; many more gasoline engines, including a 35 HP Ingeco weighing six tons; many more gas tractors including a 35-70 Minneapolis, a 40-60 Twin City and a 40-65 Aultman-Taylor, which were restored with the help of Mr. Ed Arms, who also built a working model of the 80 HP Case engine, which Bill now owns. He has also acquired much more antique farm equipment to add to the show, including a hand-fed Case thresher, purchased from Mr. Lahr; a 26' John Deere thresher; a Birdsell clover huller; and an 8-bottom John Deere platform plow which was restored in 1995 for use with the 80 HP Case engine. The afore-mentioned J.I. Case foot-lift sulky plow has also become part of the show since being dragged out of the woods and restored in 1996.

Since once again becoming active in the operation of steam engines, Bill felt, as did some of his friends who owned steam engines, that the State Boiler Division was being too hard on these engines, in that the hydrostatic pressure for testing of antique boilers was then set at double the working pressure. So Bill and these friends got the State Legislature to change it back to 1 times the working pressure as it had been back when these boilers were in common use.

This led to the founding in 1978, of the Minnesota Steam Engine Association with Bill as its first president. This organization seeks to preserve and protect all types of historic steam engines, the steam engine hobby and also the steam engine shows, and promotes the education of engineers in the safe operation and maintenance of these engines and boilers, so that these historic artifacts will hopefully always be around with qualified people to operate them, for the continued education and entertainment of the public. The organization now has over 250 members in 17 states and Canada and has been very effective and successful in carrying out its intended purpose.

During his retirement years Bill has kept busy with the restoration of tractors and gas engines and keeping other machines and equipment in good repair for his show. Through the years, he has narrated the parade at the show, giving the history of each unit that he owns, which the spectators really enjoy.

Bill's four sons and four daughters have always helped with putting on the show, with each in charge of a different aspect of it. As both the family and the show have grown, Bill's sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren have also willingly taken an active part in putting on the show. Bill, two of his sons, one nephew and two grandsons hold the lifetime Minnesota Steam Traction Engineer License, which came into being through the efforts of the Minnesota Steam Engine Association, so it is obvious that the love of steam engines has been passed on.

Now in his 88th year, while still involved in the general supervision of the show, Bill enjoys spending more of his time visiting with his friends and the visitors who return to the show year after year, and he takes pride in preserving and sharing with the public, especially the young people, his collection of working antique steam and gas engines, tractors and machinery, as well as his knowledge of past farming and harvest methods, through the presentation of the Vouk's Steam Engine Threshing and Lumber-Sawing Show, always held the last full weekend in September in St. Stephen, Minnesota.