Joe Steinhagen and His Steam Engine Demonstrate 'The Way It Was'

Case steam engine

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Reprinted by written permission from Senior Perspective, Glenwood, Minnesota Sent to us by Joe Steinhagen, 11980 Kluver Addition Road SE, Alexandria, Minnesota 56308.

Joe says, 'This Senior Perspective is an interesting paper. I used to always pick it up when I would see it around because the lead article was generally pretty interesting. So I called them and asked them if they would be interested in doing an article on a steam engine and they called back and said they would be, so here is a copy of it. 1 had Arlene Fults from the Rune stone Museum help me with the interview. She's so good at adding the human side of the story. I tend to get stuck on the nuts and bolts of the operation. I've been working with the Rune stone Museum in Alexandria and maybe someday we'll put on a demonstration there for the folks to see. Right now, my engine is housed at our Rose City Threshing show grounds. It is a nice, smaller show that is growing slowly. Our show is centered around and in Harvey Danielson's farm yard and everywhere it is covered with lawn to walk on. We've got all the usual stuff, but on a smaller scale with a relaxed atmosphere. Show dates for 1999 are August 14 and 15.

'I have to thank my help on the steam engine this past summer, Jim Pospisil and Paul Roers. They even had an opportunity this past summer to show Richard Rovig from Roth say, MN that they know how to belt up to the threshing machine in one try. I was impressed also good job.'

'Take me back So I can see The simple way Things used to be. . .'

The theme song from a 1975 television drama called The FamilyHolvak explains the fascination people have for vintage farm equipment, nostalgia for a time when people could understand exactly how machines and communities worked. The steam engine tractor symbolizes a brief era in our history when farming and community life were different.. .the era of the threshing bee.

Joe Steinhagen of Forada owns a fully functional 1913 Case 60 HP steam engine tractor and has a hobby license to operate it. He shows it off in parades and at threshing bees. Eager crowds press close to examine it. 'You can walk right up to it and see how everything works,' Steinhagen explains.

Steam engines worked American farmland from about 1900 to 1920, and Case was the Ford Motor Company of steam engine manufacturers, Steinhagen says. 'They made them comparatively inexpensively and they made a lot of them.' Still, a steam engine cost more than most farmers could afford individually. They were more likely to be a community investment, which made sense, because it took a small community to operate the engine plus the water wagon and thresher that were hooked in tandem to it.

'There was an engineer who watched the levers and controls and made sure everything was operating properly,' Steinhagen explains. 'There was a fireman who shoveled coal or wood. And there was a fellow who hauled the water wagon and supplied water all day long. Plus it took a crew of men to feed bundles into the threshing machine. When you're threshing for a full day with a steam engine, you'll use a thousand gallons of water and about a cord of wood.'

Arlene Fults of the Runestone Museum explains how the steam engine tractor changed farming. 'This was really a step up from working with horses. One man could not farm very much acreage using horses. Horses needed to rest; they could only work so many hours. It took a lot of horses to farm, and a lot of what a farmer produced went into maintaining the horses. Then along came steam, and the same number of men could produce far more. The steam engine never got tired as long as men were there to keep it running.'

'When they were breaking prairie with steam engines in the Dakotas on the bonanza farms,' Steinhagen adds, 'they'd plow around the clock.'

Steam engine tractors can plow as well as thresh. They can power sawmills by a belt attached to the flywheel, and two of them together can pull a building. They can also plant. 'When they first broke the prairie in the Dakotas,' Steinhagen explains, 'some people pulled the plow with a seeder right behind it. They seeded right in their plowing on those turn-of-the-century bonanza farms of thirty to forty thousand acres. But that only worked for a few years. Then the land rejected that idea and they had to work it more.'

Steinhagen estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 functional steam engines remain in existence today, maintained at great expense by folks with a passion for nostalgia. But when gasoline-powered tractors became widely available eighty years ago, the steam engine heyday came to an end. Gas tractors were more affordable at about $1,400, as opposed to $2,000 for a steam engine. A gas tractor could accomplish a day's work with just sixty or seventy gallons of gas and a crew of just one or two people. This made the farmer much more independent.

Steinhagen operates his 1913 Case steam engine. 'I don't know who took this picture,' he admits. 'It appeared in my lunch box one day. You gotta wear the little outfit or you're not official.'

'When a farmer owned his own machine,' Fults says, 'he no longer had to rely on the schedule of the threshing rig. What if the threshers couldn't come until Tuesday and then Tuesday it started raining for a week? With his own machine, a farmer could do is own plowing, his own seeding, and his own threshing by his own schedule. It gave him real independence he hadn't had before when he had to rely on hired labor and steam engine crews.' But individual independence diminished the sense of community. 'Gone were the big threshings with thirty guys working and women and children preparing big meals,' Steinhagen notes.

Gone but not forgotten; Minnesota boasts about 50 threshing bee shows each year including those in towns as close as Albany, Atwater, Donnelly and Dalton. Steinhagen brings his steam engine to the Rose City show. 'You like to show it off, how it operates . . . how we did it before.'

The shows are put on almost exclusively by volunteers. 'They usually start with a few folks getting together and saying, 'Let's get together and thresh a little grain! It's been thirty years since anyone had threshed any grain around here!'

The shows include craft and hobby displays, animals, old cars, quilting, wool carding, good music and good food including ethnic dishes and the traditional thresher's breakfast (pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, jelly, and lots of strong coffee). They attract crowds of all ages. Rollag has the largest threshing show in the nation, attracting 70,000 visitors over four days during Labor Day weekend.

'People like watching the steam engine power a sawmill because that really makes the engine work. It huffs and puffs, whereas with threshing it just lopes along,' Steinhagen says.

'I've pitched bundles at some of these shows,' Steinhagen admits ruefully. 'It's hard work. We're there for more than just the demonstration. We actually have to get the harvesting done. I can see why threshers really got hungry. They were fed at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m. and again before they went home for the night.'

'They also got breaks,' Fults adds. 'They really needed those fifteen or thirty minutes of just sitting down to recharge.'

Steinhagen attended school in Rollag to get his hobby license, which requires twenty-five hours of verified operating time under a licensed operator. The two-day school, which takes place over Father's Day weekend, is not required but is helpful in passing the mandatory test, and features hands-on experience with fired steam engines. The school and the exam cost $50 each.

Safety is an important consideration. Steam engine tractors have to be licensed by state boiler inspectors ; their boilers are similar to the ones used to heat schools and hotels, producing between 100 and 200 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI). 'The only boilers that are exceedingly different are the ones you'd find on ships. They run 1,000 PSI. If you're in the boiler room of a ship and there's a leak, you can't see it, because 1,000 PSI steam is invisible. You hear it. To find the leak, you take a broom handle and walk around holding the handle in front of you at all times. When you come to the leak, it cuts the broom handle off. '

The horsepower (HP) rating of a steam engine is misleading. Steinhagen's 60 HP Case is rated at 20 HP on the drawbar and 60 HP on the belt. But the 20 HP drawbar will pull a six-bottom [row or furrow] plow. 'A modern tractor would have to be 90 HP to pull a six-bottom plow,' Steinhagen asserts. 'I recently saw a 25 HP Minneapolis steam engine pull a twelve-bottom plow.' But for all that power, they're not fast. They only do 2.5 miles per hour on the open highway, so Steinhagen uses a semi-truck to haul his engine to shows and parades. To keep it supplied with water, he hauls an 'ugly' 1,000-gallon water tank to the site and then hides it behind trees and runs a hose to the engine for more picturesque photo opportunities. 'The first year a buddy and I threshed together, we knew we were going to need a lot of water, so we stole a fire truck for a little while.'

Steinhagen bought his steam engine from Harvey Gloege in 1992 and jokes about one day writing an article for a steam engine magazine, 'I Bought My First Steam Engine Off a Used Car Lot.' It stood for three years on the used car lot on the hill in Glenwood. 'Harvey was old and the boys had absolutely no interest in it, they didn't even know what the heck it was, whether it was a gas tractor or a steam engine,' Steinhagen remembers. So he brought it home and started restoring it, and after a summer and a half of work, it was ready to go.

Joe Steinhagen poses with vintage set of farm equipment toys. The steam engine is followed by a water wagon and thresher. Steinhagen suspects that production of such toys ceased in the 1970s because he's seen them for sale in back issues of farm equipment magazines from the fifties, sixties and seventies, but not beyond. Each piece originally sold for about $5. Photo by Rebecca Webb.

How do you get parts to restore a steam engine nowadays? 'You make 'em,' Steinhagen admits. 'You have to know a good foundry man and a good machine shop guy.' A collection of vintage farm equipment catalogs also helps. 'There's great information in them. They tell you how the boilers are made. You have to know how they're made if you're going to fix them.'

Steinhagen also enjoys steam engine publications like Engineers and Engines and Iron Men Album. 'They were at their best in the 1960s and 1970s when the old timers were still around to tell stories from when they were used regularly. Sawmills cutting people in half, stuff like that. It happened.'

Less gruesome but more common was the danger of fire. 'The back end of the thresher threw out the straw,' Fults explains. 'It made a big pile just right for kids to play in. Or to catch fire, whenever the rig threw out some sparks. They'd hit the dry straw pile and cause a little excitement.'

To combat this and other dangers, a code was developed for the steam engine whistle. A sequence of blasts were used to communicate the following messages (Steinhagen s explanations follow in parentheses):
One Long = STEAM IS UP ('The boiler pressure is operating and it's time to get to work.')
One Long, One Short = COME TO WORK.
Two Short = BELT WILL START ('When the belt starts to turn, if anybody's got a hand in the wrong place, he could lose it.')
One Short = BELT WILL STOP ('Same thing can happen when the belt stops.')
Six Short = WATER IS LOW ('Water guy, get on the stick, we need water.'')
One Long, Five Short = FIRE ('You have to put your back end into the wind to get the proper draft into your firebox. Any sparks would start the straw pile on fire.')
Two Short, One Long, One Short = RUNAWAY TEAM
Three Short = GRAIN WAGON LATE ('They had more than one. One would be getting filled while another was hauling a load to the farm.')
One Short, One Long, Two Short = BUNDLE WAGON LATE.
One Long (held) = LUNCH ('That's the most important one.')