Letter to a Steam Buff

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712 Chaps Road, Rio Rancho, NM 87124

This is a letter which Mr. Kestler wrote to a young steam friend, David Bennett of Prague, Oklahoma, which pertains to steam engines, some early engine shows and to some of the unusual individuals who pioneered this hobby. Mr. Kestler agreed to share this letter with our readers, as it might be of interest to all. Editor

Dear David,
Thanks for your letter of February 9th and the pictures of Kenneth Kelly's 1911 Case 75 and 8 bottom plow. The 75 looks like it has been nicely restored. Kelly's engine has 36' drivers like the Case 25 my father broke sod with at Haxtun, Colorado starting in 1914. I saw another Case 75 with 36' drivers at one of the Saskatoon shows. I am sending you a picture of Dad's engine pulling an 8 bottom sod breaker plow and disc. This was originally a post card picture mailed to my uncle on 6-29-15. He wrote on the card he 'had a little bad luck the other day and got my face scalded pretty bad'. He also wrote 'Here is a picture of the rig. Have plowed 1,000 acres. Have 1,500 to plow yet at $3.50 per acre'.

Even though side mounted engines were used for plowing, the rear mounted type was better built for such heavy draw bar work. The stub axles of the side mounted engines put more strain on the boiler. A few years later Dad replaced the Case with a 25-85 Nichols & Shepard rear mounted double cylinder engine which had heavier gears and draw bar. It was a better plow engine. The last Case 25 was made in 1909. Case made the 75 from 1910 through 1922. The Case 60 and 75 were lighter constructed engines made primarily to meet competition prices and for belt work. The rest of the Case engines had heavier gears, draw bars, etc. Dad's Case 25 draw bar was of light construction and extended at the top of the water tender above the rear step. It is noted that the draw bar on Kelley's Case 75 extends below the water tanks and appears to be much stronger. The Case 25 and 75 were originally rated for 8 plows. Caution should be used in pulling 8 plows with such 75 year old lap seam boilers. It is dangerous to expect the old lap seam and butt strap boilers to carry the same steam pressure and handle the same loads as when new. In this connection, reference is made to the article 'The Good Old Days' on page 10 of the March-April 1986 issue of the Iron-Men Album re: handling and taking care of engine boilers.

You and Dale Wolff as young men are lucky to have such a caring and good teacher conducting your steam school classes as Chady Atteberry. Chady is a real knowledgable steam man. Chady & Lyman Knapp should be able to tell interesting stories about the late E. C. McMillan 'Big Mac' of Hoisington, Kansas and the late Roy Kite of Bird City, Kansas since they knew them real well.

Without a doubt, I think most old timers will agree that Big Mac could handle a steam engine better than anyone. He knew everything in minute detail about a Case engine. To handle an engine on the steep Case incline like he did was an art. Big Mac spent his working years as an engineer on the Missouri Pacific RR. He and I carried on a running correspondence for 15 years before his death. He used to sign some of his letters 'McCase'. It's still a pleasure to go back and read some of his technical advice letters which I needed in rebuilding my engine. In 1953 when I was lucky enough to find a complete set of new gears for my Case 65, Big Mac bought my old bull gears for his engine. He was one of the first instigators in the revival of the steam traction engines. He was always one of the main attractions at any engine show he attended.

Roy Kite was a successful Case dealer and wheat farmer. Starting in the late 40's, he was one of the first to put on an engine show which he did for several years before it became the Antique Engine and Thresher Association at Bird City, Kansas. He was responsible for getting many of us interested in owning steam engines. His farm was steam engine headquarters and many engines started from there. The engine shows held on his farm for many years were hard to beat in a natural farm setting. When Saskatoon, Canada and Mt. Pleasant, Iowa were starting their engine shows they asked Roy to help them get started. I kept my Case 65, 40' separator and water tank at Roy's farm for 16 years before shipping the outfit to Twin Falls, Idaho in 1969. It sure was an ideal place to restore my equipment with all the large machinery and expert help available. One year I visited Roy during wheat harvest. He had 8 combines going. He had a regular modern restaurant in the middle of a hot wheat field stubble. He gutted a large travel trailer, installed a counter with stools, electric lights and fans, refrigerator, gas range, running water, two cooks, etc. A gas engine light plant, water tank with pump and propane gas bottles were installed on a flat bed truck to make it all possible.

I purchased my engine from the late Al Deerk who used to have a 2,200 acre wheat farm at Chappell, Nebraska. Al used the engine for custom threshing, plowing and road grading. One fall when his tractor broke down, Al drilled wheat with the Case 65. He was an expert engineman. After his farm sale, Al worked for Roy Kite for several years. He taught me how to run and take care of the engine as well as restore it. Al advised in draining a boiler to dry it out so the insides would not rust. This could be done by removing all of the hand hole plates and covering them with screen wire to keep out mice. Some fellows just open the drain valve and the boiler will bleed afterwards for a month. One fall I filled my boiler to the top and heated the water until it was hot. Then I poured in 5 gallons of steam cylinder oil thinking it would coat the boiler insides as it drained. Most of the oil settled in the bottom of the boiler barrel. Before approving my boiler for the next engine show, Claude Shriver, Kansas Boiler Inspector, had me clean the boiler out with sal soda several times and scrape the barrel bottom through the lower front hand hole. I thought I never would get the oil out. On the other hand, the second owner of my uncle's 25-85 Nichols and Shepard, Andy Hazen, stored the engine for 15 years with the boiler filled with used motor oil which later caused no problems.

After one of Kite's shows, shortly after I bought the engine, there were enough wheat bundles left over for a one-half day's threshing. Roy and Al thought that would be good experience for me to belt the Case 65 to the 36' separator and finish the threshing. I did not have much of a fire when we started. The pitchers really slugged the feeder with bundles. The first thing I knew I was almost out of steam. I shoveled coal into the firebox like mad. It seemed like it took all afternoon to get the steam pressure up to where it belonged. The rig was returned to Roy's farm yard after we finished and I went home. Al had to get up several times during the night and add water to the popping-off boiler. Al reprimanded me for creating such a bed of coals. Through the years Al and I became great friends spent many happy days together. He was a regular visitor to our home.

Roy Kite was fortunate in having the nucleus in the area of many old time threshermen to help start the engine shows; Fred and Seward Brubaker, Ed Nelson, Jerry Horneck, Chet Sawyer, Christy, Sam and John Gauger all of whom have left this world except Christy. The mechanical knowledge of these men was extra ordinary. John Gauger spent many a day helping re-build my engine.

Harold Ottaway of Wichita, Kansas is another steam engine show pioneer. He started putting on shows in the very early 50's at his big amusement park in Wichita. From the very beginning Harold has had a large collection of steam engines and gas tractors some of which were processed through Kite's farm. Harold has spent a lot of time during the last 35 years as an antique engine hobbiest during which he has helped many of us find needed parts for our engines. His has been an ideal life style if you could only afford it.

Another pioneer engineman that's generous with his steam engines is Joe Richardson of Orofino, Idaho. Joe owned and operated a large lumber mill in Orofino for many years. For pictures and a story about his perfectly restored late Case engines see page 17 of the July/August 1972 Iron-Men Album 'Weekend With 110 Case'. Since the 1972 article, Joe has added other things to his collection including two beautiful restored Case automobiles. One is a 1914 right hand drive 5 passenger touring and the other is a 1916 left hand drive 7 passenger. Joe puts on his more or less private engine shows. My wife and I sure enjoyed his threshing bee we attended. It was the local high light social event of the year. The Richard sons hosted a lovely social steak dinner dance party. Twenty-one musicians provided the music. Joe paid the entire bill for his 172 Saturday evening guests. He also hosted another dinner at his expense Sunday evening.

You asked for information about my father's 25-85 rear mounted double cylinder Nichols & Shepard engine. Enclosed is a picture of his new N&S Red River Special rig threshing wheat near Haxtun Colorado in 1919. For a story about his N&S outfit, refer to page 5 of the July/August 1972 issue of the Iron-Men Album 'Threshing Wheat 50 Years Ago.' He did custom threshing from 1914 to 1930 when the combines took over. Prior to that he was an engineer on the Burlington RR. It is interesting to note that you worked on a custom combine crew in the Haxtun area. Dad was not around to share my steam engine activities as he died in 1941.

Enclosed is a picture of my uncle's 25-85 Nichols & Shepard single cylinder side mounted engine with my father as engineer. See page 3 of the Iron-Men Album, November/December 1976 issue, for a story and pictures of uncle's outfit. The engine is now owned by N.B. Martinson. He keeps it at the Dalton, Minnesota show along with his 32 Reeves, 36 rear mounted Rumely and 35-120 double cylinder side mounted Nichols & Shepard.

A story 'Shipping A Case or A Case of Shipping?' with pictures of my Case rig was published in the May/June 1971 issue of the Iron-Men Album. I sold my outfit to Clarence Young of Great Falls, Montana in 1974. Clarence is a large wheat farmer. He has about a dozen other steam engines including a Case 80 and 110. He has many other collectibles stored in two large steel buildings along with an excellent machine shop.

I have never been associated in anything where I have met so many nice sincere friendly individuals as in this steam engine hobby business. The social life in connection with it is wonderful.