LETTING OFF STEAM

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How many people know that America's first road race was a contest between two steam tractions engines? Before steam and tractor historian Jack Alexander alerted me to the fact, I certainly didn't. In the course of researching his recently released book, The First American Farm Tractors, Developments to 1917, Jack stumbled upon mention of the race and passed what he had found along to me.

A contest of mechanical will between two steam traction engines and their designers (each hoping to nab a $10,000 bounty offered by the state of Wisconsin for the first 'practical' self-propelled vehicle), this historic and seemingly unknown event occurred in 1878. Some corners of the automobile culture tout the event as the first automobile race, but the contest was clearly between machines with agricultural intent. Importantly, J.I. Case may have had a hand in the race's inspiration.

And while we're asking questions, how many people knew Case experimented with a 120 HP engine? Thanks to reader John Davidson, we now have documents showing a 120 HP engine was contemplated by Case. Whether any were built for commercial purposes seems doubtful, but the possibility is certainly intriguing.

On the subject of Case, the J.I. Case Collectors' Association is in the process of securing a rare straw-burning 12 HP return-flue Case, set to go on permanent display at the new Racine Heritage Museum currently under construction in Racine, Wis., Case's hometown.

Finally, the collection of the legendary 'Steam Engine Joe' Rynda, friend and confidant of men such as Leroy Blaker, Frank Stebritz, F.J. Wood, T.H. Smith and Iron-Men Album founder Elmer Ritzman, is to be auctioned in May. Rynda's unrivaled passion for steam drove him as he amassed a collection that, at its height, likely included more than 50 engines.

Pondering the fate of Rynda's collection, steam historian and author Robert T. Rhode documented Rynda's presence in print. Scouring through the pages of the Iron-Men Album (and IMA's predecessor, the Farm Album) for articles about Rynda and his engines, Rhode found dozens of references for 'Steam Engine Joe.'

The result is a unique biography of Rynda, a snapshot of the man and his passion for steam, and a look back at the early days of the hobby that I'm sure readers will enjoy.