Loved and Fond Memories


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Bellwood, Nebraska

Over the years I have wanted to write a story and just never got to it. I am 57 years old and was too young to take part on the great steam rigs that once threshed the grain of this great land that we live in today.

Back in 1947, I bought a 50 HP Case. I met up with a lovely lady and got married in 1950. My father-in-law and his bunch had lost their thresherman. He asked if I would buy a threshing machine and thresh out their ring. I bought a 36-64 all steel Minneapolis, it had a 14 foot Garden City Feeder. I was young and eager to thresh with a steam engine, needless to say I learned a lot the first day. I was pulling a very heavy load and I was determined to make this engine pull this machine. I found out very quickly that you don't carry high water in a Case boiler. I couldn't use the injector, because every time I tried, it would pull the steam pressure down too far, and I needed all the pressure I could get. I used the gear pump and carried the water level at 3/8 to inch from the top of the glass. I had her hooked over in the corner and she was doing all she could.

My Uncle Harold Forney of Surprise, Nebraska, and 11 other farmers had bought a rig of their own, back in 1919. Uncle Harold had run this engine for 15 years. He was my idol. Their rig was a 25-75 Russell, mounted on a universal-butt strap boiler. I grew up beside this engine, rode on it and got to steer it back in 1936. They cut it up in 1940. This grand engine had worn out two Nickels and Shepard separators for them. I just couldn't see why they had to destroy such a fine engine for a few dollars. Because of this, I had a burr under my saddle for 11 years. My uncle could have bought the Russell for a few dollars, but he didn't! Both he and my dad said that back in the late thirties the ax had fallen. The steam rigs were a thing of the past, and the combines were here to stay.

Getting back to my own rig, in late July of 1951, my uncle and a friend of his had heard that I was threshing out northwest of Bellwood, Nebraska. They came down to see how we were getting along. My uncle came up to the engine, looked over at me, smiled and went back to the machine. I saw him step up on the grain wagon, run his hands through the wheat, then he disappeared. I knew where he went though. It wasn't long and I saw him reach behind the sieves, take out some chaff and blow on it. My father-in-law was the separator man, and he and my uncle stood beside the machine and visited for quite some time.

During all this time, the sun had gone under, and there was a big black bank forming in the Northwest. It was coming over fast and the wind had gone down to nothing. The smoke from the stack was going straight up. The steam gauges read 160 lbs. The bundle pitchers were getting in a hurry and had started to lap the bundles in the feeder. The old 50 was sure chewing her cud, but she took it. My uncle had come up to the engine, he stopped and looked up at the smoke box. The paint had all burnt off, both box and stack. I got down off the engine and he said to me, 'Well, kid, I checked you out and you're doing a good job, but you could sure use a bigger engine. You'll burn this little fellow up.' I said to him, 'Uncle, would you just happen to know where I could pick up a h of a good 25-75 Russell?' He said to me, 'Well, no, not now.' As he left, he said, 'You will get done before the storm hits, I'm sure!'

We did, and as I pulled the separator away from the stack, the rain hit hard; we got six inches of rain that night.

Two weeks later I went over on a Sunday afternoon, steamed up and drove the outfit home. My wife was my water boy that year. She got so she could start my F-20 with one left on the crank. As I look back over my younger years, I see it has been great! Years later, my uncle told me, 'I wish I would have bought that Russell. If I had I sure would have given it to you!' I, like many others, made many mistakes over the years.

Today, Florence and I own a 22 HP Advance Rumely, which I have owned for years. In 1984, I bought a 12-36 Russell Traction Engine, #16029, and most of all, a long a-waited 25-75 Russell, #17118. Both butt strap. The 25 at present time is being restored. I can't wait to fire her up! With this, I shall close out this part of the story.

Over the years I have gone to many threshing reunions, all over these states, and have met up with dozens of senior threshermen. Some of these great men were Art Good-ban, Ed Hubertus, Big Mac, Marcus Leonard, and a long time personal friend, Bruce McCourtney, who was a long time thresherman and house mover. I now sit at the old threshers tent in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and listen to great men tell of experience they have had back when they were young, when steam was king! I will always stand in the back row and look up to men like them.

Back in 1978, I answered an ad in the I.M.A. Magazine. I had a boiler that needed to be rebuilt. The ad read something like: Custom made parts and boilers, any size ASME. I had bought a Ford pickup, and my long time friend, Mr. Fred Dvorak and I drove down to Kansas and called on this man. The man's name was Tom Terning. Fred and I arrived on the yard and were greeted by their dog, it was not a friendly type. He would growl at you if you so much as looked at him. Very soon a lovely lady arrived at the scene and introduced herself as Mrs. Tom Terning. She told us that Tom would be along soon, and she asked if we would like a glass of ice tea. In no time at all we had our ice tea, which sure hit the spot. Later a pickup pulled in the yard and a man got out, not too tall of a man, but one with big arms and broad shoulders. This man was Tom Terning. He took us to the shop where he had a size Case 65 almost done. He asked us if we would like to see it run on air. Tom oiled up the cylinder and all moving parts, then coupled up the air hose to a valve he had on top of the steam chest. He threw the reverse lever in the corner and the little case started up. It ran wonderful!

Over the years it has become a great friendship. Tom, Lois, and Aaron Terning, to me, will always be members of our family. A few years ago, Florence and I started to attend the Terning Steam Show, held over Labor Day weekend. Today it is the best steam show out in these parts. We have met with a lot of grand people at the Valley Center Show. You know, the old steam engine has brought together thousands of wonderful people who would never have met if they themselves had no interest in shows like this. I love it! I'm proud to be a lover of the great steam engine.

A couple of years ago Tom called me and asked if I would help out on the Avery Under Mount. He said Mr. Sullivan, the operator, wanted some help. I had met Mr. 'Avery' Sullivan the year before.

The day had come and I told Mr. Sullivan that I would help him all I could. We got along fine and Tom came around and told us to put the big Avery on the plow. This was one thing that I have always wanted to do. We had the Avery steamed up and went around and oiled and greased up, it was time to go. We got over to the plow and there were men there ready to take the plow levers. I fired the big Avery, and Mr. 'Avery' ran the engine. We made two rounds and got along nicely. He said to me, 'John get over here and run the engine.' I said, 'I have never run an engine like this, you had better run it yourself. I'll fire it for you.' Mr. Sullivan said, 'No! I want you to run it, I think you'll like it.' I took the wheel with one hand, and the throttle with the other. I couldn't believe how nice this big engine handled. It steered very easily and the eight plows were nothing for it.

The next year rolled around. We loaded up my size Oil Pull, which I built up with a lot of different parts off other machinery. It is copied after the 16-30. My son, Ben, and I went back to the Valley Center Steam Show. I went back to the Big Avery and met my chief engineer, Mr. 'Avery' Sullivan. Again we plowed and put it on the fan. We tore up two belts trying to hold this big engine.

The last day of the show came around and Tom brought out a new heavy drive belt. This belt was in good shape and heavy. Mr. Sullivan and I belted up. He stepped off the deck and said to me, 'John, take it over.' I had a half glass of water and I wanted a little more. I turned on the injector, stepped off, and checked the pin oilers. I had stayed away a little too long, as I cut the injector off with an inch under the top nut. I had seen the water there before when we were on the plow. I thought of the old 50 Case back in 1951. I was sure glad this was not a Case. I threw in some coal and the steam gauge read 163 lbs. The pop valve was set for 165. Tom said to me, 'John, we are ready.' I pulled the reverse level off center and dropped it down about half way on the quadrant. I eased the throttle about halfway open. I thought I'd let the cylinders warm up a little. The double cylinder engine cut its steam wonderfully, and sounded great!

The pop valve had started to flutter very lightly. It's time to drop the hammer, I thought to myself. I let the reverse lever down in the corner and eased the throttle clear open. Note: No pull over!! The firebox was an inferno. The water was going up and down, up over the nut and back down again. This old gal was getting with the program. I just couldn't believe it. This big boiler fired so easy. By this time, the water was back down 1 inch from the top and steam gauges still climbed. I turned the injector back on and it still climbed. I had to shut the draft to keep her from popping off. This proved to me right there, who could build a boiler and who didn't!! This 73-year-old lady from Avery Company was in no way ready for the rocking chair yet. Instead she had strapped on her high heels and was doing a fast circle two step to the tune of double cylinder stack talk.

Tom Terning stepped up on the left drive wheel and said to me, 'John, listen to her talk.' Tom was so excited and proud of his big Avery, that he told his buddies close by, 'Now this is my Avery boys, eat your heart out!' Tom grabbed my water jug, stepped up on the front of his Avery and gave his Bull dog a drink of water. Before he stepped back down, he gave the dog a pat on his head and splashed some water on his forehead. The big Avery made his owner, Tom Terning, proud of it that day. Tom never really thought too much about the big engine, he told me. He said it's big and different from all his other engines, but today he wouldn't trade it for the best 110 HP Case built!

As far as myself, I can say this. I pulled it hard, and whether or not it's underrated, it's in fine shape. Its boiler is also in fine condition and has been hydroed for 300 lbs. Tom told Fay that we could carry 200 lbs., if we wanted to. The Avery 40 did carry 200 lbs. with its boiler. I know it will put out its factory HP rating. I will say this, those of you who have been there, done it all, and know all the answers, bring your Elgin watch variety, bring 'em all on, if you think you can do better try it!!

Over the 38 years I have owned 14 different engines, one rail locomotive and train, which I still own. Out of the 14 engines, I restored and rebuilt 10 of them. I paid Art Goodban, better known as A. J. Goodban Machine Shop, thousands of dollars for machine work. Most of it was spent on wolf valve motion, rebuilding eccentric hubs and straps, truing up reverse-head and linkage. This was all done on Case engines. I had two Aultman Taylors, that were the same way. Their bull gears chipped from misalignment, in other words poor construction. My old Advance Rumely Universal has done a lot of drawbar work. Its clutch pinions shows it. The bull gears are in fine shape and with wing sheet mounting, it was built right in the first place. Russell was another great engine, they were simple and made up of good material.

Bruce McCourtney, a man I have known for over 40 years, pulled his first house with a Russell, when he was 13 years old, and pulled his last one in 1952, with a 20 HP Aultman Taylor. He told me that they broke gears on Aultman Taylors, split bull pinions on Minneapolis, Port Huron and Nichols and Shepard engines. He never broke a gear on Rusell. McCourtney said, 'We used one Russell engine for 23 years, and found that it was the best engine of them all!' Also, the Russell stood up, was easy and fast steamers, took very little to keep up and used less coal and water than any of the others. The McCourtney boys moved houses for over 50 years, all over southeastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas.

Just a few lines on the Tom Terning Steam Show. Give Tom and his family a few more years and they will have the best d steam show in these parts. Tom, like me, is what I call a 'Johnnie come late,' as far as the big steam rigs were concerned. He is a great man on a steam engine. This young man has forgotten more about steam engines than a lot of old timers ever knew. He has built hundreds of Case models. They are beautiful and run the same way. He has rebuilt many of the big engines and helped a lot of his steam buddies, including me!

Years ago back in the '50s, I took in several shows year after year. At Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, I ran into a great man that started this great magazine that we have today, the IMA. That gentleman, by the name of Elmer Ritzman, said to me, 'John, you should write a story.' Well, I wrote this story on true facts that I have come upon while restoring and rebuilding traction engines over three decades, that I have owned and run. I don't pretend to know it all, I wish I did. My old Advance Rumely won't put out what it's supposed to as far as power goes, but we must all keep one thing in mind, and this is #1. We have to protect all the great people that come to our shows. I would a lot sooner run with less boiler pressure and put less stress on my nerves and know that everything has a good safety margin. Put a good hydro on your boiler. If it won't stand a good hydro test, then it shouldn't be allowed to perform in any public show. Boiler plate, stay bolt material and boiler tubes can be had. We have the best welders here in the U.S. Men like Tom Terning can weld up a boiler and when it's done, it's better and stronger than when new.

Well I have rattled on here long enough. We had said all our goodbyes to our great friends here at the Terning Steam Show for this year. My son, Ben loaded up my size Oil Pull and we started on home to Nebraska. I had forgotten my water jug on the big Avery and went back to get it. As I stepped off the deck of the big Avery, I said to myself, 'Lady, you made my day!' As far as the Avery is concerned, there isn't but a few of her kind left in the U.S. any more. To me it was a great honor to have had the chance to run this fine engine. Mr. Terning and Mr. Sullivan, two men whom I have the highest respect for, I thank you! I will say this much, when you can pull an engine with the water going over the top of the glass, and the reverse lever clear down in the corner and still gain steam pressure with a 1 inch injector on, this is one spectacular engine for a double cylinder. Maybe the boys with the Case boiler can pull it off, but I rather doubt it.

Case will always hold the honor of being the leader. I owned six different Case engines over the years and I have heard this from a lot of old timers and quote, 'Their steam dome was not high enough, their fire box was too shallow, and their engine was too big for their boilers.'

The next steam show that you go to, look over Russell and Advance Rumely boilers. Note how deep the fire boxes are. You can pull these engines hard and carry a good supply of water in your glass. If a boiler is clean, they will never pull over. There was a lot of fine engines built and built better than anything Case ever put out. Like a man from Wichita, Kansas said, 'Model T's were cheap!!'

To all the great men and women at the Valley Center Show, just to name a few of my good friends: Mahlon Giffin, Big Jim, a dedicated rail man and Charlie. Jeanie, a gal who knows the size and make of every engine on the grounds and who the operators are. Don and Margaret Blecka, Lois Terning, the only gal I have ever met, who can be two places at one time. And my lovely wife Florence, who is always by my side. Gary Base with his two beautiful restored engines: 50 HP Case and a return flue Avery. Gary and his family did a great job on these two units.

Last but not least, Joe Harper, a Russell man who likes double ported valves, long strokes and heavy flywheels. A man that wins the slow race, hands down with his beautiful Russell 25-75.

The old steam engine has brought together thousands of wonderful people

This 73-year-old lady from Avery Company was in no way ready for the rocking chair yet