Maynard's Last Old Steam Engine Ride

Honoring Maynard Westgaard with a final ride on a restored Case steam tractor

The late Maynard (MD) Westgaard.

The late Maynard (MD) Westgaard.

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Maynard Westgaard (MD) from Bemidji, Minn., kept his hands busy working to bring old steam engines back to life with his friends. The “engineering team” fondly referred to one another by their initials: T.E. Thorson, A.C. Mack, M.E. Thorson, M.D. Froyd, A. M. Amundson, D. D. Tryon and M.D. Westgaard. 

In 1999, the team restored a 1921 single-cylinder, 65 hp Case steam tractor the Thorson brothers inherited from their father. The old steam engine was originally purchased new in Albany, Minn., and then sold to Iten Brothers in St. Mathias, south of Brainerd, Minn. From Iten’s, it was sold to Rudy Rudbeck of Pillager, Minn. In 1968 Ernest (Ernie) Thorson purchased the Case steam tractor, but by then the serial number tag was no longer on the old steam engine.

Maynard (MD) was the plumbing expert who bent steel pipe at precise angles for the water column, ensuring the threads were safe and secure. Precision was critical. It took MD three tries to get it just right.

The steam tractor restoration was featured on an entire page in the local Sunday paper, The Pioneer, on June 24, 2001, as “Iron Horsepower” with three colorful pictures of the gleaming old steam engine and the engineering team. They were all so proud of the tractor restoration, and deservedly so.

One wintry day in December of 2010, MD’s busy hands stopped working when he died of lung complications. The funeral was a litany of words of praise about an honest, hard-working man who would do anything for anyone. It was hard to hear all the fond remembrances with all the sniffling and crying.

Maynard’s family had one last request. They wanted the Case steam tractor at his final burial service. It would be tricky business to run an old steam engine on slippery slopes in northern Minnesota, so the decision was made to take Maynard’s ashes to the cemetery the following May.

In early May, Thor Thorson spent five days getting prepared for the steam engine’s journey from his home in Bemidji to the Pinewood Dodge Cemetery. He pulled the 400 gallon water wagon out of storage and filled it with water. Next, out came his 20-foot native cedar bunkhouse on wheels, its wagon made by M.R. Mandt of Stoughton, Wis., which would serve as sleeping quarters for the four-man maintenance crew. Then, two cords of wood cut and split. He borrowed a spark arrester from his friend, Mark Knox of Fisher, Minn., in case of dry conditions. And, most importantly, Thor had the old steam engine’s official safety inspection done in March. Finally, he took the tractor out for a short run to make sure everything was operational.

On May 20, 2011, Thor and his crew traveled 12 miles on gravel roads from Thor’s home to Maynard’s deer shack, three miles east of the cemetery. Maynard’s family was at the deer camp to barbecue burgers, but a card game never materialized as stories about Maynard took precedence. It was a short evening, early to bed early to rise, as Thor and the crew needed to be up at 5:30 a.m. to start the fire in the engine, eat breakfast and prepare for the journey to the cemetery the following day.

May 21, scheduled departure was 10:00 a.m., but a minor delay was caused by a clutch adjustment that wouldn’t hold due to slipping in wet conditions. Yes, it was raining. There would be little need for the spark arrester and more need for raincoats and rubber boots.

Friends and family arrived to join Maynard on his last ride aboard the steam engine he helped to resurrect. Thor had the family steam engine road-ready along with the pull-behind 20-foot bunkhouse and water wagon. MD’s burial urn nestled atop the water tank in a steel-sided wood box. With 40 or so family and friends along for the ride, a hayrack lined with two rows of hay bales trailed directly behind MD en route to his final resting place.

Traveling at a swift 2.37 MPH, the voyage took six hours with multiple stops to add water as rain-saturated wood made it difficult to keep the steam pressure up. The crew used an injector to fill the water tank from creeks and ditches, thanks to the rain falling from the sky.

As the journey ran out of steam the 4-man maintenance crew cut down standing Jack pine to feed the steam engine near the old Fosston Trail, the main road to Bemidji in early pioneer days. After building up a good head of steam, they headed towards Pinewood ghost town. The steam engine train crossed over the Continental Divide, the watershed dividing the Mighty Mississippi River and the Red River of the North. Before reaching Pinewood Dodge Cemetery, the steam engine’s smooth tires got stuck in the slick mud. The day just wouldn’t stop crying.

The long wagon train couldn’t turn around to get to the cemetery, so Thor took a short detour west of town to make a wide turn. The rain stopped long enough for a short burial ceremony where family and friends took turns shoveling dirt, and placed Maynard’s urn in the ground by his headstone. A hymn was sung so beautifully the birds stopped to listen.

Back on the steam engine train, the entourage returned to MD’s old deer hunting shack to dry off and feed their empty stomachs. All enjoyed homemade potato salad, baked beans, brats and desserts. The cabin was buzzing with MD’s wife, children, grandchildren, six sisters and friends expressing heartfelt gratitude to the steam engine crew (Thor Thorson, Andy Mack, Jim Peternell, and Morris Nelson) for making MD’s last ride possible. Crying happy tears, they knew MD was smiling down on them.

MD hadn’t asked for this last ride, but that’s what friends do for friends. The voyage was their tribute to a man who had been an integral part of the engineering team who had brought the Thorson family steam engine back to life after sitting idle for 50 years. It will be comforting to know MD’s memory will live on each time the Case steam tractor is fired up. ST