My Experiences with Steam and Machinery

Gerald Lee

Gerald Lee at home in his shop.

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5210 Springton Lane Spring, Texas 77379

As long as I can remember, I have had an above average interest in steam engines and antique machinery. This interest began by watching locomotives and farm machinery operate when I was growing up on my parents' farm in northwestern Ohio. The interest later grew into an active hobby and has evolved into constructing model steam engines in my shop.

Along with my hobby, I took time along the way to graduate with a masters degree in geology from Miami University (Ohio), meet and marry my wife Vicki, and raise two children. Jeff (18) and Kate (14). Now I find myself at age 42 with the challenge of sharing my time between family, my career as a petro physicist for a major energy corporation, and my HOBBY. With all these demands, I force a few hours each week to devote to my steam and antique machinery hobbies.

I would like to take this opportunity to share my experiences with steam and machinery. Ironically, my first experience with steam was one that I did not enjoy, or so I am told. At age three or four (1953 or 1954), my father, noticing that diesel would soon replace steam on the railroads, took me to the C & O rail yards in Fostoria, Ohio, to show me a steam locomotive. Well, these were no small locomotives, but were the articulated four-cylinder 'Big Boy' types pulling mile long coal trains from West Virginia to Detroit. Well, as my father tells the story, the train was stopped. Taking this opportunity, he carried me right up to the locomotive to give me a good look. Just about then the signal changed to green, and the engineer let out with two long, one short, and two long blasts on the whistle and started to move, releasing condensation from the cylinders. My father tells me that I couldn't get close enough to him and that I cried almost as loud as the whistle.

My next experience, which I do remember very well, was when I was around the age of five. This occurred on my parents' farm where I spent the first 18 years of my life. My parents purchased the farm in 1948 but they did not work the land. My father instead worked for more than 30 years as a postal clerk and retired in 1980. Since my father did not work the farm directly, we always had a neighbor doing the farming. I would sit in the front yard and watch the tractors work in the fields, wishing that I could ride on one just once. Well, one day the neighbor came to the farm to help my dad in the barn. Instead of taking the truck or the car, he drove his tractor down and parked it in front of the barn. While my father and the neighbor were out of sight in the barn, I took the opportunity to climb up on the tractor, which had been shut off. I was having a good time playing with the steering wheel and anything else that I could reach. Well, I found the starter lever! As my father tells it, they were in the barn when they heard the tractor start. They knew that I was the only one out in front of the barn. They must have set the world's 100 yard dash record coming out of that barn to shut off the tractor. They 'helped' me off the seat very quickly! It was a good thing that the neighbor had left the tractor in neutral when he shut it off or I may not have survived to tell this story today. It was about three years until I got close to an unattended tractor again. Not all children of this period were as lucky with farm machinery as I was. About a year later a neighbor boy about my age was killed when he got caught up in an exposed power take-off shaft.

My next unique experience with machinery was in 1957 when I was seven years old. It was not related to steam or the farm but was exciting to me. My parents thought my younger brother John and I should have our first airplane ride. We went for a day trip from Port Clinton, Ohio, to Put-In-Bay, an island located in Lake Erie. We flew on Island Airlines (the world's shortest airline). At that time this line was using two vintage Ford tri-motor airplanes. So you could say that my first airplane trip was in a 'Ford'! Not many around today can say that. My second plane ride was even better. On the return from the island, all the seats were taken except for the co-pilot's seat. Well, I got to ride up front with the pilot in a Ford tri-motor approximately 500 feet up at 80 MPH, a trip which I still remember in great detail today.

My first enjoyable close-up experience with steam was in 1963 when my parents took me to the National Thresher's Association show in Wauseon, Ohio. That trip was to set the direction of my steam hobby to the present. For the first time, I saw traction engines working up close sawing wood, making shingles, and operating in a parade. The smell of coal and wood smoke and the feel of condensed steam in the air were sensations that would never leave me. I remember that they auctioned off a return-flue Kitten engine at the show. At that point I realized that a person could actually own his own traction engine. About the next Christmas, my parents must have sensed my interest in steam because they gave me a little stationary steam engine. I still have that engine in my collection today.

My next experience with steam was of a historical nature. It was about 1965 and the nation was remembering the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The railroads sponsored a trip of the Civil War era engine, the General. The engine operated under its own power around the country. Well, it came to my hometown. My Uncle Gordon Barr's farm backed up to the Nickel Plate Railroad on which the General was to pass. My father had a friend in the Fostoria yard tower who told him when the engine was due to pass. My mother took us to the tracks along my uncle's farm and we waited. Well, in the distance I could see a line of smoke and it kept getting closer. As the engine passed, the engineer gave us a couple of blasts on the whistle. The engine spent several days in town and I had a chance to inspect it close up.

Several years passed, and then another opportunity to go to the National Threshers show came. At this point, I would like to introduce my Uncle Ralph Lee to you. My uncle spent his early working days in the B & O shops at Bellevue, Ohio. Later he retired after many years as the master mechanic at Basic Incorporated in Bettsville, Ohio. My uncle would take me to the NTA shows for the next several years until I went off to college. I really enjoyed these trips to the show with him. He taught me the basics of steam, what happens when the water gets too low, how an injector works, and much more. He can look at a piece of metal and tell you how much it weighs, and other good things like how many drops of oil there are in a quart. Several times during the course of going to these shows I was able to toss bundles into the separator!

In 1964, at the age of 14, I was old enough to work on my Uncle Ted Schetter's farm during the summers. This work consisted of baling hay, cultivating beans and corn, and helping to show his cattle at the Wood County Fair. I remember one time when a neighbor boy of my uncle's, about my age, had a contest on how high we could load hay bales on the wagon. As I can remember, we got as high as 14 high. However, we had to take a few rows off when we could not get under a phone line hanging across the road. Those were fun times! My uncle had three tractors on his farm: a 1946 IHC model M, a later model IHC model MTA. and a 1937 Farmall F-20. The F-20 was bought by my uncle's father, Ed Schetter, who got it new in March of 1937. The F-20 started with a crank and had power cultivators, which ran off the power take-off. The F-20 had a road gear which was installed after the tractor had been put on rubber. It can reach speeds of up to ten MPH on the road. In all the years of going to the steam shows, I have never seen an F-20 with these features on it. For the next three summers, I spent most of my time running the F-20. I had so much fun that I would have paid my uncle for the privilege to operate it. In 1967 my uncle had to upgrade his tractors and purchased a Case. His problem was what to do with the F-20. My uncle is not one to let equipment set out in the weather. He needed the room for the new Case. It so happens that it was Christmas time, and after a talk with my father, my uncle gave the F-20 to me for Christmas! That was one of the best presents that I ever got for Christmas. The problem was how to get it home to my parent's farm 10 miles away. Well, on New Year's Eve day of 1967, I put on three coats and two pairs of gloves and drove the F-20 the 10 miles home. It was sub-freezing, but I never felt the cold. She made the 10 miles without a miss.

The following summer, I spent all my free time cleaning 30 years of grease off of her and painting her. Also during the next summer, I found a 1920s vintage two roll corn shedder in a neighbor's shed. I purchased it for ten dollars and cranked up the F-20 to go get it. When I got to the shed, the steel wheels of the shedder had sunk into the dirt floor to the axles. After I dug it out, I tried to pull her out with my tractor but it wouldn't fit through the door. As it turned out, the foundation of the shed had settled since the shedder was put in there. I had to jack up the building before I could retrieve my new 'toy.' It still had all its belts and after I fixed and painted it up I ran it with the belt pulley on my F-20. For the next several summers, I pulled the shedder with the F-20 in the Arcadia Homecoming Parade.

During the summer of 1970, my uncle Ted arranged for the Bloom-dale, Ohio, Grain Elevator to sponsor my tractor and shedder at the Wood County Fair in northwestern Ohio. The elevator people came to the farm with a tilting flat trailer and a grain truck to take my outfit to the fair. We put the shedder on the grain truck and then I proceeded to drive the tractor up the tilted trailer. Not a bad idea, except that with the extra weight of the power cultivator equipment on the back end of the F-20 it made the back end heavier than the front end. Well, the farther I drove the tractor up the trailer's incline the closer I got to the front edge, which was about eight feet off the ground. I yelled that the trailer was not going to tilt over and I pushed in on the clutch. Well, she started to roll back down the trailer and every time I pulled the brake lever, which only controlled one of the brakes, the tractor would slip towards the side edge of the trailer. I just made it down the back of the trailer when the left rear wheel went off the trailer. That was a close one! We finally got the tractor on by moving the trailer to the incline of the main barn entrance. That was enough of an advantage for the trailer to tilt over just fine. We got to the fair and I drove my tractor in the parade and exhibited it for the day. A good time was had by all, except by my mother who was watching the loading process and was not happy at all!!

For the next eleven years, college, meeting and marrying my wife Vicki, getting BS and MS degrees in geology, and starting my career and family took most of my energy. However, the thoughts of my steam and machinery hobby still had its place in my heart. Even during this period, I was able to add to my collection of machinery. My wife, then fiancee, worked as a registered nurse at the Fostoria City Hospital. One of the older nurses working with her owned a 1954 Packard Clipper. My wife told steam show. My son and I had a good time, and he enjoyed watching the engines at work as much as I did.

About this time (1982), I was able to begin tooling up my shop with machine tools to build my own engines. I purchased a 6' Atlas thread cutting lathe and a drill press. I was ready to go! From plans published in Live Steam, I built my first engine. It was a small oscillating engine which I ran on compressed air. What a feeling, watching my engine run for the first time! Over the next several years, three more engines rolled out of my shop, each one bigger than the one before.

Trips to the NTA show continued. In 1983, my son and I started to bring our engines up from Texas each year to run and display in the model building. Two people who were most helpful and encouraged us with our model building were Paul Jacobs and Clarence Meyers, who ran the model display building at the NTA.

The National Threshers Show was a very important focal point in my steam and machinery hobby. It allowed my son and I the opportunity to show our engines, and the flea market became a source for old tools and engines. Over the years I have acquired a Maytag and a 2 HP Stover hit and miss engine. Then in 1989, as my son and I were walking in the infield at the NTA show watching the engines work, a Port Huron steam engine passed us. I yelled up at the owner, Dean Frye Sr. (Hartford, Michigan), that my son and I had come all the way from Texas to ride on a steam engine and could we have a ride? Well that was the beginning of a friendship which has lasted to today. He let us ride on the back, and later both my son and I steered it around the grounds. He really made our day when he asked if we would want to ride in the parade. Well, we did and got to blow the whistle too! Since then, every year he has asked us to ride on his engine; his father, who owns a Baker, is equally as generous. It is people like these who will keep the steam engine hobby alive. Their willingness to share their engines should be emulated and applauded. I also got to pull the Joy Wagon thanks to the generosity of Paul Ford, who let me use his tractor.

Well, it's now 1988 and time to build another steam engine. I had just added a 17' lathe to my shop, along with a vertical milling machine, and I was ready. At the NTA Show I saw a 5 HP vertical engine that Clarence Meyers was selling the castings for. After many delays and four years later, the engine rolled out of my shop. Too heavy to take to the show, it sits on a stand in my study in Texas. Wife loves it there!!

One never knows what the future will bring. I hope someday to own a scale 65 HP Case engine. That will most likely have to wait until the children are out of college. One does have to keep the priorities straight. I plan to start another steam engine or maybe even a gas engine sometime in 1993.

The last addition to my collection was my uncle's 1946 IHC model M tractor. This time my son and I drove it home the ten miles from his farm over the same route I took in 1967 with the F-20. My son and I plan to paint it next year while in Ohio on vacation.

The hobby has been a nice father and son event over the years. We have enjoyed displaying the models and riding on the steam engines. Now that he is 18 and going off to college we may not have that opportunity for awhile. Maybe I can get my 14 year old daughter, Kate, to join me at the show in the future? The hobby has provided me with many hours of entertainment and a means to relieve stress built up at work. I can really lose myself while working in the shop feels good!

I hope that you enjoyed reading about my 42 years experience with steam and machinery. I feel fortunate that I have had this opportunity and will be able to leave a part of me behind with the engines that I have built. Also, my family and friends who support and tolerate my hobby are greatly appreciated. I hope in another 42 years to report my new experiences.