My First Steam Engine


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Rt 1 Marion, Kansas 66861

This issue's front cover engine is a 20 HP return flue Avery built around 1900. Glenn Litke of Rt. 1, Marion, KS 66861 purchased the engine at Vaden Stroud's estate sale in 1987. For the full story, see page 1. And if you have an engine you'd like to see on our cover, send it to us!

The auctioneer caught my wink one more time.

'Going, going, going...Sold!' The husky voiced gentleman looked at me and I pointed to the bidding number in my shirt pocket. Standing a few feet from me was my father, Virgil Litke, who with a quizzical look asked, 'Was that your number?'

'Yep,' I said, with a nervous but proud tone of voice. 'I just bought my first steam engine.'

Most would admit that this rusty hunk of iron with four wheels didn't have much eye appeal that spring day in 1987. It was just another one of many iron horses lined up in a row awaiting the short interval of silence from the steady rhythm of the auctioneer.

This 20 HP return flue Avery, built around the turn of the century, that I could now call mine was part of a most impressive collection of the late Vaden Stroud of Hutchinson, Kansas.

Although the amplified vocalizing of a professional auctioneer amongst such a large crowd creates the atmosphere of anticipatory excitement in many, it can also be quite sobering to witness such a fine accumulation of a lifetime being dispersed throughout the country in a matter of two quick days. Perhaps this mix of emotions is to remind us that, while material things can certainly give us pleasure and add enjoyment to life, scripture teaches us that 'A man's life consis-teth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.' (Luke 12:15)

Again my father, with added excitement asked, 'You bought this, Glenn?'

'I guess so, Dad,' was the reply.

'What do you think of it?'

Before he could answer, my good friend Richard Wall, of Hillsboro, Kansas, with a bit of disbelief in his voice, asked, 'Was that your bid?'

I quickly reminded Richard that if it hadn't been for his encouragement just hours before as we together examined the restorability of this engine I would have never bought it. The friendship between Richard and me is built not only on our affinity for historical agriculture, but also that we were colleagues on the faculty at Tabor, a Christian liberal arts college in Hillsboro, he in the sciences and I in music. Richard is the owner of a 13 HP Reeves (c. 1900) that he purchased in 1969, and over the years he has done a most commendable job of restoration. Needless to say, it was most reassuring to have a close friend like him to help me learn the physics of steam power.

It was also apparent within minutes that my dad was supportive of my purchase. I never really doubted that he wouldn't be, considering that he and his family have collected this old iron for years and that our machine sheds house dozens of antique tractors. His completed restorations include a one-of-a-kind 1916 35-70 Huber, a 1919 25-50 Avery, 1914 20-35 Emerson, 1916 7-20 Big Bull, etc., etc. These are all gas (kerosene) tractors; for both my father and I, steam was something we appreciated but had never learned firsthand. Words like crown sheet, hydro test, cross-head pump or even injector were not part of my vocabulary. A new chapter of education was now being added to my background of farming and vocal/choral music teaching.

While standing and admiring the old engine, a thought came to my father that would only add to the excitement.

'This looks like the same type of engine that my grandfather purchased (used) in 1910 to custom thresh with in Osborn County, Kansas,' he remarked.

My ears gave him full attention as I recalled that this very story of my great-grandfather is recorded in the book my father authored in 1986, titled A Journey With My Grandfather, J.W. Buller. Immediately the same question popped into our minds: Could this perhaps be the very same Avery he had once owned?

Any attempt at this type of identification is seriously complicated by the fact that no serial number or date is legible on my engine, making it impossible to pinpoint the year it was built or sold. In light of this, it became apparent that the definitive answer to this mystery would never be known, but it has been of great interest to us to piece together the few fragments of oral history which give evidence that it certainly could be the same engine! Some of the arguments include: 1) Geographic location. My great-grandfather Buller from Hillsboro, Kansas purchased and then later sold his Avery return flue outfit in central Kansas. 2) Excessive wear. Even Avery advertisements recommend this engine for belt work and not heavy drawbar loads. After purchasing in 1910, Mr. Buller and company drove that outfit (including Case separator and cookshack) from Hillsboro, Kansas all the way to Osborn County, approximately 200 dusty miles!! The final drive gearing, wheels and axle showed excessive wear, and since Mr. Buller never farmed (other than threshing) with that outfit, there would be no need for such wear. 3) Broken 'wheel': The story is that late in the harvest season of his second year (the engine was shedded on location in Osborn Co. during the winter), someone had mishandled the engine, resulting in a 'broken wheel.' Mr. Buller had to shut down and send some of the crew home by train. No, my Avery bought at Mr. Stroud's sale had no broken wheel, but it did have a severely broken clutch and a blacksmith-made clutch yoke. Did the story of a broken clutch inadvertently come to be called a broken wheel? Perhaps.

You're right, I'll never be able to prove this is my great-grandfather's Avery, but until someone out there proves it isn't, you can bet I'm going to treat it as though it was.

After returning home from the sale, a phone call was made to Dave Sebits of Hesston, a licensed boiler inspector and steam collector himself. He generously offered his slick semi-trailer rig, and the following day was spent loading and hauling the Avery fifty miles home to Rt. 1, Marion.

During that summer, as time would allow, I stripped all parts including the engine, crank, wheels and axles, and then later that fall hauled the boiler forty-five miles to Valley Center, where our good friend Tom Terning's expertise would come into play. Tom and I spent my next spring break from school (March '88) getting the boiler in shape. We were both surprised and relieved to learn how positive the ultrasonic readings were on the shell, flue sheets and center fire flue, but there was still much work ahead of us. The major welding consisted of two large patches where the axle housings fastened, and also replacing the bulged out surface of the crown sheet and supporting stay bolts.

The restoration of any boiler has its tricks I'm sure, but the return flue Avery must lead the pack with its crudity and nearly impossible accessibility. There is no fire door in the front so the rolling and beading of the front flues (including welding in that new crown sheet) had to be done while laying precariously in the 19 inch center fire flue! If you're claustrophobic, forget it! I am certain there were several 'new' tools we could have patented once we were through with that job. The other major trick was replacing the two inch by six foot dry steam line, complete with elbows and water drain, inside that boiler with nothing but one hand hole at the back and a two inch pipe hole in the dome. Don't tell anyone but I do believe I saw Tom sweating a bit on that one.

Once the boiler was back in our yard and the sandblasting was completed, I found myself enrolled in the self-taught class of 'babbitting 101'. That too was quite a fun learning experience. I quickly discovered that if it didn't turn out right the first time I could at least melt it out and start all over again and again. The little experience I had had with my dad's South Bend lathe really came in handy too.

Undercoating, painting and eventual reassembly of parts was certainly adding reality to my dream of someday seeing this thing run. Cast iron specialist Jerry Abplanalp of Wichita had done an excellent job of welding that broken clutch. The newly constructed wooden bunkers and shiny steel water tank that nephews Jonathan and Jeremy Jordan, ages 8 and 7, had helped me hand rivet was looking great.

Loading the Avery at Vaden Stroud's estate sale in Hutchinson, Kansas, in May of 1987. Richard Wall is facing the engine and nephews Jonathan and Jeremy Jordan are taking it all in. My father Virgil is at the wheel.

Through correspondence, auctions and steam show attendance I was able to pull together a lot of missing pieces. Henry Martens of Fairview, Oklahoma helped me out with a couple of injectors. I traded with Al New of Pendleton, Indiana for a cross-head pump, and I purchased a fine Pickering governor at the estate sale for the late Wallace Loewen, a fellow church member of Peabody, Kansas. New grates will be made from a wood pattern provided by William Sater of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and the whistle was bought at a gun show in Wichita.

Since very little original plumbing was left on this engine, I was most grateful to Gary Base of Sedgwick, Kansas for allowing me to study and take photos of his beautifully restored 16 HP return flue Avery. The boiler sizes on the 16 and 20 HP are identical, so I was able to copy it rather closely. By the way, the meticulous restorations that Gary's family and his father, Quentin Base, accomplish certainly set the standard for excellence. Coming away from Gary's place gave me a great motivation but also the realization of what an enormous task I had undertaken.

Over the next two years, between farming, teaching and involvement with church music ministry, the pieces slowly all came together, and July 4, 1990 became the realized goal for the first firing. Dave Sebits helped out with the final hydro test and did the state certification. Several other engine buddies had come to help us celebrate, including the Richard Wall family, the Robert Unruh family, Don Blosser and Deemer Unruh. (Robert Unruh of Hillsboro, a great steam enthusiast, model builder, and dear Christian friend of our family, passed away of leukemia this past January, 1991.)

It was quite a feeling to strike that first match and begin to see the smoke curl out of the stack. The wait to build up steam seemed endless but finally the moment came. With cylinder cocks open, I slowly cracked the throttle valve. After a gentle rocking with the reverse quadrant, that seven ton hunk of iron that hadn't blown its whistle for nearly 70 years and that no doubt narrowly escaped the fate of the cutting torch during two world wars was demonstrating its new life by chugging beautifully on its own power!

What a thrill for this 37 year old to feel like a kid of seven playing with his new electric train!

Still needing its fringed wooden canopy, painted decals and pin striping, the Avery made its first show appearances at the Goessel Threshing Days August 4 and 5, 1990 and later at Teming's Steam Show in Valley Center Labor Day weekend. By February 1991 those final details were completed, and now steam engine 'No. 1' is parked in our museum representing well a vital part of historic American agriculture.

Okay, so it did take more time and money than I may have thought, but I'll still say for those of you reading this article who have never owned a steam enginefind a good auction and go ahead and wink one more time at that auctioneer. It will be the start of the best history, physics, engineering and general vo-tech class you've ever takennot to mention the many friends you'll make along the way.


I replaced the original Avery coupler with a Buller snap coupler. After his custom threshing endeavors in 1910-11, my great-grandfather Buller went into manufacturing his many inventions, one of which was the ever popular snap coupler. You traction engine owners might want to check yours. There's a fair chance it is equipped with a Buller. That slick little finger saving device was advertised in the early American Thresherman and Threshing Review magazines and marketed all over the country. I'd enjoy hearing from you if you own one.