My Friend Austin Monk

The Man Behind the Famous Peerless 40-120 Z3, the Redoubtable Austin Monk

Austin Monk  and Carl Tuttle

Content Tools

It was the summer of 1954, and I had just thrown a match into the firebox of a steam traction engine for the first time. As the flames spread and the process of creating steam started, an indescribable emotion (yes, I know, men aren't supposed to have them) swelled within me, an emotion that has been with me these past 50 years. First came the smell of the smoke; smoke from a steam engine smells different than smoke from a camp or forest fire. Then came the sound of the water as it started 'cooking.' Next came the rattling of the check valves as enough steam built to start the blower. And after the engine turned over, yet another smell; steam cylinder oil mixed with smoke.

I grew up in Lewistown, Mont., in Montana's Judith Basin, where an abundance of large steam traction engines did their share of breaking sod. I was fortunate to be born into a family that had been using steam engines since 1910, and I haven't lived a day without an engine around me. Engines came and went on grandpa Yaeger's homestead, and until the fall of 1956, steam locomotives operated on the old Milwaukee Railroad line into Lewistown, making a loop and running around our farm on three sides. I grew up with steam.

ENTER AUSTIN

In 1978, a couple of visitors arrived in Lewistown, scouting out steam engines in the Judith Basin. The visitors were Jimmy Schmauch and his good friend, Austin Monk, of Kalispell, Mont. I didn't know Austin at the time, so I couldn't have imagined what meeting him would mean to me. I had little idea that in a few short years my life would take a turn that would take me away from the farm that had been in our family for over 100 years.

Three years later my family and I moved to Whitefish, Mont., in the Flathead Valley near Kalispell, where I presently live. As I prepared our move, the late Max Tyler (who worked in the Flathead Valley during the Civilian Conservation Corp days of the Great Depression) told me to be sure and look up Austin Monk when I got settled 'up there.'

Austin Monk (left) and Carl Tuttle at the 2002 Steam and Gas Pasture Party in Somerset, Va., with the 40-120 HP 1913 Geiser-Peerless Austin built from various Emerson-Brantingham parts.

Austin bought this 25 HP Russell steam engine and sawmill after high school. An overhead pipe running to the right operated a single-cylinder engine that powered a cut-off or edger saw. Note the water tank on skis just visible to the left.

In 1986 while I was back in the Judith Basin on business, Austin stopped by our home near Whitefish and asked my wife if he could look at our 15 HP Case. Sometime after I returned, I went to Jimmy Schmauch's shop in Kalispell, where I knew Austin was helping Jimmy restore a 45 HP Case Jimmy purchased from the Judith Basin. I introduced myself and prepared to leave, as they were busy and didn't seem to need an audience for their work. But once Austin knew I was a steam man and especially after he learned I had a Sharp's rifle - he dropped everything to visit.

About a year later, I ran into Jimmy and Austin at a threshing day held on a farm near the Glacier International Airport (Kalispell). Jimmy and Austin were there with Jimmy's fancy little Case and a four-bottom power lift Case plow designed for a Case gas tractor. After some threshing, Austin said to Jimmy, 'We need to hook onto the plow and see what the engine will do.' Up until that time, I had never seen a steam traction engine actually plow. Dad and his brothers had owned a big 32 HP Reeves cross-compound engine that was used only for plowing, so I was familiar with the idea. But I had never heard the fantastic exhaust sounds a steam engine makes under a plow's load, and when I did, I was hooked on yet another aspect of steam engines.

PEERLESS IN BELGRADE

Back in the mid-1960s, Austin built a 40-120 HP Emerson-Brantingham/Geiser-Peerless engine out of parts (more details on this later). The folks at the Barnes Steam and Power Show at Belgrade, Mont., knew Austin, as he had been giving them the benefit of his steam engineering experience at their annual show. They visited with Austin about hauling his huge Peerless to the show to demonstrate plowing, pulling a 20-bottom John Deere plow Austin had restored to pull with this engine. Even though the Barnes show is a six-hour trip in a pickup truck for Austin, he consented and hauled the outfit to Belgrade. And when the show was over, he hauled it back to his ranch in Pleasant Valley, about 40 miles west of Kalispell. He brought it back the next year, and it stayed there for many years.

Jimmy Schmauch was always Austin's helper with the Peerless. Sadly, Jimmy passed away from cancer not long after he and Austin plowed near Kalispell with Jimmy's Case. Sometime after Jimmy died, I ran into Austin in Kalispell and said, 'Austin, I know Jimmy Schmauch can never be replaced in your life, and please don't think I am attempting to replace him, but I know you will need help operating your Peerless at Belgrade and I would like to go with you and be the best help I can. I would grease, oil, fill the firebox and do whatever you need done with that engine. I just want to be around it and would like to operate it.' I think he knew what I was trying to say about Jimmy, and Austin, who was about 75 years old by this time (1988), allowed as how he could use some help. Austin's nephew, Doug McDougall, had been at Belgrade helping before I came along, and the three of us all Montana steam traction engine license holders made a good team in the operation of that eye-stopping outfit.

Austin and some of the engines he owned in the late 1980s. The near engine is a 22 HP Gaar-Scott double side-mounted engine and the soul survivor of that configuration. Behind the Gaar-Scott is the 75 HP Case Montana Special plow engine that was sold to Carl Mehmke. Further down is a 16 HP Aultman & Taylor.

During the years when Austin's engine and plow were at Belgrade (approximately 1985-1997), many steam and non-steam people from across America witnessed the amazing display of Austin's engine and plow, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the late Arlo Jurney pulled a 20-bottom plow with a 32 HP Reeves cross-compound steam engine at a Canadian museum near North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in the late 1950s.

After letting me help fire the Peerless that first year, Austin saw the desire in my eyes to run that engine plowing, and the last round of the show brought my turn. What a privilege it was, standing on the elevated engineer's platform steering, pulling levers and whistle chains. The sound of the exhaust of that well-timed double-simple engine is negligible to an observer on the ground, but as engineer (to quote an old engineer who had operated the engine), 'It sounds like a jet taking off at the airport.'

In the course of my maiden voyage atop the engineer's platform, an observation struck me. Below me on the fireman's platform stood Austin, a well-used black fedora on his head, the cotton gloves on his hands holding an old, rusty pair of pliers. I realized as I stood there that we were using mistaken terminology in describing what we were doing: I was not the 'engineer,' I was just the 'driver,' or to use steam-era terminology, the 'steersman.'

Austin stood on the lower 'fireman's platform' between the two water tanks, operating each of two injectors, controlling the draft door and keeping a keen eye on the fireman's steam gauge. He held that engine within 3 psi operating pressure all of the way around the field, and as we were ascending the incline near the end of the field he looked up at me with a grin on his face and said, 'I know a good engineer is not supposed to let it 'pop off,' but let's let them see that we aren't out of steam!' He merely turned the injector off, which had been running most of the round, and it popped. That day, I learned it was the fellow down below, not the guy above, who made this outfit go. In later years Austin had me firing that engine what a great feeling making it all happen.

That huge double-simple Peerless used between 300 and 400 gallons of water during a round of plowing. The firebox holds about a third of a cord of firewood, and it was about gone at the end of a round. Austin discovered that year that if the Barnes' wood crew cut lodge pole pine into logs 4 feet long it worked great. I stacked these 4-footers into the firebox against the flue sheet like cigarettes in a pack, and then filled the void in the back with short chunks of firewood.

I grew up watching my dad, learning from him everything I could about steam engines and their operation. I grew up thinking he was the most brilliant person ever to be around a steam engine, and I've often said Dad was a mechanical engineer without letters after his name. After meeting Austin, however, I realized Dad had been matched, and possibly surpassed. It is astonishing how Austin has, and Dad had, formulas and theories in their minds related to the task at hand and ready for retrieval at any moment.

My dad started operating steam engines in 1910 when he was 11 years old. Austin was born three years later, and by the time he graduated from high school the steam traction engine era, for all practical purposes, was over. Even so, Austin bought a 25 HP Russell steam engine and a sawmill, and with hired help he sawed for three years with that Russell, finally selling the engine for the same $200 he had paid for it and replacing it with a gas-powered plant.

In the years following, Austin owned several steam engines. Most of his engines were complete when he bought them, and either way they were soon restored. Two of his engines, however, were far from complete, the most notable being Austin's 1913 40-120 HP Peerless, which he bought about 1965.

Austin had heard about a 40-120 HP Geiser-Peerless being sold by Joe Battles in Pierce, Idaho, so he drove his two-ton truck to Battles' Sawmill to buy the engine. When he got there he found the asbestos-insulated boiler in a building with a leaky, wood shingle roof. Rainwater had soaked the asbestos, and the boiler barrel was so badly pitted the boiler was deemed worthless. But Austin bought the 120 brake horsepower engine (complete with mounted exhaust pipes), the water tanks, the smoke box door and frame, the front axle with wheels, and the upper cannon bearing with gearing up to the master pinion. The rear wheels were missing, sold years earlier to the county road department, who built a roller out of them by welding them together. Not surprisingly, Austin located the roller, and after examining the roller's innards through a water fill hole, he discovered the hubs and spokes had been cut out of the wheels and scrapped, dashing hopes of being able to use the original wheels. Austin hauled the parts home, wondering if he should have bought them to begin with.

Once home he contacted W. E. Dearing in British Columbia, who had a 32 HP double-simple Reeves Canadian Special boiler for sale. Austin arranged to purchase the boiler and drove his two-ton truck up to Canada, but upon arrival he found the boiler had a large plate cut out of the boiler barrel. Presumably, someone needed a dozer blade? Austin reluctantly purchased the boiler and hauled it back to his ranch. He then located a derelict 32 HP Reeves cross-compound Canadian Special boiler near Lewistown and bought the boiler for the barrel patch, as both boilers had the same diameter and thickness steel.

Austin was still lacking driver wheels and bull gearing for the Peerless, but W. E. Dearing mentioned he knew of a pair of 32 HP Reeves Canadian Special wheels with double-simple gearing (the pitch of the 32 HP Canadian Special cross-compound and double-simple gearing is different). The wheels, with gears, were buried in the banks of the Frazer River as 'dead men' for a logging cable running across the river at a sawmill in British Columbia.

With wheels located, Austin turned to finding a pair of extensions. He remembered seeing a pair of Reeves 24-inch width extension rims while on a hunting trip near Forest Grove, Mont., in 1943. He found the extension rims, which matched the Reeves built-up driver wheels he had purchased in Canada, and bought them.

PEERLESS ASSEMBLY

Finally, Austin went to work on his parts. Austin hired his boilermaker friend, the late Albert Getz, to weld the patch into the boiler barrel. They removed the flue sheets (later replacing them with flue sheets from the cross-compound boiler purchased near Lewistown) to facilitate internal welding of the large patch. Getz, suffering from cancer, had a difficult time with this job.

The driver wheels fit the axle and lower cannon bearing bolted to the boiler just fine. But since the boiler barrel radius is shorter on the Peerless boiler, the countershaft was too short when the Peerless upper cannon bearing was mounted to the Reeves boiler. And consider this problem: A Reeves drives from the left side of the boiler and the Peerless drives from the right side.

The gearing for the Peerless had a two-speed drive (depending upon which pin was placed into which pinion) from the flywheel. That makes this engine a 'road locomotive.' Austin had to get bull pinion gears manufactured so the new Peerless countershaft would mesh with Reeves bull gears. I have a copy of the calculations Austin did to determine the number of teeth needed. He debated between two different sizes, finally settling on the smaller of the two. I've often wondered if the Peerless would be able to pull the 20-bottom plow if he'd decided on the larger gear.

He also had to fabricate the king post and saddle for the Peerless front axle and wheels. The boiler has a Reeves smokestack, the steering wheel and universal joint are Peerless, while the worm steering gear assembly is Reeves. He fabricated a new smoke box door ring that included the exhaust chambers of the Peerless ring.

This 'marrying' of Emerson-Brantingham parts required ensuring that the engine's attached exhaust pipes terminated at the appropriate length at the smoke box door ring. It also meant making sure the intermediate gear correctly terminated at the differential drive gear at the rear location. The engine had to be raised an inch for the formulas Austin devised to work, so he had a 1-inch iron plate rolled to match the curvature of the wagon top of the Reeves boiler and then bolted the engine to this plate. He then placed a spelter (a zinc plate) between the plates to compensate for the bulges of the stay bolts. Considering these parts were all positioned with a crane, it's mind-boggling thinking about what he accomplished.

The timing of the piston valves on the Peerless engine is impeccable. The engine's 8-1/2-inch by 10-inch bore and stroke adds up to less displacement than a 110 HP Case, yet the Case cannot pull the 20-bottom John Deere plow. Most steam men agree; they cannot figure out where this engine gets its power it operates at 150 psi and pops off at 153 psi. I have heard this 'put together' engine called by some abusive epithets, and I have tried to understand how perhaps a touch of jealousy could enter the equation. Most steam men never adapt two brands of engines together, and Austin can be extremely proud of his accomplishments building this engine. The parts used on this Peerless are all Emerson-Brantingham except for the pinion gears, countershaft and smoke box door ring.

When running the Peerless at Belgrade, Austin's favorite pastime was letting owners of other steam engines operate, or at least steer, his Peerless on the plows, and it almost seemed like a 'conversion' for those lucky people. I remember Austin talking about a tractor pull in Kalispell he hauled the Peerless to in the mid-1970s. He and Jimmy Schmauch pulled the sled -with everything piled onto it they could find to stop the engine out of the boundary.

Austin's other amazing restoration was replacing a lap-seam boiler with a butt-strap boiler while restoring his 50 HP Case. But compared to restoring the Peerless, the Case was mostly a 'bolt on' restoration.

SELLING THE PEERLESS

On July 20, 2003, a group of us held a 90th birthday party for Austin (his birthday actually falls on July 16) at the fire hall in Marion, Mont. I think it was mainly because of his advancing age that Austin decided to sell the Peerless to his good friend Willis Abel at Finleyville, Pa., a few years back. The engine and plows now reside at the Somerset, Va., 'Cow Pasture' show grounds (perhaps better known by its official title as the Somerset Steam and Gas Pasture Party), and it's pictured on the cover, and inside, the March/April 2003 issue of Steam Traction magazine. The Peerless and plows will be the crown jewel in the Somerset show this year, and the national meeting of EDGE&TA, which will be held there, will feature the engine on their show button.

I made many friends around that Peerless at Belgrade, and I have a very special friend in Austin. 'Normal' people would have a hard time understanding those of us who are addicted to the sights, sounds, smells and operations of steam traction engines. Consequently, our steam camaraderie has become somewhat misunderstood by 'normal' people (my wife reassures me the only thing that is 'normal' is the setting on a clothes dryer). Austin's steam friends are endless, and you all know who you are.

At Austin's birthday party he told me he wants to bring two of his engines to our Northwest Antique Power Association's 10th annual show, as Carl Tuttle wants to fly out from Howell, Mich., to assist Austin with plowing, which is really the only reason Austin takes a steam engine to a show. Having my engine at our local show sort of makes me a small fish in a small fish bowl, while at any steam show Austin attends he seems to be a big fish in a big bowl. But at our local show, he is a big fish in a little bowl!

Contact steam enthusiast Gary Yaeger at: 1120 Leisha Lane, Kalispell, MT 59901, or e-mail: yaegerg@intch.com