Old Bet

A 10 HP 1897 Geiser Peerless Model Q is Back in the Fold After Decades Spent in Static Display

Geiser history

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My grandfather, Paul Burch, introduced me to steam engines as soon as I was old enough to walk. Grandfather Burch had a great love for steam, and before I was even old enough to read I was paging through his copies of Iron-Men Album and other steam magazines. Whenever I visited him in the summer, he and I'd go to the local steam shows. We always showed up early in the morning as the engineers were getting up steam, and our greeting was always the same the sweet smells of coal and wood smoke, grease, oil and steam. We had arrived in heaven.

As we walked around the shows, my grandfather would explain the individual parts of the engines to me, and we'd watch the sawmills, shingle mills, balers, separators and Baker fans for hours. They were all powered by steam engines, and for a child of 6 the spectacle was amazing. At one of those steam shows a kind engineer, Larry Schunke, agreed to give me a ride on his engine. Wow! A ride on a real steam engine.

On one of my birthdays, my grandparents gave me a Jensen model steam engine. What a beauty. To this day, it is hotly debated who got to run the engine more that day my grandfather or me. Either way, I was a proud steam engine owner, and I cleaned the engine after every use. I felt I was a member of the steam community, and I was certain that one day I would own a real steam traction engine. Experiences like those burned steam into my memory and firmly planted the steam bug in my soul.

Geiser history buff Mike Rohrer dug up this shipping receipt for Old Bet. According to the sheet, engine no. 5588 was part of shipment of engines and threshers shipped to W.R. Fagg (a Geiser branch agent) on Feb. 9, 1898. The list price was $1,290. Note that the top of the page has F.F. Landis' name on it. F.F. Landis and his brother, A.B. Landis, designed Geiser's engines, and Geiser used these sheets to determine royalties paid to Landis at the end of each year.


Grandfather Burch owned a Russell steam traction engine. He was the John Deere dealer in Hillsboro, Ohio, and he ran his Russell in local parades, using it as a rolling advertisement for his store. Concerned about the liability involved in owning and operating the Russell, he decided it was better to sell it than have a child get hurt on it. He sold it in the late 1950s, and I'm not sure if his engine ever made it to any of the steam shows. He passed away in 1992, and unfortunately he never wrote down the Russell's serial number and if he knew it he never told me. His Russell wouldn't be too hard to spot, however, as it was equipped with a Case smoke stack.

'Old Bet' as she looked when acquired by the Henry Ford Museum in the early 1920s. This picture was taken on the museum grounds, presumably after Old Bet's restoration.

My great-grandfather, George L. Burch, owned a Gaar-Scott threshing rig that he took from farm to farm in the Gambier, Ohio, area, threshing with his crew. Unfortunately, he lost his threshing rig after a few seasons because a few farmers wouldn't pay him for his work. I've been told a story about one farmer who told him he'd pay several cents less per bushel than their agreed-upon price, and it is said great-grandfather Burch responded by telling the farmer he 'could keep his 'X' cents per bushel and go straight to ...' I'm not sure what the outcome of that transaction was, but great-grandfather Burch ultimately lost his threshing rig since he couldn't make the payments.


In the summer of 2001 I was paging through the July/August 2001 issue of the Iron-Men Album when I discovered a full-page ad that read: 'For Sale by Sealed Bid. Four Steam Traction Engines From The Collections of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.' The engines included an 1883 Russell, an 1895 Harrison, an 1885 Birdsall and an 1897 Geiser. Interesting. My first thought was the engines would sell for a fortune.

Toying with the idea of bidding on one of the engines, I started doing a little research. I knew I wanted an engine, but it would have to meet certain requirements. One, it would have to be small enough to be towed by a heavy-duty pickup truck pulling a gooseneck trailer: I didn't want the hassle of an engine that would require the services of a semi-truck every time I wanted to move it. Two, it had to be a traction engine - no portables. And three, it had to be basically complete. These requirements immediately ruled out the Russell because it was a horse-steered traction engine, and I ruled out the Harrison because of its weight and size. That left the Birdsall and the Geiser, but I knew the Birdsall would bid high. That only left the Geiser.

I placed a ridiculously low bid on the Geiser, bidding well below the $15,000 to $30,000 price a traction engine like this can bring. I thought I was assured of being outbid, but I wanted to someday say to my children and their children, 'I once bid on a steam engine ...' I assured my wife that my bid was so low it would never win. Famous last words. Many things happened on that fateful day of Aug. 2, 2001. My bid won, and more importantly I'm still married. (My wife is a steam fan, too. Deep sigh of relief.)

We hired a local John Deere dealer's rollback bed and semi to transport the Geiser. We made plans to travel to Dearborn, Mich., and pick up the engine on Aug. 20, 2001. We were just about to leave when I happened to be thumbing through one of my grandfather's old issues of IMA. What I found shocked and thrilled me.


The issue I was reading was the July/August 1975 IMA, and on page 24 I noticed an article by John E. Bailey entitled, 'Memories from the Area of the Steam Engine.' The article centered on John's memories of a 10 HP Geiser Peerless his family owned and the work it did for them and their neighbors in rural Virginia. Since I was about to become the proud owner of a 10 HP Geiser Peerless, I was quite interested to read John's reflections on their family's Geiser, an engine they had named 'Old Bet.' The kicker came when John described his sadness at the sale of the Geiser to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. When the Geiser was sold, John committed the engine's number, 5588, to heart. This was the same engine I was preparing to retrieve, and suddenly it had history and a name.


Prior to bringing Old Bet home, I contacted Larry Schunke (yes, the same Larry Schunke who gave me my first ride on a steam traction engine), and he agreed to inspect the engine and help me bring her up to operating condition. I can't thank Larry enough for his time and the work he did on Old Bet. An accomplished machinist, his work is highly respected throughout the local steam community, and he is the reason this engine is in operating condition today.

On a fall weekend, Larry and I made our first inspection of Old Bet. With the crown sheet hand hole removed we could see threads on the stay bolts, and they were solid from top to bottom. A smoke box inspection revealed that the flues weren't beaded, but the firebox flue ends were beaded. The boiler and firebox were sound, and we could find no visible thinning around the hand holes. From our first inspection, we came up with the following items that needed our attention:

New 100-psi safety valve
Fusible plug(s)
Bead the front flues
Replace all hand hole gaskets
New schedule 80 pipe
New nipple, globe valve and check valve for return from crosshead pump
New drain cocks
Belting for governor
New water gauge glass
Add force-feed oiler to augment displacement oiler
Gravity drip-oiler for crosshead

That was a good start, we decided, but Larry cautioned that more items needing attention would be revealed as we worked. Winter was fast approaching, and we both felt that any heavy-duty work would have to wait until the spring or summer. In the meantime, my job was to collect as many of the items on the list as possible. I found a brass drip-oiler and purchased an old Manzel force-feed oiler. I rebuilt the force-feed oiler during the winter months and replaced the site glass on it.

Spring finally arrived, but our day jobs pulled us in the opposite direction of steam. With summer approaching, I hauled the engine over to Larry's shop so we could start working on it in earnest.

We worked on the engine when we had time I helped with the piping and small jobs, Larry worked on the big jobs. Larry spent hours inside the smoke box, grinding flues that were too long to bead and then beading all 25 flues.

Our work progressed well, and on July 8, 2002, we gave Old Bet its first hydro test. The only leaks came from a few hand valves, and after taking her up to 1-1/2 times her 120-psi rated pressure, and holding her there, we drained the boiler down to the top of the water glass and started piling in wood. As we built pressure, I oiled everything and topped off the mechanical and displacement oilers.

At about 50 psi we started experimenting. First, we opened the cylinder cocks and let them drain. Next, we opened the throttle, and with a whoosh of steam from the cylinder cocks, the engine came to life. So far, so good. We then moved the drive gear into place and took Old Bet on her first voyage in over 50 years.

Old Bet gets ready for her first run in decades. Mike Johnson looks on (left) as Paul Ward (center) and Larry Schunke tend to engineering duties.

I steered her into a field to make a loop, but as I turned to come back I ran into my first problem the metal band (or tire) around the wood form (felloes) on the right front wheel was loose. We very carefully made our way back across the field to our staging area, and then we noticed steam leaking from the pipe that extends from the injector and runs back to the boiler. The hydrostatic test failed to reveal that the new schedule 80 piping we put on had a pinhole leak.

We then tested the crosshead pump and discovered it needed new packing. Okay, no problem there, but as we where shutting the boiler valve that leads from the heater, the check valve (built into the valve) got a piece of dirt or something lodged in it. This led to steam exiting through the exhaust portion of the valve, which was pointed at the platform where I was standing at the time, and I received a good steam bath. Everyone (except me) got a good chuckle out of this, and we decided when the engine cooled down we would open up the check valve to see what was wrong.

All things being equal, my repair checklist from the first firing was not as long as it could have been. It included:

Replace piping (again) leading back to the boiler.
Replacing packing on crosshead pump.
Check for lodged dirt in the check valve for the crosshead pump.
Apply linseed oil to the front and rear wheels.
If needed, find a wheelwright to get the front wheels correctly sized.

After replacing the injector return pipe, changing the packing on the crosshead pump, removing the dirt from the crosshead check valve and soaking the front wheels in boiled linseed oil, we loaded Old Bet up and took her home for some cosmetic work.

Arriving back home with Old Bet, I started wire brushing her down, and in the process I discovered some preserved paint under the grease. I found that the boiler had been red, the frame had been gray with black pin striping, and the flywheel was Confederate gray. If those were Old Bet's actual colors, she must have been a site going down the road. (In retrospect, we now suspect these colors were the primer coat.)

Prior to bringing Old Bet home from Dearborn, I tried to research the definitive color scheme for a 10 HP 1897 Geiser Peerless Model Q, and I couldn't find a published document that would provide the definitive color scheme for my engine. I had many conversations with people who said it might have been this or that, but until I have definite proof of what color it should be, I've painted it to my tastes. I decided on a black boiler, red frame and gears, and I decided to keep the Confederate-gray flywheel. Pin striping will be gold. Ultimately, I repainted the flywheel red, as the grayish-blue flywheel just didn't look right. I did most of the painting in the evening, working on Old Bet from the end of July 2002 through early September 2002.


The linseed oil treatment did not expand the spokes and felloes enough to create a tight fit for the metal tire, which meant we would have to move to our next plan and find a wheelwright.

Fortunately, a healthy Amish community thrives here in Holmes County, Ohio, and I was able to find an Amish wheelwright in New Bedford who compressed the tires using a pre-Civil War shop tool designed just for this kind of work.

The wheel is placed onto a round 'setting' machine about 10 feet in diameter surrounded with hydraulic rams. A fitting die is then placed between the rams or presses and the wheel. A hydraulic pump is then turned on, and the rams apply pressure (he told me that each cylinder can apply 18 tons of force) in a uniform manner around the wheel, squeezing the felloes, spokes and metal tire together. The wheelwright must have been a steam man, because he only charged me $25 a wheel. When I dropped off my wheels, his shop was making large cannon wheels for the National Parks Service.

As the 2003 show season approached, the State of Ohio finalized its new requirements for historical engineers and boilers, and I prepared for Old Bet's inspection. I passed the Historical Boiler Engineers test and then took Old Bet to my friend Mark Parsisson's workshop prior to the inspection scheduled with the state inspectors.

During Old Bet's maiden run the right front 'tire' slipped on the wood wheel (just discernable, left). An Amish wheelwright repaired the wheel using a period tire setting machine.


First, the inspectors needed to know the total heating surface area of the firebox. The heating surface was documented as 96.1 square feet, so the inspector calculated the minimum capacity for my safety valve as 672.7 pounds per hour (96.1 x 7 = 672.7 lbs/hour). I had previously calculated this to verify my replacement safety valve would be sufficient. Second, they asked me about the pressure gauge and if it has been tested. I had sent mine in for calibration earlier, and I gave the inspectors a copy of the documentation. They seemed very pleased the gauge had been professionally calibrated and that I had documentation.

Third was the hydrostatic test. I want to run at 120 psi, which was the Geiser's published pressure when new. I gave a copy of the published pressure to the inspectors, and again they seemed pleased. (Side note: the more information you can give them, the happier they seem to be, and keeping inspectors happy is a good thing.) We then pumped the boiler to 150 psi (one-and-a-quarter times the operating pressure), and that's when I had a few minor problems.

The main steam valve that connects to the cast pipe on the steam dome had a small leak where the two surfaces meet. The inspectors suggested I remove the valve and reseat it to verify that it has a completely flat and snug surface. Not a huge problem, just one that needed attention.

Prior to the inspectors arrival, Mark and I conducted a hydro test and discovered a pinhole leak in one of the flues about halfway down. I had fired the engine previously with no problems, so I was a little upset because there was no time to fix the flue before the inspection. I let the inspectors know about the problem, and they verified the leak.

We then drained the boiler for the internal inspection, and they were very pleased with the condition of my boiler. Everything is very solid, and one inspector commented it was one of the best antique boilers he had ever seen, and he suggested I look into one-time use boiler chemicals to maintain the boiler.

Lastly, I was required to remove the soft plug. They looked it over carefully, noting the ASME stamp, and asked if I had a new one. They inspected that one as well, which was then installed.

Old Bet passed inspection, but it was a conditional pass. Before I can show Old Bet in public the leaking flue must be replaced and the main steam valve needs to be reseated. Old Bet's new flues have arrived, but the extra time I ordered has not, so we won't be under steam again until the 2004 show season is in full swing. Even so, the process has been wonderful, and I can't wait for the day when Old Bet makes her return debut to be seen and enjoyed by the rest of the steaming community.

I would like to give special thanks to my wife, Renee', to Larry Schunke, to the Richland County (Ohio) Steam Threshers, to Mark Parsisson and to the folks at Steam Traction.

Contact steam enthusiast Paul Ward at: 592 Fox Road, Lexington, OH 44904, or e-mail: psward@neo.rr.com