Pioneer Power

Content Tools

2538 Reese Drive Niles, Michigan


That's the nut shell version of the inquiries made at the Fred Heide front door time after time. Drivers on the Niles-Buchanan Road just west of Niles, Michigan, are curious and delighted when they top a little highway knoll to find two brightly painted old time steam engines perched in the Heide's sweeping side yard.

'Well', Fred chuckles, 'some folks like iron deer on the lawn, and some like little colored coachmen. I like steam engines. They're old friends.'

Steam engines provided a living and a way of life for Fred Heide for many years. They saw him add a touch of good will to his business. And now they have become a part of a hobby which takes him on interesting travels and provides an absorbing, history-saving, and colorful interest through the more leisurely senior years.

Fred Heide especially enjoys working on engines of steam. He and his son, Bob, are restoring a Stanley Steamer at the latter's home. Two other Stanley Steamers are part of Fred's fleet of six pioneer automobiles which make frequent parade appearances. There is a 1910 Overland, a 1927 Willys sleeve valve, a 1929 Essex, and a 1928 Hudson. An admirer of the 'saved penny', Fred is especially proud of the Eessex, purchased for only $60. True, it needed parts and repairs, but that happens to be his and Bob's specialty. 'It wouldn't be any fun if we couldn't work on ' a little,' Fred pointed out. All one summer he drove his 'new' car to work and deemed it the smoothest, cheapest riding he could want!

It was in 1916 in Crivitz, Wisconsin, that young Fred Heide built his first flour mill. His steam powered engine not only ground the grain, but he used it, too, to pull stumps and clear fields. His expenses were next to nothing, for he used the stumps, brush and unwanted logs for fuel.

During World War I the Heide's moved to Brockway, Montana, and again built a flour mill and use a Case steam engine to power the grinding operation. Almost every farmer in that area had his own little coal mine, for along the ridges and river banks veins of lignite a compact, carbonized vegetable fuel were exposed.

'I'll grind a hundred lbs. of flour for a load of coal,' he promised the farmers, and business boomed until a competitor in a nearby town bought a gas engine.

Those early gas engines balked at the cold, cold Montana winters which plagued ten of the calendar months. Farmers soon tired of waiting several hours, sometimes even overnight, in 20 degree below zero weather for the 'new fangled' thing to thaw out. So Fred's steam engine slump was short lived.

'Snow!' exclaimed Fred, admitting that the drifts in his long, climbing driveway had been a little cumbersome this winter. 'I remember shoveling steps up from our Montana front door to the hard crust that was higher than the house!'

'And then when the Chinook warm coast wind swept along we would wade in floods of ice water,' Mrs. Heide added.

In 1928 the Heide's returned to the mid-west and bought 100 acres of farmland on the Niles-Buchanan Road. The depression years were drastic for the Heide's and their new flour mill, as they were for almost everyone and every business, but again the steam engine provided some of the daily necessities. Once Fred received $250 for removing an overgrown, thorny hedge fence from the driveway of a lovely estate. The hedge gave him free fuel, and the clear profit was a fortune in return for a few hours work.

When the chain stores undersold his flour, feed, and cereals, Fred began to think about selling a commodity that would be needed by everyone and would not be marketed in chain stores. He decided to sell coal.

During the summer business was slow, so when the man whom he had hired to tear down his mill asked if he could dump junk-lumber in the empty coal yard, Fred agreed.

The following winter he used the steam engine to cut the mounds of old lumber into bundles of kindling, which he used as gifts on each load of delivered coal.

Another 'accident' helped Fred build up the new business. A fine musician himself Fred plays an accordion and has taught and encouraged his three sons and daughter to develop their individual musical ability she discovered during the bleak early thirties that many of his customers envied him his ability to train his children musically. 'I'll teach them for you,' he offered. And once again delighted customers found that they were getting more than they paid for.

One son, Vic Heide, developed his talents into a profession. He plays anything and everything, notably four trumpets simultaneously. At present he is on a tour in Australia, making radio, television, and personal appearances.

The Niles flour mill was torn down, but the Heide's used it in building their present home just outside the city. The white uprights that maintain the bookshelves on either side the fireplace were once supports for the grain elevators. The doors, window casing, doors, joists, are all redeemed from the mill.

'I would have liked a larger living room,' Mrs. Heide remarked, in fancy moving back her 'art wall' a couple of feet with a deft wave of her hand. 'But I guess Fred didn't think of that when he built the mill.' On the art wall are hung many of Mrs. Heide's own paintings, some of which have been prize winners.

The Heide's have won prizes, too, for the most appropriate costumes worn to Pioneer Auto Club conventions. Club head quarters are in South Bend, but the September meetings have been held at the Heide's. Last year Mrs. Heide counted her homemade cookies by the bushel instead of the dozen, for she served them to about 400 guests. Visiting children were delighted when Fred gave them exciting rides on the polished steam engines.

Fred belongs, too, to the Steam . Club of the Kalamazoo area and attends steam rodeos and reunions throughout the mid-west. He finds it exciting to be one of the scores of watchers or participators in events such as climbing up and backing down steep hills, or running one's engine into a giant teeter totter until it achieves a perfect balance.

Fred has bought and sold many engines. The two he has now are a 1910 Russell with 13 drawbar horsepower, 40 on a belt; and a 1915 Port Huron with 19-65 horsepower. After a trip to Flint he confessed to his wife that he had bought 'just one more for next-to-nothing honest!' She was dismayed when not one, but two dirt crusted iron heaps were unloaded. But Fred and son Bob chiseled off the dirt, rebuilt axles and fireboxes, painted, and finally operated the two antiques.

Now Mrs. Heide admits that they certainly have a colorful, unusual, and noticeable yard decoration, and this brings the fun of meeting curious passers-by and getting to know a host of them who would otherwise never give the next white house on its gentle, graceful slope a second glance.