Port Huron's Road Trip Odyssey

Buying the 1915 Port Huron engine was easy – getting it home was another story.

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Right: Part of an advertisement for Port Huron machinery advertised in Power Farming magazine, 1917.

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This 1915 Port Huron 24-75 HP Woolf tandem-compound steam traction engine was added to the collection of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR) in 1976. Perhaps the first Port Huron traction engine west of the Mississippi, the story of how the 20,700-pound Port Huron came to Rollag, Minn., is as interesting as the machine itself.

Bob Brekken, longtime editor of WMSTR's official handbook, Memories of Bygone Years, says he had wanted a steam engine ever since he rode on his grandfather's Reeves steam traction engine many years ago at Watertown, S.D. "I carried the incurable steam engine disease in my bloodstream," he says.

Bob's disease was aided and abetted by his good friend Norman Nelson, who suggested Bob buy a Port Huron not only because it was a good brand of machinery, but also because he doubted any steam show west of the Mississippi had one. "When the time arrived that I had enough funds to get into the steam engine business," Bob says, "Norman brought out several recent issues of steam magazines and we examined the classified sections."

They found Port Hurons for sale in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, called for details, and after a while decided on the 24-75 HP owned by Stanley Forwood of White Cloud, Mich. After coming to an agreement, in October 1976 they organized the trip to pick up the engine.

BACKGROUND

Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. began with the manufacture of threshers starting in 1851. It was the first thresher shop in the state, under the tutelage of William Brown, at Battle Creek, Mich. Eight years later, the company merged with a concern run by James Upton and became known as Upton, Brown & Co., and then in 1874 became Upton Mfg. Co.

As with many companies of the time, it was a family affair: Upton's brother Parley was a partner, as was Upton's son-in-law, Henry M. Strong. Seventy-five people worked in the plant making the company's Michigan Sweepstakes Threshing Machine, which was sold throughout the wheat-producing states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri.

In 1877 James Upton patented a combination thresher, the "forerunner of the present combine," writes Jack Norbeck in Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines.

The company's first foray in the steam traction engine business came in 1882 with the Upton-Port Huron traction engine, a machine that Norbeck says, "was original in several important respects, and it earned a high reputation." Unfortunately, Norbeck doesn't detail just what those important respects were. Two years later the company moved some 140 miles across the state to Port Huron, presumably for the benefit of Port Huron's proximity to Lake Huron through the Clair River.

The Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. moniker, by which the company became best known, was adopted by amending the company's bylaws in 1890. A year later, Port Huron Rusher threshers and Port Huron steam traction engines were part of the company's catalog.

In 1896, the company "developed the cylinders which proved to be the best of all engine cylinders in the history of the thresher trade - the Port Huron-Woolf compound," Norbeck says. In 1907, Port Huron experimented with 9-foot-long boiler tubes in double- and single-compound traction engines, dubbed "Longfellows." "At the end of the threshing season of 1908," Norbeck says, "Port Huron received scores of reports from users and experts to the effect that Longfellow Port Huron engines had proved to be the most economical and the most satisfactory traction engine in the history of the thresher trade; that they required much less fuel and water than did any other make." The difference came from the use of the Grime-Woolf-Port Huron valve gear (developed in 1891 and upgraded in 1893), which gave Port Huron compound engines practically a square cut-off, and which along with the Longfellows resulted in a 3-4 percent savings in fuel.

With an eye toward increasing its fortunes, Port Huron in 1901 turned to manufacturing gas engines, introducing a line of engines ranging from 2-1/2 to 50 HP. Three years later, however, the company dropped the line, refocusing instead on other farm products. In 1918 the company introduced the gas-powered 12-25 Farm Tractor, which was only built for four years until 1922, about the time the company shut down.

During Port Huron's years in business, the company's mainstay product was their variety of Port Huron steam traction engines, of which they built 6,030, including the 1915 Port Huron 24-75 HP steam traction engine featured, which had one of the last lap seam boilers built by Port Huron. It was purchased new by a Detroit, Mich., man for threshing and sawing.

After three more owners, Merle Newkirk of Midland, Mich., bought it, and in 1967 sold it as part of his collection of 28 steam traction engines. It was bought by Glendon H. Flory of Milliken, Mich., who subsequently sold it to Stanley Forwood. Bob Brekken and Malcolm Frisk of WMSTR, Rollag, Minn., were aiming for Forwood's place when they set off on what they'd planned as a three-day trip to retrieve the 24-75; one day from Minnesota to Michigan, one day loading and one day back. It didn't quite work out that way.

A LONG TRIP: OIL IS NOT WELL

To help with the project, Ulven Gravel Co. of Hawley, Minn., donated the use of a semi equipped with a newly rebuilt diesel engine. A couple of hours after setting out, with Malcolm driving, "a fine mist of oil began falling on the windshield," Bob says. After stopping to check what was wrong, they discovered that oil was seeping out of the engine and hitting the fan, and was then being thrown through the louvers in the hood onto the windshield. After a phone call to the semi's owner, Malcolm's brother Maynard Frisk, Maynard told them to press on, making sure they added oil as needed.

"For the remainder of the trip," Bob says, "the exercise went like this: We used the windshield wipers until they no longer could do the job. We then stopped, Malcolm and I each cleaned half the windshield, we added another quart of oil, and the journey continued."

Other problems cropped up along the way. For starters, it turned out the semi was only licensed for local traffic. "What we needed was permission to enter, drive on and enjoy the highways of the sovereign states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan," Bob says. Each state had its own laws, different from its neighbors. The pair made phone calls and wired money, and found out where they could pick up their permits for various states. Eventually, they reached Stanley Forwood's farm home near White Cloud, Mich.

After being wined and dined, they prepared to load the Port Huron onto the lowboy. First, a neighbor had to dig out around the engine to make the ground flat so the lowboy could be backed into the area and the Port Huron could be pulled onto the trailer. Once loaded it was chained down, red flags were mounted in the front and back, and the oil-adding trip continued.

"We had decided," Bob remarks, "that after experiencing the Chicago traffic, which bordered on insanity, that we would take the scenic route home through northern Michigan and Wisconsin."

After stopping Friday night in Big Rapids, Mich., the pair discovered that Ferris State College was having homecoming that weekend. That meant for a less than-restful time: Motels in the town of 14,000 were already full, and with their wide load (the Port Huron's driver wheels were hanging out on each side of the lowboy), they could not travel in Michigan after dark or on weekends. Instead, early Saturday morning they had to head six miles away for Paris, Mich., with a police escort, as they were not supposed to travel weekends. They found rooms in Paris and spent the next two days getting to know everybody in the unincorporated town on a first-name basis.

Next, they moved across Wisconsin on side roads at night, braving a heavy rainstorm and winds of 40 mph that made driving difficult. "No other traffic existed," Bob says, "and due to the late hours, we didn't even see farm lights. It was like being all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a stormy night." Worse, the road was in terrible shape, causing the cab and the load to vibrate and jerk. Slogging along at about 2 a.m. the pair heard a terrifying crash behind them, and the cab staggered. Amid trepidation and flashlights, they rushed out into the rain, "Expecting," Bob told, "to see the pathetic remains of a steam engine and a lowboy scattered across a good portion of the state of Wisconsin." Finding nothing wrong, however, they figured the noise they'd heard had been something to do with the road. The next morning in the light of day they discovered what had happened: The Port Huron's wooden canopy had blown off during the storm, leaving just the steel posts and a few pieces of wood connected to them, although the rest of the engine itself was still complete and secure.

Eventually, they crossed Minnesota and finally, more or less intact, drove into Hawley, Minn. It had taken them seven days instead of the three they'd planned, and they'd added 45 quarts of oil to the semi during that time.

Later that day, the Port Huron was hauled to Fargo, N.D., for a few repairs. Orrin and Mimer Anderson of Hawley made a new canopy and the Port Huron was ready for display in the daily parades at WMSTR in Rollag, Minn.

In 1998, Bob donated the Port Huron to the WMSTR. The 1915 Port Huron steam traction engine was given a facelift in the late 1990s by Loren Skundberg and his wife Billie of Pelican Rapids, Minn., and today is a beautiful example of a steam traction engines at its best.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books. Contact him at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; bvossler@juno.com