Somewhat Bulky, Steam Engine Is Unique Hobby

Melvin Kestler

Courtesy of Melvin Kestler, 1339 Evergreen Drive, Twin Falls, Idaho 83301.

Melvin Kestler

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Times-News Feature Editor

When you have a hobby that weighs 33,740 lbs., it isn't easy to find housing for it or to exhibit in shows in various parts of the country.

Melvin Kestler, 1339 Evergreen Drive, says he does have a few problems with his hobby, a restored Case steam traction engine of 1915 vintage, and a complete threshing outfit.

The, equipment arrived last week in Twin Falls from northwest Kansas by rail, consisting of three units, the Case 1915 model 65 horse power steam-tractor, the case threshing machine, size 40' and a water wagon. It cost approximately $1,300 to ship it to Twin Falls, which may explain why it travels only occasionally.

Mr. Kestler who Is a local agent for Prudential Life Insurance Co., moved to Twin Falls in 1985. He first visited this area in 1937 to audit books for grain elevators and flour mills and liked this part of the country. He said he and Mrs. Kestler promised themselves they would someday make this their home, and nearly 30 years later made good the promise.

Not until this fall, however, did he move the steam engine and threshing machine from Bird City, Kans., where it has been on display by the Antique Engine and Threshers Assn.

Mr. Kestler, a native of Haxtun, Colo., purchased the old steam engine 17 years ago from Al Deerk, Lexington, Neb., when Mr. Deerk quit farming. He had used the old engine for many years in his farming operation.

'Since then Mr. Deerk and I have become close friends and he has visited me every year to play with the engine,' Mr. Kestler notes.

Ones the 13 ton steam engine and the five ton threshing machine have been restored there isn't much to do with them except 'play', Mr. Kestler explains.

It was unloaded from a flat car at the Twin Falls depot by Doyle Sligar and his heavy crane equipment, then transported to the Ora and Oren Jones farm 20 miles south of Twin Falls where it will be stored.

The owner says he plans to 'fire it up' now and then for the interest of old timers and steam engine enthusiasts and may even display it occasionally in the local area. Otherwise it is just for his own enjoyment.

'About 25 years ago,' he recalls, 'a friend of mine, Roy E. Kite, started collecting old steam engines and put on one of the first antique steam engine shows in the country. Mr. Kite got several other steam engine fans interested and each purchased his own steam thresher outfit. This same group formed the Antique Engine and Threshers Assn. with approximately 20 steam outfits owned by individual members.'

This association has since been staging an annual three day show for 16 years at the Roy Kite farm near Bird City, Kans. Mr. Kite died in 1959 but his widow continued to allow the association use of farm for show grounds and to show the four steamers and other equipment her husband had restored.

'Good home cooked meals are served at the shows and the old steam traction engines are used to plow and thresh wheat as was done in the old days.

'Several thousand people a day attend the shows coming from throughout the United States. The old steam engines are like antique cars as a hobby, only bigger,' Mr. Kestler added.

There are now special publications including several monthly magazines for the steam engine enthusiasts and shows are staged in many other states and in England and Canada.

Ed Vogel, Buhl, who puts on his own threshing show each year attended an antique steam engine show in England last year.

Mr. Kestler, his wife and son attended a show in Saskatoon, Canada in 1967 with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip among the show enthusiasts.

Since coming to Twin Falls Mr. Kestler has delved into some local steam engine history and has come up with some interesting incidents. In 1905, he said, the first electricity for Twin Falls was generated by a steam traction engine which was 'dug in' and covered in a location behind the Perrine Hotel.

On April 1, 1934, some 8,000 Twin Falls area residents gathered at the rim of Snake River Canyon north of Twin Falls to observe what was supposed to make the passing of the steam engine.

At that time an engine was steamed up and driven off the rim of the canyon, Mr. Kestler said.

The local steam engine collector comes by his enthusiasm naturally. His father was an engineer on the Burlington Railroad and later operated two steam outfits, plowing and threshing wheat on the eastern plains of Colorado prior to 1920.

'For several years I tried to find the last Nicholas and Shepard steam engine my father had. AH kinds of stories were run down in the area where It was last used, but my search ended when I learned it had been scrapped,' he said.

Most of the old steam traction engines were junked as scrap iron during World War II, Mr. Kestler said. The same has now been the fate of the old steam driven railroad locomotives.

Mr. Kestler said many old timers and some who are not so old, will recall the threshing days with the steam driven machines. When the old steam traction engines were used to plow, four to five men were needed to run the outfit. Threshing required 15 to 20 men depending on the amount of grain.

'One of the most important helpers was the water hauler. The old steamers required plenty of water. Threshing day was quite the social event. The farmers enjoyed working together in the large crews and usually the wives got together to prepare the noon meal which was something of a feast.

'Today one man on a modern tractor or combine can accomplish the same amount of work and in order to survive financially, the modem farmer uses fast efficient equipment,' Mr. Kestler said.

When not restoring old steam engines, Mr. Kastler builds scale model railroad cars and engines.

He is currently completing a locomotive, an 'o' gauge scale model of the New York Central steam locomotive, 4-6-4 wheel arrangement.

This is also time consuming and expensive since the kit including parts for the locomotive alone costs about $250, but it doesn't take up the space the old steam threshing outfits require.

As to whether he would like to have an old steam locomotive to restore and play with, Mr. Kestler says, 'Of course, who wouldn't?'

Many people would probably turn down the opportunity, but not steam engine enthusiasts such as Mr. Kestler.

An old steam whistle which Mr. Kestler is mounting on his steam traction engine weighs 85 lbs. It was given him by the Union Pacific Railroad from a late model Union Pacific steam locomotive with 4-8-4 wheel arrangement.

The 65 horse power unit Mr. Kestler now owns sold new for about $2,060 and would bring considerably more today if offered for sale.

The 1914 catalogue that tells about the Case equipment lists Mr. Kestler's steam engine as 'a general purpose tractor, a machine for a thousand and one uses.'

Among specifications are the 40-inch diameter fly wheel, front wheels of 48 inches in diameter and the traction wheels of six feet.

Because of the steam pressure, Mr. Kestter said, the old engines had a certain amount of danger and often 'blew up' scattering a threshing party and causing injuries. In the antique engine shows, no steam engine can be started until the boiler has been inspected by a qualified authority, he said.