Steam Engine Bug Bites Nine Year Old


On parade in Lacombe.

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7712 Jasper Ave Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5H 3R8

In 1902 my parents, Jacob and Anna Slemko, homesteaded on land located five miles east and one and a half miles north of Smoky Lake, Alberta. I, John Slemko, was born and raised on this homestead.

In those days, threshing machines were very scarce. I remember one year they purchased a small threshing machine, hand-fed type, that ran with a small gasoline engine. They even threshed with this machine from under one foot of snow. They threshed what was left of the crops because prairie chickens by the thousands were feeding on the stooks.

This 65 Horsepower 1916 J.I Case engine is owned by John Slemko of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The engine came from Shelby, Montana, and is in almost -brand-new condition. It carries 165 pounds p.s.i. Wherever John goes he wins first place, including the Edmonton Klondike Parade and the Calgary Stampede Parade. For more about John's love of steam engines

I remember that Dad would hitch up the horses to the sleigh and take me and his 12-guage shotgun out to the field. Dad would then line me up with the horses in between two rows of stooks, and I would steer the horses in that direction. Then, from the stooks he would begin to shoot prairie chickens, two or three per shot. Later, we would come home with 15 to 20 prairie chickens in a box. Mother cleaned and prepared these birds and everyone had chicken to eat.

Other times, my dad went hunting and brought back a dozen rabbits. It was my brothers' and sisters' job to skin and pull the hide off the rabbits. I remember taking the slimy skinned rabbit and chasing my sisters with it; sometimes they got smeared and began to cry. We had a ball then. There was no such thing as a shortage of meat.

Some years later, my uncles, Bill and Mike Slemko, bought a steam threshing outfit. They would thresh at our place quite late in the fall. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing very hard, so they decided to thresh late in the night for fear of snow or a storm arriving. I remember once, just as it was getting dark, a straw pile caught fire. Uncle Mike took the belt off the steam engine, drove the steam engine to the burning pile, and then used the steam engine's water hose to put the fire out. About two hours later, the straw pile caught fire again, but someone quickly spotted it, took his jacket off, and with his jacket put the fire out. The burning straw pile was all due to Uncle Mike not having enough, or not having a fine enough spark retarder to be held in.

Threshing lasted until 11:00 or 11:30 P.M., so they would have supper at midnight. Someone mentioned that they should have a guard to guard the threshing machine overnight, and someone else suggested, how about Johnny be the guard. I was eager to do it, so Uncle Mike took two horse blankets and off we went to the field. He would then place one blanket on the ground under the boiler firebox and the other on my back. I don't know if I slept, but it was nice and warm under the boiler.

At about 5:30 in the morning, with frost on the ground, Uncle Mike came back to fire-up the engine and bring the steam back up; then he told me to go back to the house. I took both blankets and when I arrived at the house my brothers and sisters were already up. They tried to talk to me, but I wouldn't talk to them; I only talked to Mother. I felt I was too good for my brothers and sisters, as I was the overnight guard (a real 9-year-old hero!); I felt I was better than they were. After a couple of days, I was on talking terms again with the entire family.

When they finished threshing at our place, they moved to the neighbor's to thresh, and I had to go to school. But, when noon hour came around at school, I got a bad headache. I went to the teacher and told her, so she sent me home. I didn't go home. I went straight to the neighbor's where Uncle Mike was threshing. Of course, I didn't have a headache. For the next day or two I repeated this. Then I played hooky from school on my own. So, I went to the neighbor's and helped my uncle with the firing by handing him the wood. I started each day with Uncle Mike on the engine. As the years went by, I was with Uncle Mike helping him, whether he wanted me or not, but he seemed to appreciate my help.

At fifteen years of age, I was quite good at handling the steam engine. It was a Nichols and Shepard, double cylinder and had a broken clutch. We had to use a pin in the clutch wheel when we had to move. My Uncle Mike had enough confidence in me, so he went to Edmonton, Alberta which was a three to four day trip. He felt I was quite confident and safe enough to handle the steam outfit. We threshed at one farmer's place, Mr. Pirnak, and threshed that day until evening, leaving only two hours of threshing left to be done for the next morning. So, the next morning we spent the two hours to finish it off.

We hooked up the threshing machine to the steam engine and were ready to move to another neighbor's place, one mile north. We decided to hook up a box of wood to take at the same time. We started off from Mr. Pirnak's, but about V4 mile north, there was a steep hill. The road had a curve in it, because it was circling a lake. This was a one-way road, heavily timbered with poplar trees. When I went over the hill I had to have brakes, so I used reverse, but nothing happened. I opened the throttle wide open and got a shower of hot water on my back. I knew I was in trouble because I heard a LOUD clang of steel hitting steel. This is where the pin came out from the clutch wheel.

All I did was jump on the wood bunker, close the throttle and take hold of the steering wheel. I wasn't quite tall enough to see ahead, so I stood on a tool box that was on the wood bunker, so that I could get a better hold of the steering wheel. Before I came to a stop, I was going 35 to 40 miles per hour bouncing on the frozen ground with the threshing machine behind me and a wood box behind the thresher. Believe me, you never heard so much noise in all your life as there was then.

Finally, the machine safely came to a stop, so I got off. I was really scared. My Uncle Bill was the water boy who was following behind me; he came over to ask me what had happened. I told him, 'I think the pin came out. I'm not sure as I didn't have time to check it yet.' Uncle Bill and I back-tracked our tracks to see how far away we were from those big poplar trees. We missed some two foot poplar trees by about six inches. Then we got another pin and went on to the neighbor's and did their threshing.

When Uncle Mike came home from Edmonton, on the fourth day, he found out what had happened. He went right back to Smoky Lake and phoned Nichol Brothers in Edmonton to send him a complete clutch. Later, he repaired and put in the new clutch and we didn't have to use a pin after that.

The threshing outfit continued moving to other farmers, averaging one day per farmer. This lasted for 30 to 40 days every fall for 35 years as everyone for about a hundred mile radius knew about and needed the Slemko threshing outfit for their crops.

Uncle Bill and Uncle Mike also owned and operated a sawmill, as well, and sawed lumber during winter months. In order for me to be close to the steam engine, I hired myself as the cook's helper, because working on the steam engine during the wintertime was too cold for me. I spent three months doing this. I remember five teams of sleighs would come in convoys to purchase Slemko lumber. People arrived from as far away as Wostok, Alberta and would therefore have to stay overnight at the lumber camp. Uncle Bill and Uncle Mike operated the sawmill for 35 years or more and Slemko Lumber was also known for about a hundred mile radius.

After my parents passed away in 1964, their house, barn, and granary, all made of logs, were donated to our provincial government's Alberta Culture Department. They are located at the Ukrainian Village just east of Edmonton, and are called the Slemko Homestead. In 1985, I spoke to Mr. Fritz Pannekoek of Alberta Culture and discussed with him my purchasing a steam engine. I wanted him to put the steam engine on the Slemko Homestead, because our family was always associated with the steam engine.

Mr. Pannekoek was in hearty agreement that this would be very nice, and so the verbal agreement was that they would use the engine for anything they wanted, as long as the engine was put back in the Slemko homestead with a roof over it.

So, I went looking for a steam engine. I traveled over 11,000 miles for six months from Prince George, British Columbia, east to Brandon, Manitoba. Finally, in Shelby, Montana, U.S.A., I purchased, from Mrs. German, a 65 horsepower Case steam engine which was built in 1916 by J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company Inc., in Racine, Wisconsin.

When I got back to Edmonton with the steam engine, I received a letter in the mail the next day that they, Alberta Culture, didn't agree to the verbal agreement. They didn't accept it to the conditions agreed upon but they would accept it with NO CONDITIONS. That was not acceptable to me at all. So I went on with restoring this engine to what it is today.

This engine was in Kalispeal Creamery in Montana for a number of years. One day the creamery burned but the part of the building that the engine was in was not touched by the fire. The engine remained on the site for two or three years before it was sold to Ray German, north of Shelby, Montana. He was a restorer and a steam engine operator. When he began to restore it, he was getting parts from all over the United States.

When we got it, it was 95 percent restored, except for some flues and plumbing that was done by us at Dupre Boilers and Welding in Edmonton. After retubing it and doing the plumbing and flues, we updated it from 150 pounds psi to 165 pounds psi. We had an ultrasonic test performed on the boiler and it was found to be new and in good condition so we were given the 165 psi.

My fireman/firewoman is Val Haleck. She is a really dependable person. Nothing is enough; she insists everything is to be 101%. The steam engine is really cared for. I am sending a picture of my firewoman, Val.

My engine assistant is good old faithful Barry Collum, from Minnedosa, Manitoba. He helped me restore a lot on my steam engine, such as the dome, throttle, and the injector.

He travels with me and his wife, Margaret, every summer to every place we go. He also owns a 65 horsepower Case steam engine. Without Barry, I don't think I could have done what I did.

Since I have owned this steam engine, we have traveled to many different towns and cities all over Alberta where I have won first prizes. The cities include the Calgary Stampede, two first prizes and the Edmonton Klondike Day, first prize three years in a row. The towns where I have won first prize trophies or ribbons are: St. Paul, Fort Saskatchewan, Vegreville, Smoky Lake, Lacombe, Calmar, Mayerthorpe Leslieville, Momville, Westlock, and Pioneer Acres at Irricana, Alberta.

In past summers, we threshed wheat in Lacombe, Mayerthorpe, Hay Lakes, the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Fort Edmonton Park, and also in Edmonton for each of their Heritage and Antique Day's Shows. My wife, Margaret, Barry and myself are having a ball with the steam engine. I had offers of $45,000, which I rejected for the time being, as I'm not sure what to do.