History of the Western Steam Fiends Association

Oregon's Steam Fiends and Antique Powerland's shared history stretches over 50 years

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The 1955 Western Steam Fiends Association show at Chris Busch’s farm in Colton, Wash.

C.R. Miller, courtesy John Spalding

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John Spalding (of Spalding’s Corner fame) stumbled upon this shot of the 1955 Steam Fiends show at Chris Busch’s farm in Colton, Wash.

When he discovered its subject, he donated the photo to the Steam Fiends. Notice the splice running down the middle of the small barn. Photographer C.R. Miller put two photos together to create this great panoramic view of the Busch farm.

The history of the Western Steam Fiends Association is probably similar to that of other long-standing steam clubs. Of course, back in the early days the men and women of steam kept in contact with each other without the benefit of e-mail — and often without telephones. As was the case with many clubs in the early days, the founders of other clubs and organizations even the founding editor of Iron-Men Album, Elmer Ritzman, were involved with the Steam Fiends. What follows is a short look at our club’s history.

Steam Fiends timeline

1951: The first organizational meeting to form the Western Steam Fiends Association was held at Chris Busch’s farm in Colton, Wash. Annual membership dues were set at $2, which included a club membership badge.

1952: The first steam-up and second meeting of the Steam Fiends was held at Chris Busch’s farm.

1954: There was a little criticism of the word “fiend” in the club’s title among some members. However, among its definitions of the word, Webster’s dictionary includes “one totally engrossed in something.”

Steam historian F. Hall Higgens wrote about the Steam Fiends club in the January/February 1954 issue of Iron-Men Album. Higgens told about ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s visit to the show, noting that Bergen filmed interviews at the reunion for use in his nationally broadcast television show. Bergen was a big fan of steam.

Harvey Mikkelson hosted Silverton’s (Oregon) first old-fashioned threshing bee that year. The event was held annually until 1966.

1955: The membership roster included Arthur S. Young, Kinzer, Pa., owner of the A.S. Young Co.; Alice M. Plasterer, “Steam Engine Alice”; Elmer Ritzman, editor and publisher of Iron-Men Album; and T.H. Smith, editor and publisher of Engineers & Engines.

1958: The membership roster included Leroy W. Blaker, president of the National Threshers Association Inc.; Joe Rynda, “Steam Engine Joe”; and W.M. Stater of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

1959: The first dinner meeting was held in Woodburn, Ore.

1960-1966: During these years, Harvey Mikkelson, Chris Busch, Rod Pitts and C.R. Miller hosted the annual steam reunions. The local police department helped with traffic control and the wives made large amounts of food to feed the workers and the public, too. Even the local power company helped, removing or stopping the electric meter for the event.

1966: The Mikkelsons get-together as well as the other ones held by this time had become too much work for those involved. Access to the area was difficult, and the liability created by the large public crowd was too great.

1967-1968: The show was moved to Woodburn, Ore.

1969: The show was held in Gervis, Ore. In December of 1969, Western Antique Power Inc. was formed. The corporation leased 62 acres of land (with an option to buy) in Brooks, Ore., and started erecting buildings on the site for future expositions. The corporation (and a few members of the Steam Fiends) purchased the land that is now Antique Powerland.

1970: The first show at the new site was staged in August. Rod Pitts named the event the Great Oregon Steam-Up. The steam-powered sawmill was the first building built and was working for the first show.

Steam Fiends today

As the show continued to build, the Steam Fiends invited other clubs to come and join them at Powerland. Soon, Early Days Gas Engine & Tractor Association Branch 15, Willow Creek Railroad (formed by former Steam Fiends who enjoyed 1/8-scale trains), Oregon Two-Cylinder Club, and Antique Implement Society were all working together to build various storage buildings, an office, restrooms and a museum as well as showing their toys, talents and hobbies during the annual steam-up.

In the past six years, so many new organizations have joined us at Powerland that we are almost out of space on our 62 acres. The property at Powerland is still owned by Western Antique Power Inc., but is now operated by Antique Powerland Museum Association, a non-profit organization.

Powerland is open to the public for tours and other club shows through the year. The Great Oregon Steam-Up is held every year during the last weekend in July and first weekend in August. Come and join us! ST