The Man Who Collects Steam Rollers

Content Tools

One does not have to be very old to remember when steamrollers put the final touches on newly paved roads. Many highway departments were still using them well into the 1940s.

Most steamrollers are gone now, but they are not forgotten. Memories of many spectators at a parade commemorating Holyoke's 100th anniversary last Sept. 30 were jogged by the sight of a vintage 1920 Buffalo Springfield steamroller lumbering proudly along the route.

Decked out in bright red and green, the old 10-ton steamroller rattled and clanked past the reviewing stand at Holyoke's Town Hall with firemen stoking its furnace and steam billowing from its stack.

This rare glimpse into the past was offered by a man with an unusual hobby: Chester Petrowsky of Belchertown, who collects and repairs old steam engines.

Petrowsky found the Buffalo Springfield model abandoned in an area salvage yard. It is a relic of the East Longmeadow Highway Department, last used about 30 years ago. Although it has been retired from active service since then, it is no stranger to the parade circuit. The Holyoke Centennial Parade was the ninth in which it has appeared around the state since repairs were completed by Petrowsky in 1965.

Few highway departments today would even consider taking the time to stoke the engine with coal for four or five hours to get up a good head of steam before taking a roller out onto the road; nor would they be likely to employ anyone to sit up late with the machine to see that it cooled properly and, once cooled, to clean out the furnace after each use.

Chester Petrowsky does all of these things. But he sees his steamroller as more than a machine made to serve a function.

He also willingly accepts the hazards of operating the vehicle. 'There are no brakes on this roller.' Petrowsky said, adding that when executing a turn preparations must be made 20 or 30 yards in advance.

His collection began with the acquisition of the Buffalo Springfield in 1961. Now his front and back yards are thickly littered with old relics in varying states of repair.

'Before I ran into that steamroller I had never done any mechanical work,' Petrowsky said. It took him almost four years to reconstruct it. He took it apart, piece by piece, cleaning, repairing and painting each piece before putting the whole machine back together again.

He takes great pains to duplicate the original appearance of the engines he repairs. He contacted the Buffalo Springfield Co. of Springfield, Ohio, to learn more about his steamroller, but the company had few records left to offer him.

But the steamroller will live on in the memories of those who lived in the days when these smoking behemoths performed before audiences of awe-struck children and passers-by.

Adam Ambrose is a free lance writer.