A Restoration Story About a Buffalo Pitts

Buffalo Pitts steam traction engine

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802 Shady brook Holland, Michigan 49424

Most of you have experienced this. The 'other woman' enters your life through an unexpected introduction. You meet, take her home, give her a place to stay, and spend all of your spare time and money on her. This is my story.

Her name was Buffy. We were first introduced to each other about 12 years ago by a friend who didn't really understand her. I could see through her rough exterior that she was of fine heritage, and that I had to have her. The farm where she lived for the last 40 years of her life had aged her badly, what with no warm place to hide from the ravages of winter, nor shelter from the northern Michigan weather. Glen, her stepfather, was very possessive, and though he would let many people visit with Buffy, he would let no one attempt to start a relationship with her, for fear that she would leave the farm and never return. After about 10 years of relation-building with Glen, he conceded to let her go, and upon settling on the proper size dowry, she was brought back to Holland to be nursed back to health. Broken bones, cancer, clogged and missing arteries, arthritis, you name it, she had it. Many forms of surgery and medical treatment were required, but after two years of effort, she huffed and puffed back to life, and we have had a great summer together. She currently is in line for some more medical treatment, but will be anxiously awaiting some good times this next summer.

Cheap grocery store romance novels aside, this is the story of my acquisition and restoration of a 15 HP Buffalo Pitts steam tractor that came to life this past summer. The paragraphs above were to tease my wife, as she has gone on record during a newspaper interview last summer at the Riverbend Gas & Steam Engine Show that SHE is the other woman in my life, and that Buffy (her name for the Buffalo) was my first. Yes, our boys and I spent a lot of time working on Buffy these past few years, and all had some great experiences during the restoration, but my wife is still Number One in my life, and always will be. 1 do appreciate her patience with me, though.

Pete LaBelle of 802 Shady-brook, Holland, Michigan 49424, has written the story that begins is 'Buffy,' the 15 HP Buffalo Pitts steam traction engine now in restored condition.

Buffy was shown to me by a soon to become good friend, Maury Faulstich, up near Whittemore, Michigan, about 12 years ago. Buffy belonged to Glen Rose, and it had sat in the same place on the farm that his dad parked it in 1958, not long before he passed away. Glen didn't really have any real interest in the engine, but hoped that his kids might pick up where his dad left off. The engine was in plain sight on a country road, which prompted many offers to buy it. Another one of the classic 'not for sales,' it sat in the field slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Every so often, I'd stop by to talk with Glen and his wife to see what was going on and to check out the status of the engine, pretty much knowing what the answer would be. Then, nearly three years ago, a phone call to him to check on the status of the Pitts was replied with 'What will you give me for it?'. This set me back some, as I had never prepared for this moment. We agreed that a thorough inspection on my part of the Pitts was needed before a true assessment could be made.

A few weeks later, Russ Gelder and I, and parts of our families, made an adventure up to Whittemore, a four-hour run, with a standard issue engine inspection kit (wrenches, penetrating oil, flashlights, mirrors, hammers, shovels, coveralls, cameras, measuring tools, etc.). Russ has restored three tractors in his career, and was a wealth of knowledge here and throughout the entire project. After some three to four hours of digging, probing, hammering, opening up and photographing, it was decided that even though cosmetically it looked raw, it was 99% there, and the asking price, for these days, was fair.

On the way home, Russ and I talked a lot about the present and the future. The engine was affordable to me, but I did not have a place to work on it. I didn't look forward to trashing my backyard, as I live in an average suburban neighborhood, nor did I look forward to an outside restoration exposed to the elements, as I knew it would take me a couple of years. Russ, having recently completed a nice pole barn for his Case and related paraphernalia, offered his barn for the restoration period, which after a few more miles of discussion, I accepted. At this point, I'm not sure who was more excited over the Pitts, me or him, as he would get to be involved in another restoration!

A few weeks later, a check was cut and the Pitts ownership changed hands.

The rescue mission in late June of '96 took two different trips. The first was to get it out of its resting place of 40 years. The rear wheels had settled into the earth about 16 inches, and the front wheels about 12 inches. All the gearing and wheels proved loose, other than the crosshead, so the clutch shoes were backed off and all the bearings oiled. My dad and brother helped me one morning to dig ramps from the dirt to allow the engine to be pulled out onto high ground. Ted Zimmerman, the farmer across the street, was hired with his 'Russian' four-wheel-drive tractor to pull it out.

I was anticipating spending the better part of the day getting the Pitts out to the road. This luckily proved wrong.

We decided that pulling it out backwards would be safest and least damaging to the front wheel pedestal, which was sitting on a punky smokebox. We all pooled our chains together and positioned 'The Russian' behind the Pitts. Instead of tying on to the draw bar, we hooked two chains to 'The Russian,' then laid the other ends over the top of the rear wheels all the way down to the ground, then looped them around the face of the rim between a couple of spokes. This allowed a greater mechanical advantage to move the Pitts from its early grave, as we forced the wheels to roll out of the hole, rather than pulling the tractor and hoping the wheels would roll. With this trick, it was up on high ground in a couple of minutes.

As it climbed out, the Pitts grew a foot or so in height, which made me stand back in awe for a moment and realize how big this tractor really was. Half an hour later, 'The Russian' had pulled the Pitts out near the road, and Ted took off to finish baling (rolling?) his hay.

A couple of weeks later, the lowboy a+

rrived, was loaded up, and we headed off to Zeeland. I was to be trailing the low-boy with my pickup, and as I was pulling out of Glen's driveway, my dad ran up to my truck with a large piece of cardboard and duct-taped it to the side of the truck. I stuck my head out to see what was going on, and there, along with a drawing of a hand with its finger pointing forward, were the words 'IT'S MINE' printed on it. With a grin on our faces, the boys and I were off!

Gelder's house, back then, was in a small town next to Holland, called Zeeland. At 'Gelder Mountain,' the engine was off-loaded and hauled up the hill with a front-end loader, and soon to be parked in the engine barn.

That fall, dismantling started and the lengthy project lists grew. Parts and pieces were removed, and most of the man-handled pieces were brought to my house. Russ's house was about 11 miles from my house, so trips to and from had to be carefully planned so materials that needed to be moved or found would end up at the right place at the right time. More often than not, a project was abruptly halted because a small piece was at the wrong site.

Once the Pitts was reduced to a boiler on wheels, the flues were cut out and a better idea of what was going on inside was determined. With help from John Schrock, flues and some other things were purchased. Russ gave some help and direction, and the flues were successfully put in over a couple of weekends. Working in a dark fire or smoke box is difficult, even with a good light. The light doesn't reflect well off rusty walls, so prior to most of the flue work, I purchased a cheap can of white spray paint and blasted the smoke and fire boxes. Though not pretty, it did make the working environment much brighter.

Along about this time, the number of turning projects started to mount and the need for a lathe was apparent. I have access to a lathe at work, but the many hours of turning I could foresee, I thought it wouldn't be good protocol. Feelers were put out, and a 1922 16' x 60' South Bend lathe with 'slow change' gears was found up in Alpena through several friends up that way. It had been converted from line shaft drive at some point, and I had to find a motor and controls for it. I felt pretty good that it may have been indirectly run by a steam engine in its earlier years, so it was a fitting machine for the work it was to do. It isn't a precision machine anymore, and has some personality that needs getting used to, but it served its purpose.

The fit of the wheels to axles was very bad. You could just about put your fingers into the rear axle-to-wheel hub clearance. The wheels wobbled so badly that many of the inside faces of the inside spokes had nearly 3/8' gouges in them from tripping past the drive pinion. Several options were looked at to bore all four wheels out, and my buddy Maury came to the rescue by sneaking them into the busy schedule of his boring mill as time allowed. He sent pictures, as it created quite a stir in the shop as the 66' diameter wheels were fixtured to a boring mill that was nearly out of reach. The axles were turned true and sleeved to fit the wheels, and the weak oiling system replaced with grease, which will do a better job in lubrication and be cleaner on the engine. Maury also later bored out the crosshead slides, as they were very pitted.

The governor was a wintertime basement project. It is a Pickering brand with a patent date of 1909 on the copper bands, and the leaf springs had all but rusted through. After several calls to Jim Schrock, enough understanding of the construction and needs were gained to allow a rebuild back to working order. The new leaf springs that were installed are apparently a little weaker than the original, as engine speed is short by about 40 rpm. A new governor pulley is on this winter's project list.

The Marsh cylinder lubricator, from the outside, looked like it would never pump again. All the castings were very pitted, seized up, and teeth nearly gone from the ratchet wheel. When I opened the filler lid, there on the filter screen were a couple dozen pieces of wheat chaff, well preserved, as they had soaked up some oil. This chaff was kind of a snapshot in history and made me wonder how the last threshing days were for the Pitts. Though the level indicating glass was broken out, enough oil remained to keep the innards well preserved. With the exterior mechanism seized into one piece, and not possessing a torch, it was placed on my gas barbecue grill for about an hour, then turned off and allowed to cool. It worked well, as everything came easily apart, and with some TLC it pumped oil a couple of weeks later.

The throttle was an odd design, and seems to be a Pitts design. It is a cast iron bolt-together box with threaded inlet and outlet ports. The face of the outlet port is machined and a simple slide valve covers the hole. This was remachined and a new stainless steel rod made.

Spring of '97 was nearing, and time for some rust loss and some paint gain was nearing as well. The Riverbend Club had a sandblaster, and through Russ, a 120 CFM air compressor was rented. There is a sand 'mine' in the area that grades, dries and filters sand for sandblasting purposes which can be bought, in your container (55 gallon drums typically), for about $1 I/ton, of which there is some 760 pounds in a drum. All in all, seven drums were needed and four different days to clean all the pieces. The back wheels especially took a long time. There is a lot of territory that needs to be cleaned on them! I was warned, but after many hours of blasting, I was cleaning sand from my hair, ears, pockets, inside my wallet, shoes, and other places I won't go into. It gets everywhere, but after looking at skuzzy rust for several years, the bright gray of clean steel and cast was a welcome sight.

I talked to many people about paint. Most, either from experience or wishing they had, highly recommended using automotive acrylic enamels for the finish. It takes a lot of work to dismantle and prep a steam engine for paint. Cheapening at this stage and using garden variety enamel or tractor paint will be a big disappointment in the second and following years. These paints fade and get chalky with little exposure to the weather, and your efforts will look very disappointing after a year or two. Automotive acrylic enamels, on the other hand, hold their gloss well over the years. Yes, my paint bill was some $500, but I think it was well worth it, all things considered.

Color was a question, as there was no trace on the Pitts when I found it. Carlton Johnson, of Clio, Michigan, owns a 15 HP Pitts, but of an older generation. He had several Buffalo Pitts catalogs, which he lent me, and I made copies from them. In one of the later catalogs was one of the bigger Pitts engines shown 'colorized' in the catalog. It showed the oiler black, the machinery avocado, and the wheels and flywheel kind of a burnt orange color. It looked horrible. I can only assume the colorizing inks or dies changed over the years. I opted, instead, for a dark red and forest green with white striping, which turned out well.

First steam-up June of 1998. Son Calvin and neighbor Lou Spencer at the whistle. Temporary stack in place and water tank still missing.

Reassembly started soon after the paint had dried. The cannon shaft was installed, then the rear wheels or so I thought. Now that the rear wheels were back and running precision again, the gearing wanted to interfere with itself. The wheels and cannon shaft were removed and the shaft bearings re poured to pull it away from the wheel gearing and allow the gears to properly mesh.

Around Christmas of 97, a high school buddy, Frank Stepanski, was on leave from the military and visiting my family for a few days. He'd been kept abreast of the Pitts' progress, and was impressed to see it with some paint. The time had come, though, to see if the Pitts was to become a cherished piece of equipment, or a money pit: the hydro test.

I, being an engineer by trade, am well aware of the power being contained by the steel of the boiler. The safety of the boiler and its auxiliaries is higher on my list of priorities than some people I've seen. If something goes amuck down the road, I'll be the one standing nearby who will be involved. If I don't think something is safe, it'll get fixed to my satisfaction before anyone else has a chance to be concerned with it. This in mind, we filled the boiler, warmed it with a salamander heater, and started the hydro.

This filling of the boiler was aided by my nine-year-old son, Calvin, and Russ's three-year-old daughter Kasondra. With Calvin on top of the steam dome with a ' bleed off valve in his control, Kasondra manned the water faucet. Calvin kept asking 'When will I know it's full?,' to which I numerously replied, 'You'll know.' When it did finally fill, the escaping air stream turned to a column of water shooting ten feet into the air. Wish I'd had a camcorder to record their panic-stricken faces as they reacted to the situation.

The Pitts was originally rated at 145 p.s.i. (wonder why not an even 150 p.s.i.?), but due to the double lap seam on the barrel, the State of Michigan will only allow up to 100 p.s.i. As the test approached the 150 p.s.i. limit, I was obviously under some stress, and Frank took advantage of the moment. While he was on the other side of the boiler, he rapped one of the wheels with a big hammer which, after I found out what he'd done, created an exchange of some pretty rude comments his way. The 150 pound mark was hit, a couple weeping flues re rolled, photos of the pressure gage taken for posterity, and the pressure slowly bled off. Time for some celebratory beer.

Reassembly of the engine components continued with a new stainless steel piston rod being turned and new rings purchased. The bore of the cylinder had no rust in it when it was opened, and measured no more than 0.002' out of round or tapered, so it was left alone. One crankshaft journal needed to be returned because of rust pitting and its bearing re poured. Other items included new oak clutch shoes and reworking of the clutch throw-out ring.

Information that I could decipher from Carlton's catalogs gave me a cloudy idea of what the platform bunker and tool box looked like. In IMA, a couple years back, was a gentleman who was selling his Pitts, along with a photo of it. There was the bunker, tool box, and head tank. A phone call was made, and a few weeks later, Marion Schroder of Nebraska came through with the designs for the bunker and tool box, along with design info on the front mounted make-up water tank, its graphics and the builder's tag. Bunker and tool box were made from steel reinforced wood, so that detail was followed closely. The platform, when I purchased the tractor, was a piece of old sheet steel welded to the platform angle irons, with pieces of old fence posts as braces. A call to my dad had him search out a sawmill and he put his hands on some rough sawn nearly clear 2x10 ash planks that became the platform. They were sanded to remove the pricklies, but leaving the saw marks. I suspect that the planks may have been originally painted, if at all. Varnished hardwood looks nice, but don't think varnish ever came near a steamer. Mine were sealed to keep them from cracking and absorbing dirt, and were bolted to the platform irons.

Plumbing, (sorry John Schrock), pipe fitting, was done by myself. All pipe used was schedule 80 pipe. Though 40 will handle the 100-pound pressure, the strength of the pipe at the thread is my concern. Steam tractors bounce, rattle and jiggle as they are running or traveling. The weight of the accessories hanging on the pipes puts a bigger strain on the pipe, especially at the cut threads, which significantly weakens the pipe. Schedule 80 pipe proved to only up my plumbing bill by $20 or so. The remaining original valves on the Pitts appear to have been made for Buffalo Pitts, as there are Pitts part numbers on them. There were not enough to do the job right, and their construction didn't allow for proper rebuild, so none were reused. All valves that were used were pulled from my inventory of used valves, and are all rated significantly higher than the pressure they will encounter. Pipe layout, though not fully original, does include a second injector, and multiple places to drain and receive water where needed. There's even a 'corn valve,' used when I steam corn-on-the-cob.

The head tank and its supporting brackets disappeared long ago. I was able to see a bigger Pitts at John Schrock's place and get details on the brackets. The tank on that engine looked like a makeshift replacement, though. The information from Marion gave particulars on the size. With that, I designed my own, with a few improvements, like a sight glass, and had one made. It was painted, and with info from Marion's notes, the assumed crest of the Buffalo Pitts Company was painted by a lady from work, and she did a super job.

The lettering on the head tank, bunker and tool box, by observation of the pictures in Carlton's catalogs, looked as if it was put on with a stencil. I did some fancy Xerox work with the pictures, then some freehand work, along with several hours with an Exacto knife in hand to come up with the two stencils that I needed. Though the end result is a little cruder than having the local auto detailer paint them, I believe the result is a little more authentic, and cheaper. It was now late May of '98.

Along about March of '98, Russ and Kim announced that they had decided to put their house on the market, and when it sold, they were going to pack up and see what kind of lifestyle could be created out in Montana. The house soon sold, and the still inoperative Pitts was to lose its home in early July. Work became feverish.

One afternoon in mid-June, a chain was hooked to the Pitts and it was dragged outside into the light of day. With my parents present, water was added, and the first fire lit. We let 30 pounds or so build up, enough to idle the engine, then shut it down for the night. A bigger fire was lit the next day, but a faulty relief valve limited me to 40 p.s.i. It was still enough to go up and down the driveway. What a thrill! Dad warned me that if I smiled any wider, the top of my head would fall off. The relief valve was sent out for repair, and after the 4th of July, the first full head of steam was built up. Some friends showed up and we got used to the control of the levers driving around Russ's field.

The Riverbend Gas and Steam Engine Show was about a week away, but ownership of 'Gelder Mountain' formally changed hands before the show. Arrangements with the new owners, who were amazed at the Pitts, were made, and my 'lease' was extended a bit. That Thursday before the show, Frank Stepanski dropped back for the weekend. The local State of Michigan boiler inspector was invited by that morning and, after the proper testing, gave it his seal of approval and new ID number. The truck arrived, and the Pitts was show-bound.

With Russ's Case out west, and a couple of the other steamers that usually make the show not available that weekend, the Pitts and a Case from the estate of Herm Walcott were the only steamers there. Herm's Case saw little activity, thus I, hoping to be an avid apprentice in the steam engineering field that year, was pressed into being the resident expert. Russ had to come back to Michigan for some business reasons and was at the show for Saturday and gave me a lot of pointers, though he did look out of place with his new Montana head gear.

The Pitts put on a good show on the sawmill, and I learned a lot about firing and water management in the few hours that I sawed boards. When I wasn't tied to a machine, I was out cruising the grounds, giving many rides and turns at the controls.

Prior to the show, I had contacted Glen Rose, the previous owner, and invited him to the show. He, his wife, and their young grandson arrived on Saturday. They were very impressed with my efforts and took home some memories and photos.

The Pitts was brought to its new home at my place in Holland after the show. A few months later, my 12' x 16' barn grew to 12' x 21', giving the Pitts a couple of inches clearance front to back, and about two feet on each side. A snug fit, but it's all the building codes will allow me in my neighborhood. I found out that after the boiler was drained, then resealed, about two hours coupled to my air compressor gave about 60 p.s.i. in the boiler, which was adequate to back it into the barn and not have to put up with the heat and smoke.

There's one odd thing that I've never been able to figure out about this engine. On the engine bed frame, the words 'Buffalo Pitts Company, Buffalo, N.Y. U.S.A.' were originally cast in raised letters. Somewhere along the line, all the letters were chiseled off, but adjacent part numbers were untouched. Was a previous owner trying to hide the real name of the engine? That one has me puzzled. A plaque was cast mimicking the original lettering and bolted in its place.

The builder's plate was missing from the smoke box, so I do not know the serial number. The design of the builder's plaque was discovered and a new one cast with my best guess at a legitimate engine number.

The age of the Pitts is also in question. Having copies of the catalogs lent by Carlton Johnson from 1903, 1906, 1908, 1910, 1912 and 1915, I had hoped to study the pictures in the catalogs to learn the building year. No such luck. Seems the pictures, which are actually engravings, used the same engraving from the years 1906-15, as determined by an identification number in the background of the engraving. Only through evolution of the boiler design, and a patent date of 1909 on the governor, have I concluded that it is around a 1912, so that is what I call it. Anyone knowing of any factory records, I'd appreciate some contact. I'd be happy to share all that I've learned during the restoration, so drop me a line.

Specifications on the Pitts:
1912 +/- a couple of years
15 HP at 240 r.p.m. at 145 p.s.i.
8' bore x 10' stroke
19' long x 7 wide x 10 to the top of the stack
'Wet' weight is 18,120 lbs.
Thirty-nine 2' x 72' flues
170 sq. ft. of heating surface
Boiler water capacity at half glass is 240 gallons
Head tank capacity of 100 gallons
2 hours to build steam from cold
16' x 66' rear wheels, 7' x 45' front wheels, 9 x 44' flywheel

There are a few projects that need to be completed before the '99 steam season, such as rubber cleats on the rear wheels (any sources out there???), and a different pulley on the governor.

The whole experience of the restoration was very enjoyable, and I'd do it again, sometime. There were a lot of people who shared their time, experience, materials, and equipment, to which I am very grateful. Thanks, guys!

So, if you see me at a show in the future, and it appears that I need some advice on doing something better, or there are time-learned tricks to solve certain issues that pop into your mind, I'm listening. After all, I'm still learning, and intend on passing my steam knowledge that I gain to my kids to keep the history of the old glory days of steam alive for the future!