Any roster of legendary figures in the steam and threshing hobby has to include an entry for “Steam Engine Joe” Rynda. One of the early boosters of threshing bees and reunions, Rynda was an active and inspiring force in the early days of the hobby. The threshing bees held on his Minnesota farm were known throughout the steam community, and Rynda was regarded as a central figure in the hobby.
An inveterate collector of steam traction engines, Rynda was known to comb the countryside in his Luscombe Silveraire airplane, his sharp eye scanning the ground below for another engine to add to his collection. By the time he died in 1971, Rynda had amassed a collection of perhaps 56 engines. On May 7-8, 2004, in a sale that was as much an event as anything, most of those engines were sold. Never before had the steam and threshing hobby seen so many engines in one collection – and in such a legendary collection – opened up for viewing and purchase.
But time has a nasty habit of taking its toll, and when Rynda's collection went to auction there was prevailing sentiment in some circles the engines wouldn't be fit for restoration, having sat too long out in the elements. Some opined the engines were probably junk in the first place, an opinion that wouldn't find much quarter with some former friends of Rynda, who know first-hand the care Rynda paid to his collection.
By the time the gavel fell on the auction, $433,400 and 44 engines had changed hands, and Rynda's collection was scattered, literally, to the far corners of the earth. Two engines went to South America, and at least two more were rumored to be heading out of the country. Even so, at least two of Rynda's engines stayed in Minnesota.
Eagerly attending the Rynda auction were Minnesota residents Doug Langenbach, his wife, Sandy, and their son, Steve. Hardly newcomers to the hobby, the Langenbachs have a long history in the steam and threshing community. Since 1979, the Langenbachs have hosted the White Pine Logging and Threshing Show at the Langenbach farm in McGrath. They also collect engines, and prior to the Rynda sale, they had already amassed a family collection of nine engines. By the time the sale was over, they had two more; an 1893 16 HP Avery return-flue and a circa-1920 30 HP Huber return-flue. More remarkably, by July 17, 2004, a brief two months and one week after the auction, the Huber was running.
According to Doug, the Huber hadn't turned a wheel in probably 50 years, and at auction its rear drivers and front wheels were rooted deep in the ground. Doug's heard rumors that when Rynda bought this Huber it was located 30 miles from Rynda's farm, and that Rynda drove it the 30 miles to get it home. Doug can't vouch for that story, but, he says, “When we cleaned out the barrel there was ash in it, and nails and screws; they were burning what they could.”
Before bidding on the engine, Doug ran ultrasounds to ensure its condition. The lowest reading he got was 0.46-inch. “Everything on it was in the fours, it all tested out heavy. I don't even know what they came with from the factory,” Doug notes.
Bidding on the engine was active, but when the gavel fell, the Langenbachs found themselves the proud owners of the 30 HP Huber. Getting it home, however, presented a few challenges. Because the Huber was firmly rooted in the earth, Doug wanted to make sure it wasn't damaged pulling it out. To work around that, his brother John worked a neat trick with his Bobcat loader. Taking a long tow strap, they wrapped the strap several times around the Huber's flywheel. Next, they attached the free end of the strap to the Bobcat. With the Huber's flywheel and gearing engaged, and the Bobcat pulling on the strap, the Huber simply walked out of its rooted spot as the flywheel turned.
Before the auction, Doug contacted his good friend Jim Greski for help hauling the engine in case he bought it. At the end of the auction, Jim showed up with his lowboy, as promised. “He'd put in a good day already, but he's a great guy and helped us anyway,” Doug says.
They still had to get the Huber on the lowboy, and help came unexpectedly from Connie Odenthal and his son Ted, who live in nearby Lee Center. “Connie didn't know us from Adam,” Doug says. “I'd met him only because he was bidding on the Nichols & Shepard, and he said to me, ‘Doug, you need help to get this thing on a truck, and we've got the equipment.'” That said, Connie and Ted drove home, jumped in their IHC tractor, and then drove the seven miles back to Rynda's to help the Langenbachs load the Huber on the lowboy.
Once the Huber was safely home, the Langenbachs didn't waste any time getting to work. Good friends Mark Snyder and Josh Ritchie pitched in, with Mark tending to the engine while Josh replaced all the plumbing with new schedule 80 pipe, along with all the valves. The engine was in remarkably good shape, and nothing on it required any machine work. That's not to say it didn't require some attention. Mark disassembled the engine completely, cleaned everything, polished the crank and rod, replaced the packing, retimed it (“He's a whiz at timing,” Doug says of Mark) and reshimmed the bearings.
The governor was badly worn, but neighbors Dave and Bobbie Haas pitched in, rebuilding the governor back to original specifications. Doug says the Huber still has its original injector, and that it “Works like a watch. All we had to do was clean it up.”
The front flue casting, which holds the front-mounted water tank, was damaged, and Mark repaired that. Doug says the water tank is original, noting, “When Josh and I went to take it off, there was 6 inches of sand in the bottom of it from sucking water out of creeks.” The original smokestack was shot, so Doug's brother Todd fashioned a new one from stainless steel.
A particularly remarkable piece of luck centers on the draft cover for the firebox. When Doug bought the engine, the cast iron cover was broken in half, and the lower half was missing. After the sale, Doug approached Rynda's son, Leonard, to see if there was any chance in finding it: “I went up to Leonard, and I asked if he'd ever had it. He turned and said, ‘Thirty years ago it was laying over there by the house.' We went over to where he pointed and dug, and we found it. For him to remember where it was, we were just amazed.” Todd repaired the cover, which is now on the engine.
Another unexpected was the condition of the flues, which are in excellent shape. It's always possible the Huber was treated to new flues in the distant past, but Doug says they're “100 percent, with no pits. There was some scale, but it came right off.” During hydro testing they took the boiler to 150 psi, with no sign of leaks.
One concession they had to make to get it ready for inspection was removal of the Huber's outer jacket and wooden boiler insulation, which Doug says was tongue-and-groove. Minnesota rules don't allow a boiler jacket, as a jacket makes it difficult to inspect the boiler barrel. “When we loaded the engine, we hauled it home that night, and the next day we tore the jacket off,” Doug explains. The uninitiated will never notice the missing jacket, but Doug notes that you can see how far it stood out by looking at the nameplate located on the right front of the barrel, which looks like it's floating.
All their work came together late in the day on July 17, 2004, when they fired the Huber up for the first time in perhaps 50 years. As they anticipated, it ran beautifully, and they played with it into the evening hours. “It was a long day,” Doug remembers, “and a long night, too.”
The Huber's first real outing came at the Langenbach's 26th annual show over the 2004 Labor Day weekend, where they put it to work on the sawmill. But after sawing a few logs, they noticed the engine was hammering, so they shut it down. Mark removed the connecting rod, and discovered some of the shims had come loose. Mark got everything back in shape that night, and the next day they sawed 3,000 feet of lumber.
Since getting the Huber running, a few problems have come to light. One of the main gears on the differential is badly worn, so Doug plans on pulling the drivers and having the gear turned and rebushed. It's also missing its lugs, and the Huber got stuck during the parade for the 2004 show. “There was rain, and it was like slicks on an icy street,” Doug says. Doug has found a Huber owner in Wisconsin who's willing to loan him a set of lugs (the lugs are handed, right and left) to use as patterns to have new ones cast.
So why did this Huber survive so well? For one, it was obviously in good shape when Rynda bought it some 50 years ago, and it's been noted that Rynda, while he still could, used to move his engines around to keep them from settling too far into the ground, and just to keep an eye on them. As importantly, Doug thinks the Huber's canopy (which was removed when the engine was taken off the Rynda farm) did its job, protecting the engine and mitigating the negative effects of outside storage. Doug has just about finished constructing a new canopy, and by the engine's next outing he'll have it in place.
“Steam Engine Joe” Rynda is long gone. But thanks to the driving spirit of the steam community, and the dedicated labor of people like Doug, Sandy and Steve Langenbach, Mark Snyder, Josh Ritchie and a host of others, Rynda's engines will be around for a long time to come. And what about the Avery the Langenbachs also bought? It's running, too, but needs to be reflued. But that's a story for another issue.
Contact the Langenbachs at: 28464 Century Court, Isanti, MN 55404; (763) 444-6958. To find out more about the White Pine Logging and Threshing Show, which is held every Labor Day weekend, contact John Langenbach at: 10951 Mayberry Trail N., Marine St. Croix, MN 55047; (651) 433-5067.