Farm Collector

Circa-1927 Bryan Harvester Co. Steam Tractor

When a spectator at a recent thresher reunion discovered how much steam pressure the Bryan steam tractor produced per square inch, he ran away from it.

Peter Mandt, of Wahpeton, N.D., who restored the circa-1927 model of the unusual steam tractor, chuckles as he recalls the man saying, “I’m not going to stand next to that thing.”

But perhaps that man had good reason: The Bryan operates at 600 psi while other steam traction engines ran at a maximum one-quarter to one-third of that pressure. For example, a 1906 Minneapolis return-flue compound engine ran at 125 maximum psi, a 1912 19-65 hp Port Huron steam traction engine ran at 185 psi, and a 1907 14 hp Russell compound steam traction engine was government tested to 225 psi, according to Jack Norbeck in Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines.

“The early ones had one row of rivets in the barrel of the boiler and carried from 80 to 100 pounds pressure,” Norbeck writes. “Around 1915, when most manufacturers diverted to double butt strap boilers, the pressure was increased to 150 pounds. Some carried 180. This increased the power tremendously.”

Nothing is written about why George A. Bryan built a steam tractor with such high psi pressure, but some reasons are obvious: More pressure meant more operating power (the Bryan was rated to pull – optimistically – four 14-inch plows), and Bryan was thinking of using steam for more than tractors.

George A. Bryan’s brain child

The Bryan steam tractor was the brain child of George A. Bryan of New Mexico, who dreamed of building steam engines while growing up at the turn of the century. He started at the very bottom, literally and figuratively, wiping off railroad locomotives for the Santa Fe railroad. He moved up to fireman, engineer, locomotive inspector and, finally, chief inspector.

“He became enthusiastic about the use of steam power,” says Bryan Steam from the Peru (Ind.) Public Library, “and believed that the superheated system of steam locomotive engines could be condensed into a small, lightweight power plant that would be suitable to operate lightweight farm tractors, automobiles and other motive power-type applications.”

To that end, he spent two years developing the concept and, in about 1913, installed a steam boiler in an automobile.

“After driving the car over the mountains and through the deserts of New Mexico – over 10,000 miles,” says Bryan Steam, “he organized the Bryan Harvester Co. in 1916, with his father, Oscar Bryan, as a partner.”

Despite having built a successful steam automobile, the Bryans felt their opportunity lay in building a steam tractor, so New Mexico was deemed not the best location for a Bryan plant.

“In 1918,” Bryan Steam says, “facilities of approximately 27,000 square feet were purchased at Peru, Ind., near the center of the agriculture business at that time, and accessible to the sources of major steel suppliers and skilled workmen.”

Bryan Harvester Co. steam tractor

From 1920 to about 1928, Bryan Harvester Co. built two types of steam tractors.

The first was a lightweight (3,400 pounds) 26-70 hp machine which used Bryan’s revolutionary tube boiler with 600 pounds of working pressure, and 1,200 pounds of tested pressure. It used a 2-cylinder, 4- by 5-inch bore and stroke engine, with ground speeds varying from 1/8 to 7-1/2 mph. Its wheelbase was 88 inches, its length was 142 inches, height 64 and width 72.

The second was a 20-70 hp machine, but was actually pretty much the same machine with the horsepower cut “due to a limited steam reserve,” C.H. Wendel says in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. This second one, which weighs 5,500 pounds, is the model Peter Mandt has restored.

“I’ve always been into steam engines and tractors and stuff,” the 32-year-old Ford automobile mechanic says. “Mark Peterson of Luverne, N.D., inherited a Bryan from his uncle (legendary old tractor collector Norman Pross of Luverne, N.D.). I’ve been bugging Mark for a few years to let me take the Bryan and play with it.”

Meanwhile, Peter helped his father restore an old tractor (“It just led to more,” he says), attended steam school in Rollag, Minn., and got interested in steam engines.

“After I saw that Bryan,” he recalls. “I knew it was kind of a unique deal, and I wanted to see it run.”

Steaming up the Bryan

So in May 1999, a week before Memorial Day, Peter finally got Mark Peterson’s permission, and hauled the Bryan to his home workshop. It had not been run since it had been purchased in the mid-1970s.

“It had been sitting in the yard behind Mark’s house for quite a while, so everything was stuck,” Peter says. “The engine was stuck, but I didn’t have to spend a lot of time loosening it up.”

He cleaned out the fuel system, hydro tested the boiler (testing for leaks using water, which will not expand and explode, instead of steam, which will), and fired it up.

“I had it running about ten days after I got it,” he says.

Truth be told, Peter was a little bit leery about the machine’s steam pressure, too.

“It builds up pressure real quick. The first time I steamed it up, it reached a couple hundred pounds in three minutes,” Peter says, “because the tubes are so small, and it holds a very limited amount of water – about 12 to 15 gallons when it’s full – and the half-inch tubes are right in the kerosene fire, so it heats up very fast.”

It is designed to steam up to 600 psi in five minutes; this compares to the several hours required for a steam traction engine to build up its less-than-200 psi of pressure.

(Old-time newspapers used to revel in describing the arc and measuring the actual distance unfortunate threshermen were flung when these less-than-200-pounds-of-pressure traction engine boilers exploded. However, today these boilers on steam traction engines are strictly regulated and very safe, including the Bryan, whose greater pressure would not translate into greater explosions because it has such a minimal amount of water, Peter explains.)

Not your usual kind of steamer

The Bryan steam tractor is unusual in other ways, too. In the early 1920s, Motor Age magazine wrote, “The Bryan light steam tractor … marks a new step in tractor practice. For the first time in tractor history, this machine uses a high pressure superheated steam boiler, with a steam atomized fuel burner, in a form that makes it entirely possible to use the very lowest grade of fuel.”

“When I first started learning how to run the Bryan, and I’m still learning, I got a copy of the original operator’s manual,” Peter says, “and when I started reading about the fuel system, it was scary.”

The Bryan steam tractor has two fuel tanks, and its fuel system uses a gasoline pilot light and kerosene to heat the water. You have to hand-pump the pressure up on both of them.

“At first, I was a little leery of that system,” Peter admits, “but it’s not so bad now.”

That’s a steam tractor?

The Bryan steam tractor was unusual also because it doesn’t look like a steam tractor.

“People who are used to those big steam traction engines don’t know what this Bryan is at first,” Peter says. “It looks like a gas tractor. Some people come up and stand there and look for a little while until they finally figure it out, and ask, ‘That’s a steam engine, isn’t it?’ Then they have a lot of questions about how it works, and everything.”

Almost like new

Old tractors, especially 70-year-old ones, often need lots of work and show a lot of wear – but not this one.

“I know that Norman Pross bought it from a guy in Kansas City in the mid-1970s. But it must not have been used much, because nothing appears to be worn out on it,” says Peter. “There’s no wear in the holes in the drawbar; the wheel lugs don’t have any wear. There aren’t any wrench marks on anything. Usually when something’s been used, you can tell if they had a little bit of fixing that needed to be done, or if something had to be done to them. But not on this one.”

On Memorial Day 1999, Peter had the Bryan running. His plan was to show it a few months later at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion at Rollag, Minn.

But first, by law it had to be tested properly.

“The state of Minnesota tested it, and the first time they test a steam engine that hasn’t been working for a long time, they hydro it to one and a half times the working pressure,” Peter explains, “or in the case of the Bryan, to over a 1,000 pounds per square inch. Actually, I think they went up to 1,200 pounds per square inch on this one.”

So the spectator at the Rollag show a few months later, wouldn’t have had to flee. While the machine was there, Peter says it garnered a great deal of interest.

But then, the Bryan steam tractor has always garnered a great deal of interest. Farm Implements and Tractors magazine from the 1920s said, “The Bryan Light Steam Tractor has attracted considerable attention for several years, and the demand for the machine has been almost spectacular. We understand this tractor employs a small, compact steam power plant which is said to be decidedly economical. The fact that a steam tractor is a long-life proposition, having an abundance of stored power for emergencies, gives the new tractor an important place in the industry.”

Though Bryan Steam says, “The original Bryan (steam) tractor was highly successful … hundreds of tractors were manufactured and shipped throughout the United States,” figures were often routinely inflated during these times, so little is truly known about how many were actually produced. Regardless, not many of the unusual steam tractors are left. Peter says he originally thought three, but after showing the Bryan at Rollag, Minn., last summer, he upped that number to five: “One in the Henry Ford Museum, one in the National Ag Hall of Fame in Kansas City, one in Wisconsin, one in a museum in California and this one.”

Out of those five, Peter is only sure that the one he restored – and which belongs to his friend Mark Peterson – actually works.

Not just tractors: The Bryan steam-powered car

Like many entrepreneurs of the time, George Bryan built several different types of vehicles. One was the steam automobile, which used his patented boiler. The Bryan steam automobile used a boiler which featured 44 7-foot-long tubes heated by a Bunsen-burner type device to produce maximum working steam pressures of 600 pounds. The cars weighed 4,500 pounds and were painted two-tone platinum gray and robin’s egg blue, with black fenders. The upholstery was genuine leather, and the cars resembled Apperson automobiles of the times.

Only one Bryan steam auto still exists today. It would have been two if not for a series of unfortunate events, according to a Peru Tribune article in the 1990s. Betty Grant, Tribune correspondent, writes:

“In 1941, two Bryan Steamers (of the six built in Peru from 1916-1918) remained. (One of these cars) had been built for company president George Bryan, and had a smaller boiler than the other. In 1941 while (Bryan) was in Florida, the car was stored at the (Bryan) plant. Later, (for unknown reasons) the car was moved into a building used for obsolete parts. This building was later sold and the contents had to be removed. Bryan was called in Florida for instructions as to the disposal of the contents and he told them to scrap them, not knowing his car had been moved to this building. They followed his instructions to the letter.”

The Bryan steam-powered truck

Probably only one Bryan steam truck was ever built. A circa-1920 photo in Farm Implements and Tractors magazine shows a photo of the truck, car and tractor together.

“This photo was recently taken near Peru, Ind.,” the blurb says. “The truck and tractor are both products of the Bryan Steam Harvester Co., and we understand that production has started at two factories of the company at Peru.”

In 1925, Bryan lost interest in making vehicles, renamed the company Bryan Steam Corp., and turned his attention to using steam in the home, perfecting the Bryan water tube boiler. Bryan Steam of the Peru (Ind.) Public Library says, “It was compact, rugged, impervious to mechanical and thermal shock, and easy to service. It proved to be an ideal boiler for stationary applications, including hot water and steam space heating, and high and low pressure steam processing.”

These early low-pressure steam and hot water units were designed especially for oil or gas firing, “whereas,” Bryan Steam says, “most boilers at that time were fired with gas or oil, or were gas or oil conversions from the original coal design.”

Bryan abandoned steam just in time

Bryan got out of the steam vehicle business just in time, and in fact it was likely he got out because he saw the handwriting on the wall. The rising popularity of the gasoline engine forced companies to abandon steam autos, trucks and tractors.

But the Bryan steam tractor is not forgotten. “I enjoy it because it’s unique,” Peter says. “I like oddball stuff, I guess. It runs under high pressure and the fuel system is really neat. It might not be much to drive around and do anything with – it’s more fun to let it sit and run than anything else – but nobody else will run it. It’s just unique, and I enjoy that.” FC

Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.

  • Published on Jun 1, 2000
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