I’m too young to remember the days when steam traction engines and threshing crews roamed the farms of southeastern Pennsylvania.
I do remember threshing crews, but tractors with gasoline engines had long since put Case, Rumely and Frick engines out to pasture. Instead of two hours or more in the morning to light the fire to get steam pressure just to move the lumbering giants, a crank or starter button started the tractor for belt work.
But steam traction engines are still around. Full-size, table-top and operating scale models are there if you look for them. At shows you can see them, talk to the engineers, smell the smoke and watch the amazing power of steam.
My earliest experience with steam was as a young lad in Cumberland County, Pa., right between the Pennsy (otherwise known as the Pennsylvania) and Reading railroads. I was so close to both in Shepherdstown that I could ride my bike to them. The Reading passed right through my uncle’s dairy farm in nearby Bowmansdale and afforded an iron bridge overhead and an underpass beneath the thundering trains hauling coal from mines in West Virginia. If you’ve not had the opportunity to stand on an open iron bridge or under a stone abutment underpass as a steam locomotive passes, you’ve missed something scary, smoky and awesome!
As youngsters, we did it all. We stared wide-eyed from the iron bridge as the locomotive approached, belching black smoke. Sometimes there’d be two locomotives pulling the grade, with what seemed like miles of coal cars. We waved to the engineers from the side of the tracks – waiting for our pennies to reappear, flattened by the heavy wheels – and then waved to the conductor in the caboose as he went by.
Homemade ice cream is another fond memory of my childhood in the 1940s. Mom’s recipe was simple but rich and creamy with a taste not forgotten in the passing years. Our milk was the best. “Golden Guernsey” is what Harrisburg Dairies called it. Few breeds of milk cows yield butterfat content like the Guernsey. Uncle Dave and Aunt Katie, owners of a farm named “Fertility,” were our source of milk twice a week.
Now known as “raw milk,” the milk was simply cooled in the springhouse and brought home in gallon jugs. When it was put in the refrigerator, the cream came to the top and amounted to about one-third of the jug’s volume. Mom always gave it a few shakes before serving it in glasses to my brother and me, but when she made ice cream she poured the cream right off the top. The only other ingredients were a farm-fresh egg or two, a can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk and vanilla extract.
Our ice cream freezer was a contraption of sorts. It was originally a hand-cranked 3- or 4-quart freezer in a wooden tub, but my Uncle Wilson had helped my dad update it. The tub was secured to a board; next to it was a small electric engine. The crank had been removed; in its place was a large wire-spoke wheel removed from a wicker baby buggy in the attic. A leather V-belt fit in the groove that had once held the wheel’s tire and ran to a very small pulley on the engine.
In those days, home refrigerators had small freezers just big enough for two ice cube trays, certainly not enough ice to make ice cream. Otherwise, ice was only available at the local ice house. Dad’s solution was to make ice cream in the winter, using snow and adding salt as we do today to make the sub-freezing brine. Mom’s recipe amounted to enough for about 10 people. She always left room for expansion, or it came out the top as it froze into ice cream. The dasher inside the steel can was made of metal and wood; some today are still made that way.
We watched eagerly as the mixture was poured in the can and the can started turning. Dad put snow and rock salt in layers one after the other and pushed the mixture down with a stick. That made the salty brine that magically turned milk into ice cream. We could always tell when it was done because the belt flew off. Every effort to put it back and run the engine again resulted in a repeat.
Fast-forward 55 years to Los Angeles. As a member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum for a couple of years, and having built and operated a coal-fired locomotive, I became interested in 1/4-scale Case steam traction engines I found for sale online. Some were castings in a kit, some were complete and others were somewhere in between. None seemed quite right, so I kept looking, with the idea of running a belt-driven ice cream freezer always on my mind. One day a friend told me of a 1/3-scale, 2-cylinder, custom-built engine for sale in Iowa. A price was agreed upon, and the Gaar-Scott model was mine.
Then came the challenge of getting it from Iowa to Los Angeles. The engine weighs 1,850 pounds dry and measures 47 inches wide at the rear wheels and 7 feet long, making it a perfect fit in the bed of my pickup. Long-time friend and fellow LA cop Steve Gnerlich has made more than one road trip with me and joined me on this one. When we arrived at the seller’s place, we fired the boiler, drove the engine around the yard a bit to get comfortable with the controls and then proceeded with it on a trailer to the local John Deere dealer. We did a sling load off the trailer and onto the truck and off we went to California, about a ton heavier (including the wagon that came with the engine) than when we started.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, the first person to see the engine was a city boy who asked what it was. When Steve told him it was a steam traction engine, the guy asked, “How fast does it go?” “Well,” Steve said, “about an hour ago it was going 90!”
We unloaded the engine two days later, hydro-tested it and certified the boiler. After firing it, we ran the engine for 10 hours the first day. It is an awesome piece of workmanship and machinery. It is based on a 2-cylinder Gaar-Scott engine manufactured in Richmond, Ind., prior to 1905. It was custom-built by Morris Baer, a master machinist and hobbyist who’s also built locomotives. He put more than 3,500 hours in the scale model steam engine, and it shows.
A flat fiber belt came with the outfit, so all I needed was an ice cream freezer. I had previously researched Country Freezer, a company that sells Amish-built ice cream freezers and White Mountain freezer parts. Most were powered by 1-cylinder John Deere hit-and-miss engines; none were steam-powered. I spoke with owner Tom Graves and asked him about running one with a flat belt and a steam engine. He said he saw no reason that it wouldn’t work, but that I would need a flat belt pulley to replace the V-belt pulley that he supplied.
I ended up buying five flat-belt pulleys and an additional 4-inch rubber belt before I found the right one. The goal was to turn the freezer at 55 to 75 rpm. I chose a 22-inch diameter pulley and attached it to the freezer shaft. I got a digital tachometer, placed a piece of reflective tape on the inside of the freezer pulley and started the engine. Now we know how fast to run the steamer to get the desired speed. Oddly enough, all of the pulleys came from an old threshing machine in Illinois.
Much to my surprise, the steamer ran effortlessly and smoothly at first, then began to chug and chug as the steam cream hardened. At the end, the belt flew off, just like the belt did on our old electric model. Today I make ice cream just like my dad did decades ago, using layers of ice and salt, and I use a stick to push the mixture down into a salty brine.
What some refer to as the “Golden Age of Steam” is alive and well and will continue to be, as long as young and old recreate, restore and operate the steam engines of our grandfathers.
All of Terry Spahr’s ice cream recipes start with the same base: a commercial low-fat ice cream mix that he purchases from his local dairy. To each mix, he adds heavy cream at a ratio of 2-to-1 – 2 quarts of mix to 1 quart of heavy cream – followed by one can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk and 6 tablespoons pure vanilla extract. To this base, add 4-6 cups of golden raisins and currants that have been soaked in a fifth of 84 proof black rum for 10 days (or substitute rum flavoring to taste). Makes about 1-3/4 gallons. See a photo of Terry's Rum Raisin Ice Cream in the Image Gallery. FC
For more information:
– Terry Spahr, via email at FertilityFarm@aol.com
Farm Collector gratefully acknowledges www.discoverlivesteam.com, where this article first appeared.
See video of the Gaar-Scott making “steam cream,” as well as more of Terry’s homemade ice cream recipes.