A historic New Giant traction steam engine gets a ground-up restoration
This is the story of the steam engine that almost wasn't. Fortunately, for traction engine fans, it's now the chronicle of a major restoration project. Wayne Kennedy, Danville, Iowa, is the owner and restorer of a rare 1902 New Giant traction steam engine. From all accounts, his latest undertaking may be the true definition of a total restoration effort.
Besides having restored several engines, Wayne has exhibited engines at the annual Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, for 26 years. He also has contributed 14 years of service to the Midwest Old Threshers Board of Directors. It's not surprising, then, to understand that a significant part of this New Giant's history is interwoven in the Old Threshers Reunion.
Milo Mathews, Mt. Union, Iowa, a long-time exhibitor at the Old Threshers Reunion, purchased the New Giant at a farm sale in Weeping Water, Neb., in 1951. It was featured on the cover of the 1952 May-June issue of The Iron-Men Album with this caption: "Here is an unusually well preserved and restored New Giant. It was exhibited at the Mt. Pleasant reunion (in 1951) and created a lot of attention."
The New Giant was a product of the Northwest Thresher Company, which was reorganized about 1899 from the Seymore, Sabin Company, Stillwater, Minn. The company manufactured the Minnesota Giant traction engine in approximately 1881, and then came out with the New Giant in 1900. Northwest Thresher Company wasn't a big production firm; consequently, few of their engines still exist. It is estimated that fewer than a dozen remain in the United States and Canada.
After Milo's death, the New Giant and a handful of engines were sold in at his estate sale on the Old Threshers grounds. The New Giant was purchased by a young couple who showed it at the 1986 Reunion before putting it in storage.
"The engine was in barely-running condition, and people wondered what would happen with it," Wayne remembers.
In the mid-1990s, the engine's owner began visiting Wayne to see if she could persuade him to buy it.
"I wasn't interested in it," Wayne says. "I basically told her what she had was a big pile of nothing. It needed everything." But in the end, faced with seeing the historic engine sold away from the area, or "turned into a flower planter," he ended up buying it to keep anything from happening to it.
The engine, with its return flue boiler and "a face only a mother could love," came home to Wayne's shop three years ago. This will be its home for the next four years as he painstakingly rebuilds the entire machine. He is targeting the year 2002 – the New Giant's 100th birthday – as the completion date for the restoration work.
With the work that Wayne figured the engine could possibly need, the job is anything but typical. Before starting steam engine repair, a restorer estimates the condition of two things: the boiler, and the gears. According to Wayne, the New Giant's gearing and wheels are in very good condition.
"For an engine as old as it is, that's really unheard of," he says.
He thinks that it probably spent very little of its life on the road. It was probably used as a stationary engine, such as a sawmill would use.
But when he looked at the boiler, Wayne discovered it needed significant repair.
"This is about as major a restoration project as anyone gets into, because of the work required," he admits.
This winter, a local welding company rolled new boiler plates for the engine. As of the first week of January, Wayne had them prepped to go back into the boiler. He cautions, though, that the boiler will never be "like new." It will still bear some unavoidable deterioration.
The gearing work may vary from the cosmetic – removing years of built-up scale, paint and grease – to fairly extensive machine work to recondition hubs. No matter: When Wayne, a tool-and-die maker at Tuthill Corporation, enters his shop at home, he tackles the work like it's all part of a day's routine.
How does Wayne sum up the project?
"It's going to take a lot of time, work and some dollars thrown at it," he says with a smile. FC
Karen Bates Chabal works in public relations (features and photography) for the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and has a growing interest in steam engines.