Buying a steam engine is serious business. Most engine owners spend years in unofficial apprenticeships, mastering the intricacies of engine operation. When Allen Villmow, Delmont, S.D., went looking for his first steam engine, he didn’t have a lifetime of experience to bank on. But he did have a lifelong dream.
“In the early 1960s there was a farmer in our neighborhood who had about seven steam engines,” he says. “I only saw them being used a couple of times. What fascinated me was how powerful they were and yet how quiet. They were much quieter than the tractors my dad was using at that time. One of my uncles was in the Army. He always talked about the giant steam train engines he saw. I was hardly ever around steam engines, but in the back of my mind I always thought I wanted to at least drive one, if not own one, someday.”
Pick of a pair
When Allen reached a point where his children were grown and both his leisure time and disposable income increased, he began a serious search for a steam engine. Eventually, he found not one but two steam engines for sale: two 80 hp Case engines built in 1916. “The family that owned them was in Minnesota,” Allen says. “One was running, the other was torn apart and needed some restoration. Before I could decide which machine to purchase, I had to drive up and see them.”
As it turned out, the running engine had boiler problems, so Allen opted for the basket case. It came with a fascinating story of its own. In the years leading up to World War II, a northern collector built a collection of 50 Case tractors and steam engines. When scrap metal drives were held as part of the war effort, the collector found himself scrambling to protect his investment.
“This engine had sat outside since 1930 (earlier it was used on a farm), so it looked like the kind of junk the scrap drive organizers were looking for,” Allen recounts. “But the owner of the collection cited false mortgage papers as a way to keep from surrendering his tractors and engines at that time. He convinced them the machines couldn’t be sold.”
Allen was starting big: The 80 hp engine is among the biggest steam engines Case built. With what he paid for the engine, Allen could have purchased a new pickup – but by that time he was in with both feet.
Engine restoration 101
The first step in the process was finding a mentor, someone to coach Allen through the process of reassembly. “The guy I bought it from was very helpful,” he says. “He grew up with steam engines and had the ability to recognize the parts I needed when he saw them. I took about 80 photos of the steam engine that was running so I’d know how to put this one back together.”
Before he began reassembly, Allen disassembled and sandblasted additional pieces. When he was ready to start reassembly, a former Navy pipe fitter who lived nearby lent a helping hand. Careful, methodical work paid off: The engine’s boiler passed South Dakota boiler inspections with flying colors.
The engine’s hitch was built in Fargo, N.D. “I had all the irons for the hitch but I needed about 200 holes drilled in them so I could rivet the hitch to the machine,” Allen says. “The day I had the parts in the shop, they were short a man, so I was able to help drill the holes. It took six of us about six hours to finish the drilling and riveting that day. It was enjoyable.”
Learning the routine
Steam engineers must be patient and relentlessly attentive. “It takes about two hours from the time you light the fire in the firebox until you have about 70 pounds of steam pressure,” Allen says. “That’s the minimum amount of pressure you need to walk the machine around. It seems to take a long time to build the pressure, but once it gets going you have a lot of power in a hurry.”
If the machine is simply cycling and providing power to move the engine without pulling a load, the initial fire will keep it going for about three hours. If it’s working in the field, Allen says, a hotter fire is required. The engine is rated at 150 psi; boiler capacity is 252 gallons.
“The wood most people put in their firebox is too small and it burns too quickly,” Allen says. “I keep my wood about 40 inches long so I don’t have to feed the firebox so often. That also keeps the heat distributed over the whole firebox. You can burn cottonwood, but it doesn’t last a long time. Ash burns slower. Feeding it consistently will maintain a hot fire. If you have a lot of pressure building up, you have to do something with it or you’ll have a pop-off, which you don’t want.”
The first time Allen started his engine, the family who sold it to him spent a day at his farm helping him get it heated up and showing him the ins and outs of operation. Even after completing steam school at Rollag, Minn., he finds the process of running the Case a challenge. “It’s still nerve-wracking,” he says. “The more I work with it the more comfortable I get.”
Allen plans to put the Case to work. After restoring the engine, he built a 12-bottom plow to use with it. The plow is so massive that he doubts he’ll ever haul it anywhere. “I own a field about 12 miles from my farm,” he says. “The plow is 25 feet long and 16 feet wide so I won’t be able to haul it; I’ll pull it down the road. It will be slow going and take a lot of grease because there are no bearings in the plow wheels.” In order to polish the moldboards before he gets to the field, Allen plans to use his plow in a nearby gravel pit where he hopes the sandy soil will do the job.
Allen did his homework before launching into plow manufacture. “I visited with a guy who had a lot of knowledge about plows,” Allen says. “There aren’t many plows around these days because most farmers don’t plow at all anymore. I found a John Deere pull-type plow that was close to the design of the plows once used with steam engines. I bought quite a few plows to get enough pieces for this 12-bottom. I ended up making some pieces that were missing.”
Making life better
Each time he fires up the Case, Allen reflects on how farmers must have responded to the incredible power steam engines brought to rural areas more than 100 years ago.
“My dad hated the temperamental issues he had with horses, the runaways and all the other issues that came with using horses in the field,” he says. “He couldn’t wait to have machinery to do the job of horses. For breaking sod, horses just didn’t have the staying power that machines have. The labor-saving aspect of steam engines must have been tremendously important for farmers.
“Steam engines did take an enormous amount of wood and water,” he admits. “And I know it took a lot of planning to get them ready to work in a field. I remember seeing piles of wood that farmers gathered in winter so it would be ready for spring fieldwork. And hauling a steam engine was quite a process at that time. Still, no one seemed to back away from the steam engines. Like so many other labor-saving devices, they made life much better.” FC
For more information:
— Contact Allen Villmow, 39921 289th St., Delmont, SD 57330; (605) 779-6971.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at email@example.com.