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
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
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.