Mike Wahl traces his interest in old iron to the tractor shows he attended as a boy, tagging along with his dad and grandfather. But while working with local steam enthusiast Danny Moerke in the mid-1980s, he began to focus on steam engines.
With Danny as his first mentor, it was soon evident that Mike had “steam in his blood.” After much searching and a lot of persuasion, Mike convinced his parents that they should purchase their first steam traction engine: a 1921 15hp Style K Farquhar.
Danny continued as Mike’s mentor until his death in 2005. Today, Danny’s legacy lives on through Mike, who lends a helping hand to others who want to learn about steam – including his daughters, 17-year-old Lilly and 13-year-old Maddy. The Wahls’ Farquhar – Mike’s teenage passion – remains the focus of a shared interest.
When the Wahls acquired the Farquhar in 1991, the engine was in working condition, so Mike ran it “as is” for several years. Since then, he’s added an original-style canopy, the rear deck, gear guards, a water tank, and a fuel tank. Five years ago, he completed major repairs, including boiler work, retubing, a new firebox door ring, and re-piping. “With a rare engine like this, it all comes with the territory,” Mike says. “Only a dozen or so are known to exist, and they must be preserved.”
Generally speaking, parts are not available for a machine like the Farquhar. “You can buy some piping and other general parts today, but most items must be manufactured,” he says. “We start the process by finding the remains of an old one to make a pattern from and then we continue with the machining process. Basically, nothing is commercially available.”
Growing up in the hobby
Now 17, Lilly can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in the hobby. “When I was 5 weeks old, I experienced my first steam engine,” she says. “And the more I’ve learned about engines and worked with them, the more my passion for them has grown. Dad, of course, and other people in the hobby have shown me the ropes.”
That means taking care of the engine, start to finish. “The first thing to do in the morning is ‘punch out’ (or clean with a wire brush) about 35 flues that run from the end of the firebox to the front of the engine to get rid of the soot,” she says. “The soot decreases the conductivity of the metal, so the water doesn’t heat as efficiently.”
Ashes must be scraped from the ashpan, and the water checked to make sure the engine can be started safely. “The water creates steam, which creates the pressure to run the engine,” she explains. “Steaming the engine up early, and firing under load, like in the sawmill, is definitely my favorite thing to do.”
The most difficult part of running a steam traction engine, she says, is that things are not always what they seem. “A simple fix often turns into something a lot bigger,” she says. “You don’t always see in advance which things are going to be affected.”
Design fluke makes belt operations a challenge
Lilly and her sister Maddy run the Farquhar at shows, as Mike is usually working in the sawmill. One aspect of the engine presents a challenge, Lilly admits. “The steering wheel and flywheel are on opposite sides, which makes belting up to a thresher or sawmill more difficult,” she says. “You can’t see where the belt is lining up, so it requires a lot of guessing.”
That steering/flywheel opposite-side configuration is very uncommon, Mike says. “Most steam engines were built with the flywheel and steering wheel on the same side to make it easier when belting up,” he says. “The Farquhar design allows for a clear line of sight when doing roadwork, like hauling wagons and grading, so it’s called a contractor’s engine. But belting up is a little challenging.”
Lilly says people would be surprised to know how much work is involved in running a steam engine. “It’s lots more than just throwing wood or coal in the firebox,” she says. “There’s lots of maintenance to be done. But I don’t mind. It’s a fun hobby. The equipment doesn’t make the hobby: It’s definitely the people who do. I have 10 dads and adopted sisters, and we’re all one big happy family. Whenever I need help, I can call any guy, and he will be more than willing to help.”
‘You can accomplish anything’
Being a young female in a hobby dominated by older men means that sometimes she has to prove herself. “But people in the hobby are always supportive,” Lilly says. “They want me to learn and keep growing, and I know that no matter how long I run engines, I will never know everything.”
For example, she learned that the maximum speed of a steam traction engine is only 2-1/2 mph. “That amazes me,” she says. “I think of how things were used on farms in the old days, and how much work it would be to go from place to place to get things done every day.
“Some people tell me how thankful they are that I’m showing other young women that it doesn’t matter what gender or age you are, you can do what you want,” she says. “As long as you work, you can accomplish anything.”
‘A big family from different states’
At 13, Lilly’s sister, Maddy, can do all kinds of work on the Farquhar, but she can’t get her operator’s license until she’s 16. “I enjoy the people you get to hang around with,” she says. “The old and young are happy to see me and my sister. I help when I can. I like working with a threshing machine, and taking the steam engine in the parade.”
Maddy prefers working with the engine when it isn’t pulling a heavy load. “You know how to fire better in a case like that,” she says. “When you’re cutting logs, you’re always adding wood, and the engine pulls hard.”
Even when they’re pulling hard, steam engines are quiet, Maddy says, a fact that might surprise a lot of people. “Once you turn off the banging and noise of the prairie tractors, and that kind of stuff,” she says, “you can barely hear the steam engines, because they’re so quiet.”
Maddy readily acknowledges that her interest in steam engines is not a typical pastime for a teenage girl. “I think my friends think, ‘Why would you do that?’ But I think they understand,” she says. “The steam family is a big family from different states. All those people have been good mentors to me and my sister. A lot of people like to see younger people on the engine, and keeping the hobby going.”
Hobby demands commitment
The Wahls typically burn wood in the Farquhar; otherwise, they use coal. Straw is not an option. “To burn straw in the engine, you need to set up the engine to burn straw,” Mike says. “It’s more specialized than just throwing in straw to burn. You need a different set-up in the firebox. It requires an arch brick that keeps the straw from getting directly into the tubes.”
Most people would be surprised at the amount of water a steam traction engine uses. “Working hard for a day in a sawmill could require 1,000 gallons of water, as well as large amounts of wood or coal,” Mike explains. “Steam traction engines have either injectors or pumps to inject water into the boiler, and the steam is exhausted into the air.”
Clean-up is the most difficult part of working with steam engines. “Getting them clean and looking nice is not fun,” Mike says. “Because of their open lubrication, at the end of the season, oil has run down and needs to be cleaned up. The boiler has to be washed out with water to remove all the scale, sediment and dirt. Inside the firebox, the tubes need to be cleaned of soot.” Some of the engine’s piping is taken apart to drain water to prevent freezing there. A light covering of oil is put on the firebox to prevent rust. And starting the engine for a new season requires reassembly of whatever was taken apart, and putting handholds back on.
Preserving the past
In addition to the Farquhar, Mike is working on two more engines, a 28hp Minneapolis and a 20hp Advance. “The Advance is my favorite because that was Danny’s engine, and the first one I was ever on,” he says. “I’m working on a complete restoration, and it’s not a cheap undertaking.”
But it’s worth it, because of those who remain interested in steam traction engines. Some remember steam engines at work on farms, he says, but that group grows smaller every year.
Others remember seeing the engines work with a threshing crew or on a sawmill. Or their grandfather had a steam engine, or the guy down the road had one. “Some people come to see what their parents and grandparents enjoyed,” he says. “Some find steam engines really fascinating. They want to see the equipment and understand how it works. They want to learn how a machine can go from almost complete silence to pulling hard on a sawmill or threshing machine.”
Bonds of iron keep the hobby alive
For Mike, the steam engine community is a big part of his life. “I enjoy the family and the atmosphere,” he says. “It’s a small group, and everybody knows everybody. That’s important to me.”
The Wahls’ steam family grew by one at the Edgar, Wisconsin, show this year, when David Hensley came from Virginia to attend the show. “Years ago, his grandfather owned this very same Farquhar engine. He used it on a sawmill,” Mike says. “David hadn’t seen it for 63 years and was elated to spend time with it at the Edgar show.”
With some 35 years’ involvement in the hobby, Mike understands the appeal. “I enjoy repairing and working on steam engines, and I like it when the engine is fired up and people are using the machine and enjoying it,” he says. “It’s neat to see the engine in operation, doing what it was designed and built for. Sawmilling is my favorite job.”
And then there are the bonds built through a shared passion. “It’s like an entirely new family,” he says. FC
For more information: Mike Wahl, N10447 County Rd. G, New Holstein, WI 53061; (920) 960-8735 (cell); email: email@example.com.
A.B. Farquhar Co. played a key role in the mechanization of American agriculture
Born in 1838, Arthur Briggs Farquhar began working for W.W. Dingee & Co., a small maker of agricultural implements in York, Pennsylvania, in 1856 at age 17. Shortly thereafter, he announced his plans to leave to start his own company.
“The firm,” Farquhar wrote in his 1922 autobiography, The First Million the Hardest, “laughed at my notion that I might start in business, but asked me not to leave for a month. At the end of that month, as I was getting ready to leave, they offered me a partnership.”
When the factory was destroyed in the 1860s, Farquhar took over the company’s liabilities and assets and renamed it Pennsylvania Agricultural Works. Later, the name was changed to A.B. Farquhar & Son, and finally A.B. Farquhar Co.
Like many early agricultural companies, A.B. Farquhar Co. produced a variety of standard agricultural implements: sawmills, threshing machines, plows, cultivators, grain drills, corn planters, horse powers – and steam traction engines. “The magnitude of the operations,” says Jack Norbeck in Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, “was such that the weekly consumption of iron and steel at that time (in the 1880s) was over 300,000 pounds, and of lumber from 50,000 to 100,000 feet.”
Fire boxes for the portable engines and steam traction engines were made of steel, “and the boilers,” Norbeck says, “had a remarkable record, not one having ever exploded.”
Farquhar products were sold all around the world. In 1952, A.B. Farquhar Co. was sold to the Oliver Corp. The company’s plant in York, Pennsylvania, remained vacant for several years before the buildings there were razed and the site redeveloped in the early 1970s.
Wisconsin group formed to preserve & advance the steam tradition
In 2002, Mike Wahl was part of a group of people who founded the Wisconsin Historical Steam Engine Assn. to educate people in the operation of steam engines. To that end, they hold a steam engine school each year. In 2019, it was held at the North Central Wisconsin Antique Steam & Gas Engine Show in Edgar, Wisconsin, in late August.
The school begins on Friday evening and runs through Sunday. “We have six to eight steam traction engines available so the 40 students – our limit – can get hands-on work with the engines,” Mike says. “We also have classroom work.”
Participants include novices who have never set a foot on a steam traction engine. Some remember a grandfather who had a steam engine. Others are people already involved with steam who want to learn more or refresh their training.
The $65 fee includes meals and books. Association members pay dues used to cover the expense of inspectors and other administrative costs. The point is to help preserve the steam engine tradition and educate a new generation.
The state of Wisconsin does not require a steam boiler license to run a steam traction engine, but Minnesota (and other states) do. “The Minnesota license requires you to have hours of experience, signed off by another licensed engineer,” Mike says, “and to pass a written exam.” Mike and Lilly are licensed (and Mike is an instructor), “and Maddy will have plenty of hours by the time she has to take the test,” he adds.
A member of the National Board Inspection Code (NBIC) body, Mike does his part to advance the hobby. “The NBIC makes the rules that govern the use of historical boilers used in many states and around the world,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be a part of that.”
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.