More than 130 years ago, an elephant promoted as the largest in the world caused a sensation during an American tour. This winter, a Minnesota man and his girlfriend hope to re-create a bit of that excitement when they haul a rare steam traction engine named for that elephant – and a portable, working brewery – to California and back.
Greg Smedsrud, Battle Lake, Minnesota, and his girlfriend, Sue Martinson, plan to load a 1911 Harrison 17hp Jumbo steam traction engine and what is basically a portable brewery on a specially designed 53-foot semi-truck trailer. Setting out on a one-of-a-kind snowbird adventure, the two hope to make stops in California, Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Arizona.
“We’ll be going to breweries along the way and doing some exhibition brewing using this operation,” Greg says. “We’re most excited about the possibility of stopping next May at Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit near Bingham City, Utah, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of driving the golden spike in the transcontinental railroad.”
In the brewing demonstration, steam from the Jumbo will be run through a line to a separate, freestanding boiler. That boiler contains what brewers refer to as beer wort made from malted barley, essentially the starter liquid for beer. Using steam as a heat source, the wort is boiled for a few hours before it is pumped into a keg, where yeast is added. The mixture is fermented for a week or so – and then it is beer.
Manufacturer Capitalizes on Famous Name
The Harrison Jumbo got its name from a renowned circus elephant. In 1882, famed circus master P.T. Barnum bought an elephant, “Jumbo,” said to be the largest elephant in the world, from a London zoo. A consummate promoter, Barnum launched a media barrage, complete with souvenirs. By the time Jumbo crossed the Atlantic, enormous crowds greeted the elephant at every appearance.
Meanwhile, Harrison Machine Works, Belleville, Illinois, whose main product had been grain separators, began producing steam traction engines and wanted a memorable name for their engines. Owner Lee Harrison asked Barnum if he could use the name “Jumbo” for his new steam engine, and Barnum, figuring it couldn’t hurt his cause, agreed.
Greg, who enjoys old iron and classic cars, did not set out to add the Jumbo to his collection. Alerted by friends to an auction of Porsche tractors, Greg travelled to Clear Lake, South Dakota. At the auction, he bought a Porsche vineyard tractor to complement his car collection.
Then things moved in a different direction. While the auctioneer was calling for bids on a 1911 Harrison 17hp Jumbo steam traction engine, Greg and Sue were leaning against the engine’s rear wheel. “Nobody bid on it,” Greg says of the Jumbo. “The price went down ridiculously low.”
Suddenly, to Greg’s considerable surprise, the auctioneer pointed at him and called out, “Sold!’” As it turned out, Sue had been bidding. “She comes from a strong steam and gas engine family,” Greg says. “Her father, Milton Martinson, was largely responsible for the steam locomotive and 110-ton Wheelock engine at the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen’s Assn. Show in Dalton, Minnesota, and her brother and nephew are also extremely active in it.”
Bringing a Relic Back to Life
Greg planned to use the engine as field art in Battle Lake for passing motorists to admire. Those plans changed after Jim Briden of Larson Welding in Fargo, North Dakota, heard of them. “This is a rare engine that needs to be restored and shown,” he told Greg. “I’ve never seen one in these parts and if you restored it, you would never meet another one going down the highway.”
So Greg and Sue changed their minds, especially after Oliver’s Boilers of Auburn, Ontario, Canada, offered to come down and take measurements to use in building a new boiler. “That was in the fall of 2016,” Greg says. “Our only stipulation was that it had to be ready for the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag in late August 2017.”
The crew at Oliver’s said the job couldn’t be done in less than a year. “But after several conversations,” Greg says, “they changed their minds.” Meanwhile, other restoration work moved forward. “It was minor,” Greg says. “Some aesthetic stuff, but nothing that needed forging. No gears were broken and the wheels were in good shape.”
The biggest problem, identifying the correct paint colors, was solved on the SmokStak. “They told us it was sunflower yellow,” Greg says. “It was done through Jim Briden; it was a great job.” The new boiler arrived at Larson Welding in Fargo in spring 2017. By August it had been assembled, and the Harrison was ready for Rollag.
Advanced Design For Early Engine
The Jumbo has a unique drive wheel. The wheel measures roughly a foot in diameter larger than most others of the time. It also has a very large firebox. “That came in handy,” Greg says, “for getting large wood or coal fires going and burning hot.”
The engine also has a two-speed gear arrangement that allowed the operator to drop the intermediate gear away from the crankshaft gear, which was useful when the drive belt got in the gears.
“That two-speed transmission is really unique,” Greg adds. “It was extremely unusual to have a two-speed steam engine at that time, a work gear and road gear. Low starts at about 2 mph, and about 5-1/2 mph for road gear. But 5-1/2 mph will rattle your teeth’s fillings. It’s quite a ride.”
New Boiler Can Take the Heat
In Minnesota, working steam traction engines are required to be inspected annually. “They check for the boiler thickness, quiz you on your boiler and make sure you know the safety precautionary requirements,” Greg says.
Thickness of the boiler’s walls determines safe levels of steam pressure. The new boiler on Greg’s Jumbo is rated for 175 pounds of steam. “One SmokStak comment said using 175 pounds on that engine is like putting a Corvette engine into a Ford Pinto,” he says with a laugh. “We generally run at 125 pounds.”
With thin boiler walls, many old engines are allowed to operate at no more than 70 pounds of steam, which does little more than move the engine. “That’s the shame of a lot of these beautiful engines,” Greg says. “The boilers have not been taken care of well enough, so they get worn out. And boiler restoration can cost as much as $100,000.”
Careful Maintenance Essential
As a new steam engine owner, Greg knows he has a few things to learn. Last summer, for instance, he decided to set the engine aside until closer to departure time. “I figured I’d dump the ashes and clean the flues,” he says, “and then it would be ready to use when we were on our trip.”
But his friends at Dalton were having none of that. “They told me I was risking having it freeze,” he says. “They said whenever you’re done with the engine, no matter when you’re going to use it again, you clean it as well as if you weren’t going to use it for another year. It’s not like draining water from my little 2-1/2hp Fairbanks-Morse engine, or disconnecting batteries from all my cars and trucks. I thought I would wait three or four months with the Jumbo, but they said no.”
When show season ends, the work begins. “It’s not difficult or complicated,” Greg says, “but it’s methodical. Drain everything. The least little water in these old engines will freeze and break cast iron parts that are literally irreplaceable, or certainly difficult to replace. Everything must be clean. Anything with build-ups that could corrode cast iron and shorten the life of the engine has to be cleaned.”
That means taking time to make everything spotless:
vacuuming and blowing carbon build-up out of every pipe. “When we’re finished,” Greg says, “it’s literally spotless.” Getting the engine ready for the next year brings to mind the old steamer’s adage of water, water, water. “Make sure everything is all watered up, and throw fire in it, and it’s pretty much locked and loaded and ready to go,” Greg says. “All of us with these engines spend a lot of time greasing and doing that sort of stuff before we put them to bed. And I’m still learning.”
Working Engine Draws a Crowd
Greg says a lot of people have heard of the Harrison, but true to Jim Briden’s prediction, most have never seen one. At shows, people are drawn to the Jumbo, which is very different than engines built by more familiar names like Case or Rumely. “People are really intrigued with the Jumbo mechanically and the way it was put together,” he says. “And they like the fact that it works.”
Sixteen of the 17 steam engines at Dalton (“Home of the Giants”) are local engines, and Greg likes that. “They all kept their engines running, and kept them as part of the Dalton show,” he says. “Six of them still work here at the show.”
He figures the local engines boost show attendance. “Everybody knows which engine was associated with which family,” Greg says. “People come to see them, and reminisce about doing things together as families and neighbors in the old days.”
Conversations like those take him back to his childhood, when his dad told stories about neighbors getting together to thresh. “We attended the Dalton show every year since I was 7,” he says. “The fact that those big engines could do farm work intrigued me.”
Not Things, But Heritage
Greg has enjoyed learning about steam engines and how they work. “I’ve always loved the smell and the black smoke coming out of the smokestack, but the way steam worked mechanically was a complete mystery to me,” he says. “Now that I understand more, I’ve really grown to appreciate the various kinds of steam engines, and the many amazing things done with steam.
“It’s amazing to me, the things our forefathers could accomplish just by the heating water,” he notes. “It wasn’t just transportation. Early agriculturists used steam to get a lot of things done. Some of the things they came up with, from plowing fields to having a single engine run an entire factory, are just ingenious.”
Greg was bit by the classic car bug 20 years ago, and he readily admits that’s a hobby with a certain appeal. “But now, having been bitten by the steam bug, I find that it requires a much deeper commitment to the entire process than what I had with cars,” he says. “That’s about collecting things. A steam collection is not about the thing, but rather about the connection back to our heritage and history. The camaraderie and depth of understanding, and the appreciation that these guys with steam have, is a whole different feeling.” FC
Greg Smedsrud, 15805 Crooked Road, Battle Lake, MN 56515; (218) 770-2991; firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Jumbo’s winter tour, visit www.steambrewtour.com.
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: email@example.com.