Family Heirloom: The Kelly-Springfield Road Roller

1 / 7
This 1905 Kelly-Springfield road roller, one of only three known in existence, started its life working on roads in northern Colorado.
2 / 7
Restoration of the road roller, including a new front flue sheet, crown sheet and water jacket, took two years.
3 / 7
The Kelly-Springfield fits right in at its home in Museum A on the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion grounds, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
4 / 7
Dave Gross and his grandson, Russell Heerdt, are the proud caretakers of the 1905 Kelly-Springfield 12-ton road roller.
5 / 7
Russell spends much of his free time doting on the restored relic.
6 / 7
British-born engineer Edward Wright brought many British steam engine designs across the pond, including the horizontal steam dome.
7 / 7
The road roller wasn't designed to run a flat belt, so Wright's narrow flywheel design works just fine.

The future is now, at least for a 1905 Kelly-Springfield road roller owned by David Gross, Centennial, Colo. That’s because Dave isn’t the only caretaker of the 12-ton roller; his 13-year-old grandson, Russell Heerdt, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has taken an interest in the rare and beautifully restored behemoth.

On any given morning of the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant (or any of his school-free summer days, for that matter), Russell can be found tending to the single-cylinder Kelly-Springfield: polishing, filling the firebox, cleaning the grate, more polishing. He even starts the fire because, as he says with a smile, “I obviously have younger knees.”

Dave bought the Kelly-Springfield road roller (designated a 12-ton because it was built before standardized horsepower ratings) in 1958 when he was just 18. It had been used to maintain roads in Greeley and Boulder, Colo. He paid $500 for the Kelly-Springfield. “It was a lot then,” he says, “but less than others.”

The road roller, believed to be one of only three of its type remaining in the U.S., sat idle until three years ago. Then Dave took it to Huffy’s Iron Works in Mt. Pleasant, where it underwent a complete restoration.

At Huffy’s, the Kelly-Springfield was completely dismantled. All of its parts were cleaned and painted. A rusted-out water tank was patched. The standard locomotive-type boiler got a jacket fitted, a new front flue sheet, new crown sheet and was reflued. “With any steam engine, the condition of the boiler is very important,” Dave says. “It sat outside for so many years – but it is dry in Colorado so there was not a lot of corrosion.” A few additional castings were made, and then the Kelly-Springfield was put back together. It took more than two years to restore. But the care and detail of the restoration show in the roller’s detailed pinstriping and shining brass, as well as its flawless operation.

Wright’s influence

If the Kelly-Springfield road roller looks different than other American-made steam engines, it’s because it was heavily influenced by English designs. According to Dr. Robert T. Rhode and Raymond L. Drake in Classic American Steamrollers, in the early 1890s the company, then known as O.S. Kelly Co., Springfield, Ohio, hired British engineer Edward Wright, who convinced Kelly to improve its products using British ideas. (For more on Edward Wright, see The Patents of Edward T. Wright.) The Kelly-Springfield Road Roller Co. was founded in 1902 as an offshoot of the O.S. Kelly Co.

“What Wright did was bring the horizontal steam dome from England,” Dave explains. His designs also moved the valve above the cylinder, instead of on the side as is standard with American-designed steam engines. Another distinct British characteristic is the narrow flywheel. “Most other steam engines have wide flywheels you can put belts on,” Dave explains.

Dave’s Kelly-Springfield road roller can be run on wood or coal. He usually starts with coal, but runs on wood. The Kelly-Springfield also has two water tanks. A unique cab perspective was another of Wright’s innovations. “With most American-made steam engines, you enter from the back, but here you enter from the left side,” Dave explains.

The Kelly-Springfield Road Roller Co. went on to merge with the Buffalo Steam Roller Co. in 1916 and became the largest and most well-known manufacturer of road rollers, Buffalo-Springfield.

Moving forward

The roller is now housed in Mt. Pleasant, in Museum A on the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion grounds. “My daughter and her family live here. It’s a great place to have it – it’s a museum,” Dave says. And you won’t hear Russell complaining.

While his friends are more interested in video games, Russell is quickly becoming a steam enthusiast. “I’m interested because of how old it is and that it’s still around,” he says. “Being raised here, and my mom works for the Midwest Old Threshers, steam has fascinated me ever since I was young.” A 2010 graduate of the Old Threshers’ steam school, he’s still familiarizing himself with the road roller’s controls, but he operates the Kelly-Springfield road roller in parades, shows her off at the Mt. Pleasant 4th of July celebration and participates in the Midwest Haunted Rails around Halloween. He also works with model steam engines during special events. Russell says his granddad comes out from Colorado about once a month to tend to the Kelly-Springfield, and he enjoys working closely with him.

Russell’s fascination with steam doesn’t seem to be slowing down. And although he says he’d like to have one of his own, he’s not really saving up for one. For now, he has friends with models he can tinker with, and one day it will be up to him to continue the preservation of the Kelly-Springfield road roller for future generations. FC 

For more information: Dave Gross, 

Beth Beavers is the associate editor at Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine. Contact her by email atbbeavers@ogdenpubs.comor find her on. 

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment