Jen Roth and Nicole Wallace aren’t afraid to get down and dirty while working on steam engines at shows and demonstrations around the U.S. and abroad. As co-founders of Ladies of Steam, LLC, the duo works to educate people in the historical significance of these antique engines.
Jen, who lives in Sartell, Minnesota, is a clinical psychologist at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Nicole, who lives in the Detroit Lakes area of that state, is an agricultural engineer. “I help farmers and landowners apply conservation in the fields, so I design plans and projects that help protect our natural resources,” Nicole says.
Both women grew up in families full of steam enthusiasts and have had hands-on engine experience since their early teens. The two met in 2011 at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR) in Rollag, Minnesota. “We connected right away and started to get to know one another,” Nicole says. “We ended up going to steam shows together. It was enjoyable, having another female friend to go with.”
WMSTR is an annual, non-profit steam show that draws crowds of nearly 80,000 each Labor Day weekend. “Rollag is fortunate to have a lot of women involved in steam,” Jen says, “yet there’s still not a lot of women in the grand scheme, so it was really wonderful to meet Nicole.”
Putting an emphasis on education
As they became better acquainted, Jen and Nicole hit on the idea of establishing a platform where interested people could share their interest in the steam hobby. When they started a Facebook page in 2015, they never expected to draw steam enthusiasts from more than 60 countries. “We had international participation within the first week,” Jen notes, “and currently have more than 10,000 followers.”
The two make appearances at steam engine demonstrations and shows, and also get involved with educational programs. Steam schools put on by clubs across the nation offer hands-on training and safety instruction. The Ladies of Steam are a natural fit for such events, and at others they conduct.
“Through our ‘Women Teaching Women’ events, we encourage women and children to get up on the engines,” Jen says. “We teach them the basic anatomy of the engines and give them the chance to pull the levers and get a feel for what it’s like to run an engine.”
Nicole is currently restoring a 1919 16hp Minneapolis steam engine. As part of the restoration, she designed a new boiler for the engine. Her engine, one of just seven of its kind known to exist, was likely used to power a threshing machine. The size of the engine makes it less threatening to those unfamiliar with mammoth machines.
“I wanted a smaller engine, as I noticed people in the audience were less intimidated by them,” Nicole says, “and I enjoy being able to share my passion with others.”
Jen, along with members of her family, owns and operates a 1916 28hp Minneapolis engine housed at WMSTR. The family can be seen on the engine during steam school and at the club’s shows, working at the Thick n’ Thin Sawmill, participating in spark shows, teaching, and making a “Sunday run” through the campground. During the Sunday run, children — sometimes more than 100 during the course of the day — enjoy rides on the engine.
Both women are hands-on engineers, fully capable of rolling up their sleeves to clean and maintain engines and conduct repairs. “We can’t just go to the local auto parts store, so we have to build and remake parts, rebuild castings, and that kind of thing,” Nicole says. “Everybody has their expertise, so for some parts, we contact friends who have skills we don’t.”
Steam engines offer an authentic experience rarely available with contemporary engines. “They’re beautifully complex engines,” Jen says. “It’s incredible, being able to walk up to something and see all the moving parts. It’s a unique experience we don’t often get anymore with all the technology and computer systems; you can’t see what’s making things work.”
It’s as though the engines come to life as living, breathing pieces of iron, Nicole says. “But it’s really about the networking opportunities and amazing people we get to meet through the hobby,” Jen adds.
Creating a way to fund their mission
Jen and Nicole volunteer their time at appearances and demonstrations. Proceeds from T-shirt sales fund steam school scholarships for women and general operating expenses.
In 2019, the two branched out, recruiting other women in the hobby to participate in their inaugural Ladies of Steam 2020 calendar, which they sold through www.Etsy.com. “We wanted to include women on a global level,” Nicole says. The calendars were an immediate success, selling out on the first printing. A 2021 calendar, also available from Etsy, will be available this fall.
Sometimes, they promote the steam hobby just by wearing their own brand. “When Nicole and I were traveling to Wichita, Kansas, last fall, we were wearing Ladies of Steam shirts and jackets,” Jen says. “Those were real conversation starters. Something like that allows us to start an entire dialogue that’s focused on keeping history alive.”
A rare opportunity at a world-class event
In 2018, the Ladies of Steam traveled overseas for the first time, attending the Great Dorset Steam Fair in England, where they operated an engine, a rare opportunity for anyone from the U.S.
“It’s the world’s largest show and that year was its 50th anniversary,” Jen says. “We ran a 22hp undermount Avery owned by Scott Hall, Wichita, Kansas, to demonstrate how plowing was done in the U.S. a century ago. In England, the fields are a lot smaller and they do cable plowing, while we have the direct pull-behind plowing.”
Steam engines were used quite differently in the U.K. than in the U.S., Nicole notes. There, beautifully embellished showman’s engines were commonly used, as were road locomotives, steam trucks and engines designed for cable plowing.
The engines used in cable plowing work in pairs, connected by a cable pulling the plow from one side of the field to the opposite side. The sound of soil being turned over for the first time in a demonstration at the Dorset show was an experience both women say they will never forget.
Engines manufactured in the U.S., on the other hand, were designed primarily for agricultural uses such as sawing, plowing and threshing. American-built engines were typically heavier and had higher horsepower ratings.
Keeping the hobby vibrant
As young women joining what has long been a male-dominated hobby, the Ladies of Steam have enjoyed a positive response. “There’s going to be a mix of reactions no matter what you’re doing, but we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive amount of feedback,” Jen says. “I can’t tell you how many older gentlemen have come up to shake our hands and tell us we’re doing wonderful work. And we have just as many men come to our ‘Women Teaching Women’ events as we do women.”
Female attendees at their demonstrations range from toddlers to the elderly.
“It’s really fantastic to see generational interest: moms and daughters, and moms and sons,” Jen says. “There’s really a wide range of women of all ages who are learning steam and many are already well-versed in it.”
Nicole says it’s gratifying when long-time steam engine enthusiasts tell them the hobby is in good hands, thanks to their hard work. “They see that future generations are involved and the hobby is growing and living on,” she says. “It just keeps fueling us to do what we’re doing.” FC
For more information: Ladies of Steam are on Facebook and Instagram. Email them at email@example.com.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian, with articles published by the Associated Press and the USA Today Network. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.