Steam Education

The University of Rollag's College of Steam Traction Engineering provides steam education to beginners and experienced operators alike.

| September 2001

As the steam traction engines move forward, driven by newly-minted graduates of the steam engine school, walkers suddenly fling gallon jugs of water underneath the machines, simulating a fallen person. 'The trick is that the fellow who is running the engine,' says Dr. Gerald 'Gerry' Gysler Parker, founder of the school, 'is supposed to stop before they run over this 'person', which provides a very exciting time. Sometimes we run over these 'people', and sometimes we don't.'

But classes at the annual two-day University of Rollag (Minn.) College of Steam Traction Engineering are not a lark, as any of the students or the instructors will tell you. 'Our steam education course does two things,' says Gerry, a dentist in Casselton, N.D. and licensed steam engineer. 'Safety and the good operating techniques that make the operation of the machinery completely safe — the maintenance of water level and that sort of thing. Then there's the efficient operation of the machine, so you can start it, stop it without jerking, back it into a belt, or back it up to something to hook it up to. Both the safety part and the operating part are important areas of our classes.'

Fifty-eight-year-old Gerry became interested in steam when he was 10 years old. 'My grandfather, Albert Gysler, was born in 1879, and started running steam engines when he was 16 years old. We used to talk a lot about steam engines, and I was just fascinated by it. So from that time until the time he died (when I was 22), whenever we got together all we talked about was steam. That was how my interest started.'

Albert Gysler ran steam engines at the annual Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion at Rollag, Minn., for several years, but Gerry was going to college and didn't make it up for any of the shows. After his grandfather died, Gerry decided to get involved at Rollag, 'running engines and doing those things we had talked about all these years.'

His first contact was not a positive one. 'At my first show in 1958, I walked up to an engine and asked an older gentleman — all the gentlemen then were older who were running these engines — if I would be able to ride with him in the parade. He looked at me as though I had insulted him. I walked away thinking I didn't want to ask anybody anymore. That was the way things were ran when I was first around there: if you were young, it was hard to break into the business.'

So Gerry broke in by himself, so to speak. As he became more and more knowledgeable and more and more involved, he decided that other people might want to learn about steam traction engines. In 1981 he decided to offer an evening workshop on steam. It went well enough that he decided to do more.