Trace the history of most antique steam engines, and you’ll find a sawmill or farm. Dean Alling’s 1920 20 hp Minneapolis steam engine has all of that, and a bit of glamour as well: it was featured in the 1956 film “Friendly Persuasion” with Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire.
“The old steam guys who’ve been around a while, they always recognize it from the movie,” Dean says.
The stint in Hollywood didn’t do the Minneapolis steam engine any harm, but years of use on the farm and sawmill left the antique steam engine worn out. It was used at a sawmill in Wausau, Wis., into the early 1950s, and on a farm prior to that.
“If a steam engine has been used to plow, the gears are worn out, and if it’s been used on a sawmill, the boiler’s worn out,” Dean says. “This one was just all worn out.”
The steamer was acquired by a collector and moved to Oceanside, Calif., in 1955. It was used in parades and later parked at the Del Mar Park, where it sat for at least 10 years, the victim of benign neglect. In ensuing years, the Minneapolis steam engine went through a series of owners. It was torn apart for restoration, but the project never advanced beyond that point.
When Dean found it in 1995, it had been in a pile of pieces for 20 years.
“It was literally a basket case,” he says. “It was all in pieces, completely rusty. A lot of people looked at it and passed on it. When I went to look at it, I went through all the parts, held pieces up to the engine … it looked like everything was there to make an engine run. But there was absolutely no plumbing on the engine at all.”
That was the beginning of a four-year project entailing countless thousands of hours of work.
“I got pieces from 10 or 12 different states,” he says. “I figured it was pretty worn out, but almost every piece had to have work done on it, and I don’t just mean paint. Just about every piece was bushed, bored, trued or cut.”
The biggest challenge, he says, was finding a governor that would fit.
But the most work came in replacing the crown sheet on the top of the firebox. “I had to have a boiler shop weld in a new sheet, because of codes,” he says. “And we took out 66 stay bolts, and put threaded bolts in like the original.”
The restoration is complete, except for a canopy, which is under construction now. Canopies were optional equipment on the Minneapolis; Dean doesn’t know if his steam engine came with one or not.
After complete restoration, the steamer runs like a dream.
“It runs great,” Dean says. “It’s nice having the original pressure (150 lbs.) on it, so we can work it. We’ve run a sawmill with it and plowed with it.”
A project as mammoth as this one is not for everyone, Dean says. “But if you know what you’re doing, and if you like doing that kind of work, it’s a great project.” FC