The average steam traction engine has a way of making a person feel small. But take a close look at Harry Wessels’ steam traction engines, and suddenly you’re Gulliver – for Harry’s relics are small scale.
His collection, which includes just about one of everything in every conceivable size, showcases a terrific trio: a Case, a Russell and what Harry calls an Aultman-Taylor. “It started with a 1/2-scale John Deere,” he says, “but I got to liking 1/4-scale; it’s just a nice size.”
Collection built from scratch
Harry bought the 1/4-scale Russell steam traction engine, a water wagon and a hay press in 1995. Background information on the pieces was non-existent. “The only information I got was that the Russell was purchased in a Florida antique shop 30 years earlier,” he says. A year later, he expanded his scale model steam collection by buying the Bahre collection.
Built by Walter J. Bahre, McPherson, Kan., in the mid-1960s, that collection included a 1/6-scale Case steam traction engine, a threshing machine, a smaller steam traction engine that resembles an Aultman-Taylor, a disc-type plow and a set of black-and-white photos of the pieces taken years earlier. The first time the collection was offered to him, he let it go. “I was interested in the threshing machine,” he says, “but considering I had bought the Russell only three months earlier, buying another collection seemed too much.”
Harry has little information about the background of the Bahre collection, as the set was sold to him by Bahre’s son, Marvin, some time after Walter’s death. The Case steam engine is a replica, built from castings and plans that have been available since the 1940s. The Russell is scratch-built, made from stock materials. As such, some features of the Russell are not true to scale. “The engine is completely out of whack,” he says. “The bore and stroke are way too big. For a scale model, that’s not a big thing.”
Crowd favorites at Vista
Harry displays his scale steam equipment at the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum (AGSEM), Vista, Calif., twice a year. He runs his steam engines and steam traction engines on compressed air at less than 20 psi. The Case steam traction engine, running and belted to the threshing machine, is a popular display. He sets up the display on a table and benches, varying the configuration every time. He uses a ramp to off-load the engines. “They may be small, but they’re heavy,” he admits.
Both the Case and the Russell run well. “They’re essentially trouble-free,” Harry says. “Oh, I might have to tweak one little thing but nothing big. Basically, you spend half your time lubricating them, and half the time cleaning up.” The Case is very quiet when running; the Russell makes a little noise. The Case runs the threshing machine at 8 psi. “It’s not generating a lot of energy,” he says. “It’s hardly enough to blow the whistle.”
Steam traction engines are inherently complicated, Harry notes, while steam engines are comparatively simple. “On a steam engine, you just hook up the air and they run,” he says. “But a steam traction engine, like the Russell or the Case, has all the complexity of the plumbing on a locomotive. If you understand steam engines, you can follow the plumbing on a steam traction engine.”
The threshing machine was a little banged up by the time Harry got it. It came with a big belt, and someone at some point decided to store the belt in the machine’s interior, which damaged some of the balsa wood structure. The piece needed all new leather belts. Through trial and error, Harry figured out how to glue the belts to the correct length under the right tension.
The Avery water wagon that came with the Russell is also scratch-built. “It’s not accurate to scale,” he says, “but it’s fully functional and the mechanics are great. It’s a wonderful piece; the wheels are just wonderful.” The hay press also works but Harry hasn’t put it to work at a show yet. “I’ve made blocks, but I haven’t cut slots for the twine yet,” he says. “Someday I hope to have bags of straw and use it at a show.”
No limits on collection
Engines in Harry’s collection come in all shapes and sizes. “They’re not all 1/4-scale,” he says. He collects with a loose goal of finding a variety of what he calls “oddball” engines. “There are a lot of different types of engines around,” he says. “It’d be nice to have a functional representation of all the different types to show the public how diversified engines really are. I’m more interested in showing, for instance, the difference between a V-8 and an inline engine, than in focusing on specific manufacturers.” Take his Conley V-8, which Harry refers to as a “male crowd pleaser².” “I’ve seen people come to the door, hear it, and start running to find it,” he says.
Engines have been a lifelong passion for Harry. Growing up on the farm provided him an early education in mechanical matters – and more. “In the country, the first grade teachers could tell the difference between farm kids and town kids,” he notes. “In the first grade, the farm kids already knew their fractions. They’d grown up handing their dads wrenches, and American wrenches are measured in fractions.” FC
For more information: Harry Wessels, 9083 Mesa Woods Ave., San Diego, CA 92126; (858) 578-2296; e-mail:
; online at:
Leslie McManus is editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com .