In the old iron hobby, we are so accustomed to mysteries that we don’t always think to turn to the best resource we have: each other. When I stumbled on to a wonderful piece of folk art — a lovingly handmade scale model of an Aultman-Taylor steam engine in an antique shop, I was so completely captivated by the piece that it never occurred to me that I might actually track down the builder.
In the February issue of Farm Collector, I wrote about the model I’d found and included a photo of the piece. About 15 minutes after the issue arrived in readers’ mailboxes, I heard from David Lowe in Wichita Falls, Texas. David was excited to report that he had not one but two models that he was sure were the work of the same person who’d built mine. “Holy Wakarusa!” I thought. “How amazing is that?!?”
David bought his about 15 years ago in El Dara, Ill. — roughly 50 miles from the small Missouri town where I’d found mine. And while the clouds of time had fogged over some aspects of that purchase, he remembered two interesting details shared by the seller, the owner of an antique shop there. The seller originally had five of the models (David bought the last two, an Advance-Rumely and a Reeves) and the builder, he said, lived in Hermann, Mo.
As I chewed on that information, an email fell into my inbox from Craig Dobbins in Iowa. He had yet another of the models from the same builder (a Nichols & Shepard 16-50)…and he was personally acquainted with the man: Bob Hart, of Hermann, Mo.
Bam! I dug through a stack of business cards and called John Wilding of Red Barn Crafts & Antiques in Hermann. I’d met John at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and he’s a regular in our “What Is It” section each issue. If anyone could lead me to Bob Hart, I figured John was the man. “Oh yes,” he said. “I walk past his door every week when I deliver Meals on Wheels.”
This world we live in, I reflected, is a very small place.
When Bob and I finally connected via phone, I was star-struck. Bob, on the other hand, took it all in stride. The models are, after all, old hat to him.
“I started pretty young,” he admits. “The first one I made was a Peerless in the late 1940s. It just went on from there.” Quite a ways on: Now 80, he’s built more than 100 in the decades since. “It’s a good way to pass the time,” he says. He’s built them all: A.D. Baker, Keck-Gonnerman, Russell, Peerless, Advance, Advance-Rumely, Aultman-Taylor, Nichols & Shepard.
The art of creating a scale model slips pretty quickly into the science end of the operation. But Bob’s not a slide rule kind of guy. Instead, he takes a good look at a full-size engine and jots some measurements. Then he gets to work. In about three days, the typical mantelpiece (as Bob refers to his projects) is complete. “I don’t get in a hurry,” he says. “I have to take breaks to make sure Matt Dillon keeps Dodge City in shape.”
Other than time, Bob doesn’t have a lot invested in his hobby. “I get cans from body shops and cut them up,” he says. “I roll out boilers to 12 inches long; firebox, 4 inches long; smokebox, 2 inches long,” he says. He uses a blunt nail to make rivets; dowel rods from the lumberyard work fine for spokes and hubs. An ice pick is at the ready, used as a marker. “It works better than pencil,” he says. His tools are simple too. “Just tin snips and solder rods,” he says. “I just use barn tools, I guess you’d call them; nothing fancy.”
And his workshop? “I make them in the kitchen,” Bob says of his models. “Most sensible people wouldn’t do that, but I can work there and when I get hungry, I have a sandwich and canned beans.”
Bob’s talents don’t stop with steam engines. He’s also crafted models of separators and binders, some of which he hitches to teams of tiny plastic horses. And, as a lifelong fiddle player, he also builds working violins from hard maple. “You have to have a hobby,” he says. “From 1953 to 1955, while serving with the U.S. Army in Korea and Germany, that was the only time I wasn’t working on a hobby.”
Today he keeps a fond eye on children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who’ve followed his lead. “I have a teenage granddaughter who knows how to run a steam engine as well as any man,” he says.
And once the weather eases into spring, he’ll be on the job again. “I’m behind now,” he says. “I have orders for an Advance-Rumely and Case. I even got tiny little decals for them.”
Bob’s spent his entire life around steam engines. “I’ve pitched a lot of bundles,” he allows. His earliest memory of steam engines drops back seven decades. “Bill Hillmer threshed for my dad in the 1930s,” he recalls. “He had a 19 hp Keck-Gonnerman and a Keck-Gonnerman separator. When he finished, Dad asked ‘What do I owe you?’ ‘Doggone,’ Bill said. ‘You’re going to pay me? I wish I had more customers like you.’
“Bill charged my dad $30. Dad paid him and then Bill handed him a bottle of whiskey. ‘You’re a good customer,’ he said. ‘You take a good one.’ Bill always said a swallow or two would keep you going on a hot day.” FC
For more information:
— Bob Hart, West 18th St., Apt. 5, Hermann, MO 65041.
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.