The Steam-Driven Rustmobile

Steam-driven cart, the Minnesota Mad Hatter, showcases good old American ingenuity

| June 2013

Gene Zopfi learned to love old steam engines by example. “My dad and grandpa were farmers, and they had some antique steam engines and tractors,” Gene recalls. “When their Anoka (Minn.) club joined with guys at Rogers, Minn., they brought in a bunch of steam engines. I was young at the time, but I kind of liked the steam, so I started helping the older guys hauling wood, water and the occasional beer, just helping them out.”

Gene, who lives in Champlin, Minn., learned about running steam engines from experienced engineers like Russ Magnuson and Walter Schmidt. “I remember the first time I ever ran an engine,” he says. “Walter was a nice older guy who showed me the ropes and let me help run the sawmill at the tractor show. I was young and enthusiastic, and would get there early, before the others, to get the tubes and everything cleaned up, and water in the boiler, and maybe start a small fire and get it ready.”

One day when Gene was 20, he got the shock of his young life. “Walter said, ‘Today I’ll run the sawmill and let you run the steam engine, fire it and everything.’” That would have been enough excitement for Gene, but later, when it was time for the tractor parade, Walter pulled another surprise out of his pocket. “He said, ‘I’ll just sit here and you can drive it in the parade today.’ I bubbled all the way home,” Gene recalls. “That really got me interested in steam engines.”

During that time, Russ and Gene’s dad and granddad, Marvin and Ernest, were friends, so Russ paid regular visits to the Zopfi farm. “Russ was a really good friend, and when he came around to my folks’, or later to my place, he was just a nice guy who was willing to help with anything,” Gene says.

Prowling for parts

Russ wasn’t much for words, but he did say he wanted to build a steam-driven cart to drive around. Russ had always been a traveling kind of guy – starting as a youth during the Depression, when he’d headed out west to pick apples – but he always returned.

He became a traveling mechanic for Minneapolis-Moline Tractor Co., Minneapolis, which required him to travel all over Minnesota and the Dakotas. “In those days,” Gene says, “mechanics would travel from the plant to fix tractors on warranty right on the farm. So he would get an order, go to a place in North Dakota and change this engine, or whatever they wanted done, and away he’d go.”