The Steam-Driven Rustmobile

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

| June 2013

  • Mad Hatter
    Known as the Rustmobile or Mad Hatter, this conveyance is a combination of parts from various machines, built by Russ Magnuson.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • C H Dutton Boiler
    The C.H. Dutton boiler, complete with hand-shaker grates, whistle and water siphon.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Gene Zopfi And Friends
    Gene Zopfi (center) with his mentors several years ago. Gene Rogerman (left) built the scale model Case steam engine; Russ Magnuson is shown at right. Both Gene Roggerman and Russ are since deceased.
    Photo Courtesy Gene Zopfi
  • Gene Zopfi
    Gene Zopfi with his Minneapolis-Moline 445 diesel. Gene's collection of about 35 pieces of old iron includes a 1925 Minneapolis cross-mount tractor, a 21-32 Twin City (as well as a J and KT-A) and this tractor, "kind of a rarity," he says.
    Photo Courtesy Gene Zopfi
  • Rockford Twin Clutch
    The Little Giant is powered by the red manual transmission (at right), then the Rockford twin-disc clutch (the round gray object at center, with the chain going down to a jackshaft) to power the machine.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Mad Hatter Piston
    The Mad Hatter's piston came from a reciprocating steam engine in an Elk River, Minn., creamery.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Main Governor
    The steam engine's main governor.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Ash Door
    Ashes are removed through a door cast with the boiler manufacturer's name: C.H. Dutton Co. Kalamazoo, Mich.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • 1924 Minneapolis Steam Engine
    Gene's 1924 24 hp Case steam engine (serieal no. 8692). The engine was used to run a sawmill in Swiss Falls, Minn., for several years before it went to Rollag, where Gerald ;'Doc" Parker ran it for quite some time.
    Photo Courtesy Gene Zopfi
  • Steering Wheel
    The steering wheel was salvaged from a Model T.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Steam Oiler
    The box with the copper tubing is the governor; it taps into the main steam line, which will carry oil to the steam valve and piston.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Little Giant
    The Little Giant's name and serial number show on the plate covering the opening where wood is added.
    Photo By Bill Vossler
  • Whistle
    The Little Giant is capped off by a whistle. Beneath it, an array of pipes and valves route steam through the throttle valve to the governor to the engine.
    Photo By Bill Vossler

  • Mad Hatter
  • C H Dutton Boiler
  • Gene Zopfi And Friends
  • Gene Zopfi
  • Rockford Twin Clutch
  • Mad Hatter Piston
  • Main Governor
  • Ash Door
  • 1924 Minneapolis Steam Engine
  • Steering Wheel
  • Steam Oiler
  • Little Giant
  • Whistle

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.”