Steam-driven cart, the Minnesota Mad Hatter, showcases good old American ingenuity
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.
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.”
Russ also traveled in his work as fleet manager for Northwestern Bell. While on the road, he scouted stray parts for future projects. “Whenever Russ and I traveled, somebody would ask where Russ was,” Gene says. “He’d be out in a junk pile looking for something. He was always looking, always scrapping. He had an idea of what he wanted to build, and after a while, when he’d found everything he needed, he would build it.”
Two utility buggies with 25 hp Briggs & Stratton engines were among the early builds. “He didn’t have a welder, so he always had to bolt everything together,” Gene says. “He sold me one of those buggies, and I used to have it here and drive it around the farm. I had it at the Nowthen (Minn.) show a couple of times, but I had to make room in my sheds for other stuff, so I sold it.”
After that, Gene says, Russ wanted something to drive at shows and parades. “Guys of his generation were friends and steam fanatics,” Gene says, “They’d find parts and get together and build things. One of those was the Rustmobile – or the Mad Hatter.”
Russ’s steam-driven creation is an unusual machine to see at a farm show (or anywhere, really). A homemade device cobbled together with disparate parts, it uses the frame of a Model T auto, wheels from a Ford Falcon (adapted to make the rims fit), front and rear Model T axles (cut and narrowed), a jackshaft to reduce the speed of the 1935 Plymouth transmission, a Rockford twin-disc clutch off a 4-cylinder Wisconsin engine, a Model T steering wheel and emergency cable handbrake, and a Little Giant steam boiler (serial no. 1244), manufactured by C.H. Dutton Co., Kalamazoo, Mich., dating to about 1925.
“That came from a hat company in Minneapolis that used steam to make hats to fit or shape them to size,” Gene says. “The pulley came from a steam engine that ran cream separators at a creamery in Elk River, Minn.” The Case plate attached to the side? Probably just for looks, Gene says.
The result is an odd-looking machine that careens around the occasional Minnesota tractor show at about 2 mph. “You can only drive it for 500-600 feet before you have to wait to get the steam back up,” Gene says. “But if you just sit there and idle, it makes a heck of a nice display.”
The Rustmobile burns oak or slab wood that Gene gets from cabinet shops. To get it running again, all he has to do is to put the handholds back in the boiler, add water, start the fire, let the pressure build up, then engage it and go.
“Once we belted it up to the edger at a sawmill and it worked for a little bit, but the capacity of the boiler limits long-term operation,” Gene says. “Russ would bring it to the Nowthen show, and I always helped him unload it. When he got older and couldn’t handle the work anymore, he offered it to me. He said, ‘Gene, I think you should own this.’ I said, ‘If you think so, I guess I’ll have to buy it from you.’ We made arrangements, and I bought it.”
At the time, Gene had other irons in the fire, so he stashed the Rustmobile in a shed. “It was always on my back burner,” he says. “I didn’t decide to take it out until a younger buddy came over and said he’d like to help me get it running.” That involved new piping with different pressure release valves and a state inspection. The Rustmobile was approved at 135 pounds of steam per square inch. “That’s pretty good for an older boiler like that,” Gene says.
The Rustmobile is a hit on the show circuit. “People look at it and grin from ear to ear,” he says. “Everyone takes dozens of pictures, asking what is this and what is that, does it move, does it do that. We’ll have it running and chugging, and someone will take a pair of gloves and try to stop the flywheel, and you’ll hear the engine ‘chug chug chug.’ People just think it’s really cool. Someone once said it was Yankee ingenuity at its best. I’ve had a really good time with that machine.”
As a kid, Gene worked with Walter Schmidt on a 1924 24 hp Minneapolis steam traction engine. When Walter passed away, Gene bought the engine at an auction. “I guess I just loved steam and I kept on working with it,” he says. “After a while I got my Chief Engineer Class A (high pressure) license.”
Gene also worked with Walter Dean on a 1919 18 hp Port Huron steam engine. “Now a friend owns it, so every time I see it I remember Walt and those years when he was always telling me, ‘You’ve got to do things this way,’” he says with a laugh.
Gene was as surprised as anyone to stumble on to a family engine. About 25 years ago, he and his granddad drove to Rollag, Minn., to pick up the 1924 24 hp engine from Gerald “Doc” Parker. “When we got there, we saw a 50 hp Case steam traction engine on the show grounds. Grandpa looked at it and asked where the guy got it, and was told Elk River, Minn. ‘Why, that’s my dad’s steam engine,’ Grandpa said. He pointed out that when they drove to Anoka, Minn., with the steam engine, they had to cross railroad tracks, so the axle on the rear wheel got bent and the inside of the lugs on the rear wheels wore funny.
“That was a heart-warming experience for me, because Grandpa never talked much about having had a steam engine at the farm,” Gene says. “When he said this one had been on the farm, I felt a really close connection to the steam engines and it increased my passion for running steam engines.”
Gene’s even incorporated the serial number – 8692 – from the 1924 Minneapolis engine into his email address. “I’ve been told that steam engine was one of the last ones off the assembly line,” he says. “I take it to the Nowthen show but I keep it at my place for the rest of the year. During the summer months I like to have it out, and before show time I do maintenance on it.”
Gene has deep appreciation for the knowledge amassed by the older generation and the work they poured into building steam shows from scratch. “There are a lot of smart guys, older fellows that I kind of ran into in this area who know a lot and know how to put things together. They’re real interesting souls. Farm kids is what they are,” he muses. “We really should give all these old guys credit for everything they did for these steam shows.” FC
For more information:
— Contact Gene Zopfi, 12102 Hayden Lake Rd., Champlin, MN 55316; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.