The Steam-Driven Rustmobile

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Known as the Rustmobile or Mad Hatter, this conveyance is a combination of parts from various machines, built by Russ Magnuson.
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The C.H. Dutton boiler, complete with hand-shaker grates, whistle and water siphon.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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The Mad Hatter's piston came from a reciprocating steam engine in an Elk River, Minn., creamery.
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The steam engine's main governor.
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Ashes are removed through a door cast with the boiler manufacturer's name: C.H. Dutton Co. Kalamazoo, Mich.
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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.
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The steering wheel was salvaged from a Model T.
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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.
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The Little Giant's name and serial number show on the plate covering the opening where wood is added.
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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.

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.”

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.”

Not exactly a land cruiser

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.”

State certified

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.”

Discovering an heirloom

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.”

Salute to the elders

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;

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;

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