Steam Engine Expert

Scale model or full-sized steam engines, Gene Gay has seen it all

| December 2011

“Gene Gay is who you want to talk to. He can tell you anything you need to know about steam engines. If you’re not careful, you’ll burn that old mill down.” 

When volunteers rebuilding an old gristmill turned to Charles Sharp for advice, they were on the right track. Having inherited a Case steam engine from his father, Charles has spent his life around steam engines and is quite knowledgeable on the subject. Still, Charles deferred to Gene Gay, Springfield, Mo., as one of a very small number of experts on the topic. Like Charles, Gene has had his hands on steam engines all his life. Early members of the Ozarks Steam Engine Association, the two men have always been willing to share with others the secrets of a source of power that is near extinction.

Restoring with integrity

Volunteers from the Fair Grove (Mo.) Historical and Preservation Society in Fair Grove, Mo., worked for more than 15 years to bring a long dormant pair of millstones back into operation in Wommack Mill (see related article in Farm Collector, January 2004). The 1883 structure has been completely restored, and one run of 42-inch French buhr stones has been leveled and sharpened by a Tennessee millwright. The next task was installation of an antique single-cylinder stationary steam engine, replicating the mill’s original power source.

In the engine room, a 1939 International Harvester F-20 tractor was belted up for use as a temporary power unit. But the group set its sights on a steam engine built more than a century earlier by Southern Engine & Boiler Works, Jackson, Tenn. For help with that, they turned to Gene Gay.

The circa-1900 engine had been salvaged in poor condition from an Oklahoma sawmill. After a new piston was fabricated and fit with new compression rings and connecting rod, the engine’s slide valve was milled and its cylinder oiler reconditioned. Gene rebuilt the Gardner flyball governor to regulate its working speed. The undertaking was a success: Since 2003, corn grinding has been a regular part of demonstrations held twice each year at the steam-powered Wommack Mill.

Family heirloom engine

Gene began work as a welder at Kent Boiler Works, Springfield, Mo., at age 20. His work there was interrupted by World War II; Gene served on two U.S. Navy destroyers. After the war, in 1946, he returned to Springfield and his job at Kent.