Three generations embrace the steam traction tradition with a 1913 Gaar-Scott engine.
The Mitchell men run the 1913 25-75 single-cylinder Gaar-Scott steam traction engine at Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion at Rollag, Minn., each year. Left to right: Larry, Brady, Justin and Dale Mitchell.
The 1913 Gaar-Scott steam engine that the Mitchell family of Kindred, North Dakota, pour time and energy into isn’t, in fact, their engine. But for all the attention they give it, it might as well be.
Each year, family members spend four days running the 25 hp single-cylinder engine at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota. They put the engine on the prony brake, they join in the daily parade and they engage onlookers in a variety of ways. In one recent parade, the audience was delighted to see a John Deere GreenStar GPS receiver that had been installed on the engine, complete with a dummy string for an authentic touch.
The Gaar-Scott was originally purchased from a Conrad, Montana man by the late Floyd Brudevold, who took the engine to Rollag in 1968. He was told that the engine had been used to break the Montana sod and had done a lot of plowing, and that seems likely to Larry Mitchell.
“When we were standing at the engine next to another one used in the sawmill, you could tell the difference,” Larry says. “The gears on this engine are its weakest part. They show years and years of wear. We had to rebuild the intermediate gear on this engine about a dozen years ago.”
Today, Darrel Brudevold, a Page, North Dakota, farmer, owns the engine. “Generally he is harvesting during the Rollag show,” Larry says, “so he isn’t always able to be there. But we are. My brother Dale and Darrel graduated from high school together. They got involved with the Gaar-Scott first.”
Larry is only half kidding when he talks about his family’s involvement in old iron. “I always say that we started collecting IH stuff in 1929, when Grandpa bought a brand new Farmall Regular that is still in the family,” he says. “Dad was always into old engines and tractors. Dale and I and our boys followed suit. Once it got into our blood, it just stayed there.”
Operators of steam traction engines in Minnesota must hold a current, state-issued license. The Mitchell brothers have been licensed operators since attending steam school and passing the exam in 1990. “In a couple of days in the classroom you learn more than you would in a few years of hands-on experience,” Larry says. Though the license does not require renewal, engines and boilers are inspected annually at Rollag. In the process, inspectors have been known to ask questions to gauge operator knowledge. “It’s an ongoing test, you might say,” Larry adds.
Sometimes engines provide tests of their own. “For the last couple of years our boys have run the engine, with Dale and I supervising,” Larry says. “After we pressure-washed and painted it, going up a hill during the parade, the boys said, ‘This is really pulling hard.’”
As it turned out, the steel-wool-type packing around the intermediate shaft had lost its oil during the pressure wash, so it seized up. “No big problem, though,” Larry says. “It ran after we added oil.”
The Gaar-Scott generally burns wood, unless it’s being used on the Rollag sawmill, in which case coal is used. A few years ago, while testing horsepower on the prony brake, Bob Anderson – a longtime Gaar-Scott engineer – tucked a bit of coal in the boiler’s back corners. “We watched the pressure drop,” Larry says. “Knowing we were up soon, we stirred up that coal.” Coal spread out that way, they learned, creates a lot of heat in a hurry.
The 1913 engine produced 80 belt horsepower in the test. “Using the 25-75 horsepower figures, 50 hp is required to move the machine,” Larry says. “Not too efficient.” Water use, however, is. Each tender holds 100 gallons and the engine consumes 30 to 40 gallons during a daily parade. “It fires easily,” Larry says. “I’ve been on others that are harder to fire, require more tending and need a lot more water. I always kid that we could get through the parade with only one box of toothpicks. We don’t need to add wood constantly to keep good steam pressure.”
The Gaar-Scott’s single weakness is the clumsy location of the tri-cocks for the boiler water level. Though difficult to access, the tri-cocks are a backup system for checking boiler water levels. If the sight glass is broken, the tri-cocks are used. “You don’t want to run the boiler out of water, because that will cause mishaps with the boiler,” Larry says. “The tri-cocks are three valves at three different levels on the boiler. If the top one gives you steam, you know there’s no water at that level. If there’s steam at the second one, you know there’s no water there either. If there’s steam at the lowest level, you’d better inject some water.”
The crown sheet, a flat sheet of 1/2- or 5/8-inch steel, is located on top of the firebox at the back of the boiler. Fire burns constantly on the crown sheet. If the water level falls below the sheet, the crown sheet will be so hot when cold water is added that steam is created instantly and an explosion is possible. “It’s like a great big teakettle on wheels,” Larry says. “Teakettles have a little flipper over the spout as a release valve, and steam traction engines have a pop-off valve. The Gaar-Scott is rated at 150 pounds of pressure, so the pop-off valve is set at 145 pounds. If the pressure gets that high, it will pop off and release steam.”
Replacing the engine’s intermediate gear required removal of the big housing bolted onto the boiler’s side. “The intermediate gear comes off the crankshaft and then down to the drive gear for the wheels,” Larry says. “When it went bad, it required about a $4,500 repair bill. Now it has a bushing and is oiled. Before, it had a babbitted bearing.”
The engine was repainted two years ago. After extensive pressure washing, family members spent a weekend removing the canopy and rear bunkers. The canopy was repaired and reinstalled after the engine’s paint job was complete. “We were all proud of the new look on the old girl,” Larry says.
Four years ago, the Gaar-Scott was re-plumbed, the only operational work that’s been done on the 102-year-old engine. The engine has a Canadian boiler, with metal thicker than that required for engines sold in the U.S. “The Canadian specs were probably used on this engine to allow them to be sold in Canada and used there.”
Following the four-day Rollag show, the engine’s boiler – which holds up to 400 gallons – is drained. “We take the handholds apart and put socks or wicks in the corner of the boiler to draw all the water out,” Larry says. “Up here, the water gets pretty hard below freezing and tends to break things up.”
They also blow out the engine’s lines and clean ash pans and grates. “We get the soot out of the smoke box with a little vacuum and broom, because it collects moisture and it’s acidic, and that’s another area the inspector checks. That’s a lot of work for four days of playing around with an engine,” he says with a laugh.
Larry enjoys seeing the engine through others’ eyes. “Last year we met an 83-year-old gentleman who wanted to go for a ride during the parade on one of the big gasoline tractors, but he was late and they took off without him,” Larry says. “So we asked if he wanted to ride on a steam traction engine. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.”
They even convinced the man to take a turn at the wheel, gaining a lesson in chain-drive steering. He discovered that turning the wheels completely on this steam traction engine meant turning the steering wheel 40 times. “He said he’d never realized how much work it took to steer one of these things,” Larry says. “And if it’s not moving, it’s terrible to turn.”
The engine inevitably spurs reflection on early mechanization. “The intriguing part is that the engine is soon to be 102 years old, so you think of the first guy who had to think up that steering method, with a long shaft, and a ring gear and a worm gear and another worm gear on that shaft to turn it,” he marvels. “Today it seems pretty crude, but at that time they didn’t have anything else. It’s a big chain and it takes quite a bit to turn on that little worm gear to wrap it around and make the wheels turn.
“When we’re ready to park it,” Larry adds, “everybody bails out and lets me do that. You always have to be thinking ahead. To get it in the correct spot, you have to crank the wheels back quite early to get them straight, or it will be really difficult to get moving in the right direction when you start up later.”
Another thing that intrigues Larry about the Gaar-Scott – and steam traction engines in general – is the number of workers that were needed to build and operate them. “When the engine was being built in the factory, it probably took 40 or 50 people to make the boiler, with one guy sitting inside to hold a hammer on the rivet, someone to cast the gears, the wheels, and so on,” he says. “When it was being used out in the field, three men were required on the thresher, with a couple on the separator, maybe 10 teams of horses – each with a driver, people to load bundles on the wagon, people to pitch them into the threshing machine, and maybe a dozen people to cook for them, maybe 100 workers in all. An entire economy was created by producing and running a steam engine.”
Many members of the Mitchell family have been involved with the Gaar-Scott since its arrival in Rollag in 1968. Initially Dale was the hands-on man; then Larry got involved; then their wives and children. “We have pictures of our 5-year-old boys running around wearing bibs and caps and really enjoying the steam engine and the entire WMSTR atmosphere,” Larry says. “They’ve been doing that forever. The girls have been more involved with the International Harvester tractors we collect.”
But the tide may be turning. Dale’s daughters recently signed up for the University of Rollag Steam School. During the 2014 show, an 18-month-old granddaughter helped carry small pieces of wood to her dad to throw into the boiler. “The whole family gets involved,” Larry says. “We also go as a family to IH shows all across the country.”
People unfamiliar with the Rollag experience look at the Mitchells and say they don’t understand spending all that time at Rollag each year. “At a car show, the car will bring you one time,” Larry says, “but the people will bring you back time after time. You can only look at 50 of the same thing time after time. At Rollag, the people draw you back to visit with them. To us, it’s fun to play with the Gaar-Scott steam engine. It’s a fun reunion each year of the people who love steam.” FC
For more information:
— Larry Mitchell, Box 34, Kindred, ND 58051.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.