Steam in the Veins

Steam traction engines captivate three generations of Minnesota men.

| April 2018

  • The 1/2-scale 22 hp Gaar-Scott steam engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The Gaar-Scott logo is among the most artistic logos of its era.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • A view from the operator’s platform of the 1/2-scale Gaar-Scott steam traction engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • A close-up of the piston on the 1/2-scale Gaar-Scott engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Nick Swanz (16 in this photo) now owns the 1/2-scale Gaar-Scott steam traction engine handed down from his father, Lawrence Swanz.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • This view of the 1/2-scale Gaar-Scott shows the cramped quarters typical on a scale model.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The 25-85 Nichols & Shepard on the job in 1963.
    Photo courtesy Lawrence Swanz
  • In this photo from an album, Lawrence holds his son Nick next to the Nichols & Shepard steam traction engine Nick is named for.
    Photo courtesy Lawrence Swanz
  • The 25-85 Nichols & Shepard plowing in 1963.
    Photo courtesy Lawrence Swanz
  • Lawrence at the helm of the 1/2-scale Gaar-Scott, along with his grandfather, Leo.
    Photo courtesy Lawrence Swanz
  • Leo Ruston at his Gaar-Scott’s first steam-up.
    Photo courtesy of Lawrence Swanz

Family is a big part of the motivation for Lawrence Swanz’ love of steam. “Like many of us, I got into steam because of somebody else,” he says. “In my case, it was my grandfather, Leo P. Huston. Gramps, as I fondly called him, got me interested when I was very young. I used to hang out with him and attend shows with him. That’s how I got started.”

It’s only natural, then, that Lawrence would pass down his interest in steam engines to his son, Nick. “He didn’t have much of a chance,” Lawrence says with a chuckle. “We had our first father-son talk about steam when he was three days old, out by the half-scale Gaar-Scott engine. I wanted to dab a little steam cylinder oil on his forehead, but his mother said no, even when I told her it was water-soluble and would wash off. However, at a show a couple of weeks later, I did it. My wife forgave me … eventually.”

Like taking care of a baby

Before Lawrence’s grandfather married in the early 1940s, he bought his first steam engine, a 1910 22 hp single-cylinder, side-geared Gaar-Scott. But he couldn’t keep it for long. “He sold the engine to repay his father-in-law for a loan he’d gotten to buy their first home,” Lawrence says. “He made a deal with my grandmother that when he had more money and another available engine came along, he could buy it.”

In 1952, a 1914 25-85 single-cylinder, side-geared Nichols & Shepard became available at the same time the couple needed a refrigerator. “My grandmother asked, ‘How often does an engine come up for sale?’ My grandfather said, ‘Not that often.’ So my grandmother told him to buy the engine, because they could buy a refrigerator any time.”

When Leo decided to build a scale-model steam traction engine in 1954, it was no surprise that he modeled it on the Nichols & Shepard engine in his shed. He decided to build a 1/4-scale instead of 1/3-scale, which had become the standard in his area. “That was mainly because he was using a Cretor’s popcorn steam engine as the basis to start his build from,” Lawrence says, “and the 1/4-scale size matched up more closely to the size of the existing steam engine.”

Lawrence’s grandfather compared operation of the scale model to taking care of a baby.

3/20/2018 3:17:39 PM

Well, as in the article of the ""Ohio" in Maine,, all this action going on and nobody had a camera?????