Steam traction engines captivate three generations of Minnesota men.
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.”
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.
“You had to be with it constantly, because with a small firebox, the fire can go out if unchecked,” Lawrence says. “At the time, a 1/3-scale was a little bit better choice. They fired more easily and one didn’t have as much trouble with their sticky check valves like you did with the extremely small ones on the 1/4-scale. Most scale model steam engines were 1/3-scale, usually because they fit normal-sized machine shops better, and the ease of getting generic castings, because that was what most builders were making.”
But none of that logic mattered to Leo.
Three years later, Leo tackled another scale engine project. No one knows for sure what his motivation was when he started building a 1/2-scale replica of a 1910 22 hp Gaar-Scott, his first steam engine, but it may have been plain old nostalgia. He may have just missed that engine.
“He wanted to do something different,” Lawrence says. “He built a 1/2-scale steam engine that he could play with and that wouldn’t need to be babied the entire time it was steamed.”
It was a slow process. “He didn’t make a lot of headway on it in the first 20 years,” Lawrence says. “But he got a little more serious about it over the next 10 years.”
He also had an advantage. A neighbor owned a full-size engine similar to the one Leo had once owned. “So he would drive to the owner’s farm,” Lawrence says, “and measure various parts of that engine, and then go back to his shop with sketches in hand and recreate those parts out of cardboard or wood to shape them up before making them out of steel.”
During the last couple of years of the build, Leo got serious about finishing the engine, and Lawrence helped him, “doing some machining under the watchful eye of my grandfather. I was 16 or 17 years old at the time. I was the brawn,” Lawrence says with a laugh, “and Gramps was the brain.”
The two worked on castings and weldments (pieces of steel plate that are welded together, a less costly alternative to casting).
Lawrence says many people find this model heavier and stockier than other 1/2-scale models. One reason is that Leo’s Gaar-Scott wasn’t a true 1/2-scale. “There’s a trade-off between functionality and true-to-scale,” Lawrence says. “Not everything scales out right. But the concept, what the engine is supposed to look like, that is more important. Gramps taught me that. Sometimes you have to ad-lib a little and not necessarily stay true to scaled down measurements.”
The unit also gains muscle from Leo’s decision to use heavy existing gears. “The bull gears and bull pinions are the differential ring gear and master gear out of a 22-36 McCormick-Deering,” Lawrence says. “The gear face is 4 inches wide. The differential sector, intermediate and master pinion gears are out of a variety of Case tractors. Those gears are a lot heavier than they need to be on the engine, but they add to the overall robustness of it.”
The model is very powerful, Lawrence says, especially at the drawbar. “It also has a solid, heavy, well-built boiler that operates safely at 175 psi,” he notes. “The boiler calculates out to 399 psi at a factor of safety of 6. So she’s definitely a well-built boiler. Gramps did a great job.”
Because of its robustness and power (the piece has pulled a 4-bottom plow,) many people call it a 25 hp. “I’ve been around a lot of models, and while building a couple models myself, I’ve seen that each model is unique,” Lawrence says. “When my grandfather was building this model, he used wheels off a Red River threshing machine. Gramps took three rims, split one in half, and welded those halves onto the other rims to make up the two rear drivers.”
Outside of the gearing, the rest of the machine was built from the ground up. Most of the engine is casting. Lawrence doesn’t know where Leo found the wood patterns. “They were built sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, but I don’t know if anything was ever cast off them prior to Gramps,” he says. “I have the original patterns used to build this engine, but I don’t have any history on them. I wish I did.
“Gramps cast all the parts he could, and then machined out parts and assembled them,” Lawrence says. “Whatever didn’t have casting, he made it up, welding steel together, machining it, and shaping it to the final shape needed. A lot of parts were made by hand.”
The axle housing was the most difficult part, he says. “My grandfather talked about it, how the original worked, and why he chose to make it different on the half-scale.”
Lawrence says the scale model is a very user-friendly engine. “On most 1/2-scale models, you have to lean over the top of the engine to see, but not with this one,” he says. “It’s more robust so you can more comfortably operate it. I’ve operated a lot of scale models over the years, and found this one to be very powerful compared to the others.”
Steam engines are among Lawrence’s earliest memories. “I was lucky that my grandfather was into it,” he says, “and even more so, willing to share it with me, so it became my hobby, too.”
After a stint in the service in Desert Storm, and college, he worked for a commercial boiler manufacturer in Minneapolis for six years. A few years later, he started his own business doing restoration work, and that brought him back to working on boilers.
It’s not everyone who’s able to convert a hobby into a life’s work. “I do restoration work of steam engines for a living, I have scale models of steam engines, and I’ve built a couple. I have the sickness, I guess,” Lawrence says with a laugh. “I just don’t want the cure.”
Lawrence has restored one of two existing double-cylinder tandem compound 40 hp Gaar-Scotts, a one-of-a-kind 25 hp Baker steam tractor, and one of four 35 hp double-cylinder side-geared Nichols & Shepard engines, just to name a few. “I like building replicas that cause folks to wonder whether it’s an original or a reproduction,” he says. “That’s my greatest satisfaction, when one can’t easily tell the difference.”
Nick was all of 7 when he bought his first steam engine (a 1/2-scale Terning-built 65 hp Case engine) on July 7, 2007. “He signed a contract stating he had to do certain home chores without complaining, and when he actually earned money, he had to pay back part of the cost of that steam engine,” Lawrence says. “We didn’t want to just give him the engine; we wanted him to have real ownership of it by having to earn it.”
Since then, Lawrence has taken two models to shows every summer. “A lot of kids adopted the scale-model engines. There were times when as many as 10 kids would show up to run the engines,” he says. “One time Nick asked why he had to share our engine. I told him that not everybody has the opportunity to own and afford one of these scale engines. We are lucky. You have to get used to sharing the engine with other people. You have to think about what others want.
“At shows now, he looks around to find people who want to run those engines,” Lawrence says. “He’s 18 years old but has the mentality of a 30-year-old and is mature for his age. I’m very proud of him. He’s done great things.”
Nick doesn’t have to do much of a sales job to get other kids involved. “They think it’s cool,” he says. “They like to blow the whistle, and adults like it too. At some shows, people are seeing something like this for the first time in their life. I think they think about being a kid again, so they want to ride it too. They can understand it better than the younger ones.”
The end of the show season brings its own work, getting the scale model ready for winter. “We clean out the ashes and pull the injectors and most of the pipes apart so we know there’s no water in them that might freeze,” Nick says. “We take the smoke box door ring and firebox door ring off, and clean and pressure-wash the inside and the outside. When we’re ready to go to shows, we put back together what we took off.”
Scale models make everything easier, Nick explains. “What I enjoy most about this scale model is that it is easier to haul around, so you can take it anywhere,” he says. “You can do anything with a small one that you can with the full-size engine, just on a smaller scale. That aspect I really enjoy. And I just like meeting new people. The people are just awesome.”
Lawrence has reached a point where seeing others run engines is what gives him the most pleasure. “I’ve been operating since I was probably 5 years old, and I’m 49 years old now, so I’ve gotten to the point where, like my grandfather, I enjoy watching others run the engines, especially kids,” he says. “Every once in a while, I’ll get up on an engine because I enjoy steam. I enjoy models, especially 1/2-scale models, and I do work with them running sawmills and plowing. The larger shows are structured so you plow at a specific time, you thresh at a specific time, but with scale models, you just all get together in an area and bring new stuff along and work with it.”
Times have changed, Lawrence admits. “In the early days of steam, when I was young, kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. That ended up hurting the hobby,” he says. “Today the mentality has changed. Everybody has realized if we don’t get the young people interested, the hobby will disappear. So now a lot of shows embrace young people and try to get them involved and operating machinery.”
The benefits go both ways. He says kids who grow up in the hobby are more diverse, more likely to think outside of the box, and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. “They have a better understanding of mechanics and how things operate,” he says. “And they understand the work ethic. There are so many things the young generation gains, including strong family values.”
“I’m thankful that my family and I are active participants in this hobby. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people over the years. I’m also thankful that my grandfather lived long enough to have a relationship with my son and that my son remembers his great-grandfather. I live every day with the goal of becoming just half the man my grandfather was.” FC
For more information: Lawrence Swanz, 15388 296th Ave., Zimmerman, MN 55398; (612) 209-6464; 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.