Second Nature: Steam Traction Engines Come Easily for Minnesota Woman

Anne Zimmerman has spent her entire life around steam traction engines so it’s little wonder that she’s become an expert.

| July 2015

1907 Baker side

A long view of Wetter Farms’ 1907 65 hp Baker steam traction engine.

Photo by Bill Vossler

For Anne (Wetter) Zimmerman, nothing could be as natural as operating a century-old steam traction engine. Never mind that she’s young compared to many engineers … or that she’s a woman in an activity traditionally pursed by men … or that she’s educated as a lawyer. “I grew up around steam engines,” she says simply. “I’ve spent my entire life around a 1907 65 hp Baker steam engine. My father has owned it since before I was born.”

As Anne grew increasingly interested in steam engines, her father urged her to get her steam license. “My dad had given up his hobby license years and years ago,” she says, “so I made a deal with him. I’d get mine if he also went and got his.” The two took classes together at the University of Rollag (Minnesota) Steam School, took the test together and today both are licensed engineers.

Anne, who lives in Champlin, Minnesota, describes the Baker (serial no. 459) as a perfect trainer for people interested in running a steam traction engine. “It’s the best training steam engine a person can ever have, because it’s very patient,” she says. “And as an operator learns, it’s very forgiving, which is very helpful in not discouraging new engineers.”

Her mother, sister-in-law and husband are currently learning to operate the Baker and all appreciate the engine’s user-friendly features. “The firebox makes it easy to control the fire, and in turn the steam and pressure, and the injectors are accessible,” Anne says. “For example, my many-months pregnant sister-in-law was able to reach them last summer at the Nowthen (Minnesota) Threshing Show.”

Workhorse engines

The 1907 Baker is more than just a patient instructor: It’s also a workhorse. “That was the first steam engine I ever ran, and my reaction was that it was very simplistic in design because it had just a few operating levers, but it’s very complicated in theory,” Anne notes.

It’s nothing like getting in a car and turning the key. “You have to understand where the piston has stopped in the stroke and know from that position the direction you need to head to make it work,” she says, “and you have to work with the momentum of the stroke when belting and starting a machine. You have to understand a lot more of the mechanical theory behind it, because it’s more complicated than just engaging steel levers.”