For the Love of Steam Traction Engines

A Missouri man donates his time and labor to keep antique steam traction engines running.

| January 2016

  • A front view of the 12 hp Russell engine steam traction engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • A front view of the 1885 6 hp Nichols & Shepard steam engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The Boss, the logo for the Russell steam traction engine line.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The tag for the 1885 6 hp Nichols & Shepard.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The 1885 6 hp Nichols & Shepard steam traction engine John works on at the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The 12 hp Russell engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Another 12 hp Russell steam engine at the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Detail like this showcases a handsomely restored Russell engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Rear view of 1885 6 hp Nichols & Shepard. John enjoys working on steam engines, but what he likes the most is seeing them move. “Especially the connecting rod and the flywheel,” he says.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Cleaning out boilers is a regular chore for the steam engine operator – but that’s nothing compared to crawling into a tight firebox, which ranks high on John’s list of least favorite steam engine jobs.
    Photo by Bill Vossler

When it comes to keeping the steam traction era alive, John Brewington goes above and beyond. Not only does the Bourbon, Missouri, man own a couple of engines himself, he also helps others prepare their engines for shows – and he does it for nothing more than the fun of it.

John’s interest in steam traction engines dates to his childhood, when he spent summers on the farm owned by his grandfather, Roy Alexander. Roy began collecting steam engines in 1951. Though he never owned more than four at one time, over the years he owned 10 engines, including several he built from scratch. “We called those ‘freelance’ models. One operated a crank that worked the agitator on a washing machine,” John recalls. “He also had a true 1895 Harrison Jumbo, complete with the trademark elephant cast on the steam chest.”

Apprentice to a master

John’s hands-on activity involvement with steam engines began at age 6. “Grandpa had me go around with him and crawl under and grease all the bull gears using a big old stick of grease you stuck in a tin can,” he says. “You see people do it the same way today.”

When local church groups wanted to have hayrack rides, Roy used his engines to pull the hayrack. “Seemed like every other week, there was a hay ride,” John says, “and it was like second nature to do that at night, using a flashlight and an oil lantern so you could see what you were doing and maintain water pressure.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s, John’s interest in steam waned. “But after I got out of the Navy in 1985, I went to my first steam show,” he says. “When I saw how much people were doing, I wanted to get involved.”

At the time of Roy’s death, he owned three engines. One was sold to an Iowa man; the remaining two stayed in the family. “The 1920 19 hp Keck-Gonnerman went to my cousin, Paul Alexander,” John says, “and the freelance model stayed with me.”


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