For the Love of Steam Traction Engines

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


| January 2016



Russell engine

A front view of the 12 hp Russell engine steam traction engine.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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.”