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Surrounded by Steam Engines

Author Photo
By Bill Vossler | Mar 3, 2020

This circa-1875 36hp Atlas steam engine was used in the Gluek Brewery in Minneapolis until the 1930s. Photo by Nikki Rajala.

It’s not just anybody who has a steam engine in every room of the house. “I even have one in the bathroom,” says 87-year-old Jack Strand of Plano, Texas. “My wife lets me do that – two of the engines are hers, in fact – and she has her hobbies too.”

Jack’s interest in steam engines probably began in his childhood. He grew up on a Minnesota farm and helped with the threshing there until the family moved when he was about 9. “After we left, two ladies lived on the farm, and I cultivated and plowed for them,” he says, “but after that I didn’t spend a lot of time on the farm.”

Instead, he worked as a bricklayer, which inadvertently launched a collection. “I bought a cement mixer and used a 1-1/2hp International Harvester Model LA engine on it,” he says. “I fell in love with that engine. That’s what got me started. My work became my hobby, and I started buying gasoline engines.”

This Buffalo Forge steam engine is part of the permanent collection at the Scott-Carver Threshers’ Assn., Jordan, Minn. Photo by Bill Vossler.

Jack also started collecting steam engines, including a road roller and a pair of Atlas steam engines, and the occasional old tractor. Today he enjoys a collection of hot air engines and Stirling model engines built from kits. “That’s what I’ve had during my later years,” he says. “I sold my big ones, but I still have the smaller ones.”

His collection includes small original stationary steam engines. “They’re not toys, but models,” he says. “I have one that goes back to 1868 that was built by Charles Moore of Charlestown, Massachusetts.”

 Jack Strand with the 36hp Atlas steam engine now on display at the Scott-Carver Threshers’ Assn. show in Jordan, Minn. Photo by Nikki Rajala.

Brewery engine brings past to life

Jack once owned several steam engines that he housed in the steam building on the grounds of the Scott-Carver Threshers’ Assn., Jordan, Minnesota. Eventually, he donated them to the association.

One, a circa-1875 36hp Atlas steam engine with a 5-foot flywheel and a 10-inch face, came out of the Gluek Brewery in Minneapolis after it was demolished in 1966. An engine collector bought it because he didn’t want to see it scrapped, and Jack bought it from him.

Jack still has the first engine he bought: a 2-1/2hp Cushman. Jack, who’s been collecting since 1968, does not limit his options. “I collect anything that’s interesting,” he says. Photo by Bill Vossler.

Long used in the brewery’s refrigeration system, the stationary engine had been abandoned in the woods for several years by the time Jack went to haul it out. Working alone, he used chains and come-alongs to get the engine on his trailer.

The flywheel was stuck 4 inches deep in mud. “I climbed up a tree, put a chain up there, and used a come-along to get it up so I could roll it to the trailer,” Jack recalls. “I was young, probably in my late 30s, and it was hard.”

This 52hp Howell steam engine was long a workhorse at a Minnesota sawmill. Photo by Bill Vossler.

Atlas a leading manufacturer

The Indianapolis Car Works, established in Indianapolis in the early 1870s, became the Atlas Works in 1874 and Atlas Engine Works in 1878. That year, Atlas began concentrating on production of stationary steam engines with a workforce of 600.

Two years later, the company expanded production to include steam engines, boilers and gasoline engines. By 1902, with a workforce of 1,500, Atlas was one of the largest steam engine manufacturers in the U.S.

According to The Engineer magazine of Jan. 1, 1908, “Automatic high-speed engines of horizontal and vertical design are made by this company, which are subdivided into a variety of types. One of the most prominent features of the engine is its thorough system of lubrication.”

This Westman engine had to be pulled 300 feet out of a forest with a cable. It is extremely rare, possibly the only one that still exists. Photo courtesy Jack Strand.

A trouble-free treasure

Once he got the Atlas home, Jack cleaned the engine, painted it and built a 2-foot-thick concrete base high enough to raise the flywheel off the ground. Using an old forklift, he mounted the Atlas on the base and installed the unit in the Scott-Carver steam engine building. “It operated right away,” he says.

Jack likes the engine’s history and the fact that it runs well. Another reason to like the Atlas: It’s been trouble-free, reflecting regular care and maintenance. “It has a flyball governor on it, and I remember getting the balls chromed and the engine painted,” he says, “but I never had to work on the thing.”

The club-owned boiler producing the steam that runs the Atlas, as well as other engines in the Scott-Carver steam building, is located outside the building. “We don’t run any of them at any speed,” Jack says. “We just run them fast enough to amuse us.”

Some who view the engine have no idea what they’re looking at. “I used to be in the steam building all day long, just talking to people,” Jack says. “With the gas engines, people were always asking questions. Young people today have no idea about any of these.”

This ad for Westman engines appeared in the May 1913 issue of Gas Power magazine. Photo by Bill Vossler.

 

Howell was a sawmill workhorse

When Jack bought a 52hp Howell stationary steam engine once used in a sawmill in Aitken, Minnesota, near Lake Mille Lacs, he was told that he would never be able to move it because it was too heavy. “But a friend and I worked on it, and within an hour we had it on the trailer,” he says. “It would have been a lot faster if I’d had a blowtorch to cut the bolts off.”

The engine had been used to run everything in the sawmill until 1935, he was told. “It was used to pull logs out of the river, brought them up to the saw, planed them and edged them,” he says. “It was run on a line shaft. I would have enjoyed seeing it run up there.”

Though it’s unclear when the Howell engine was built, it has an Erie governor that was patented in 1899. Established in Minneapolis in the late 1800s, R.R. Howell & Co. manufactured woodworking machinery, steam engines and gasoline engines, as well as farm and well machinery.

The Atlas engine’s steam-driven piston. Photo by Nikki Rajala.

The Buffalo Forge basket case

Another of Jack’s larger stationary steam engines is a Buffalo Forge vertical built by Buffalo Forge Co., Buffalo, New York. He doesn’t know much about the engine. “I bought it when it was pretty well busted up, with the flywheel in four or five pieces,” he says. “I took it to a friend of mine who had a welding shop, and he welded it up for me.”

A blacksmith shop in one corner of the Scott-Carver steam building caused the entire building to get smoky, so Jack and other volunteers ran a shaft through the chimney and put a fan blade on it. Then they ran the Buffalo Forge to clear the air.

Manufacturing blacksmith forges, Buffalo Forge Co. dates to 1878. Ten years later, the company began building steam engines. In 1902, a Buffalo Forge engineer, Willis Carrier, developed the world’s first modern air conditioning system. The company remained in business until the mid-1990s.

Dragging out a Westman

One of the oddest places Jack ever saw an engine was deep in the woods in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “A friend called and asked if I wanted a Westman gasoline engine. I’d never heard of a Westman,” he recalls, “so I asked him to tell me about it.”

His friend described the engine as a vertical with a tank. The owner said he’d take $35 for it – but only if Jack would haul it away within 24 hours. The owner said Jack would need 300 feet of cable to get it out of the forest where it had been abandoned years earlier.

“I had no problem getting that cable, so we went out and hooked it up, and started dragging it out,” Jack says. “We drove forward, backed up, rolled up cable time after time until we brought the engine to the back of the truck where we had a slant, and slid it up. It had been in the trees 300 feet away, with no way to drive to it.”

As Jack says, he has steam engines in every room in his house. Here, some are nestled into a bookcase. Photo courtesy Jack Strand.

Westman makes the leap from marine engine line

Enterprise Machine Co. of Minneapolis began manufacturing marine engines after Emil Westman was awarded his first patent in 1901. The Westman stationary engine line made its debut in about 1912, in 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-cylinder sizes ranging from 20 to 125hp.

An ad in the May 1913 issue of Gas Power magazine described the Westman as a “well-built motor of simple design. The Westman engine is of the vertical multiple-cylinder type, that weighs considerably less than the old type of engine and does away with vibration.” A later ad noted the engines’ adaptability to gasoline tractor work. “The demand for the Westman engines has required them to enlarge their plant,” the ad boasted.

Jack tried to get information on his engine, which had no serial number tag, but came up empty-handed – other than the fact that it had been used to pump water at a cabin on Lake Minnetonka.

Later, he met the grandson of the man who designed the engine. “I noticed he was using a serial number tag as a belt buckle,” he says. “I tried to buy it from him, but he told me the tag was the only thing he had from the family, and he wouldn’t sell it.” Later, Jack had the opportunity to have the belt buckle recast for the engine he now considers his favorite.

Holding on to number one

Jack still makes occasional trips from his home in Texas to Minnesota, where he visits family members and attends the Scott-Carver show. He has given away the relics he once displayed at the Scott-Carver show: steam engines went to the association, gas engines to his grandkids, and tractors to his son and grandkids. “I just have smaller stuff now,” he says. “I still have some stuff that I can’t move, so a neighbor helps with that. I still monkey around.”

And that includes running the first engine he ever bought, a 2-1/2hp Cushman Cub. When Jack was buying parts for his cement mixer some 50 years ago, he saw an engine laying in the grass. He asked the seller if it was a gas engine. “I didn’t know much at the time,” he recalls. “He said it was, and it hadn’t run in 20 years.” They put gasoline in it and got the Cub running. “That was the first engine I ever bought,” he says, “and I still have it today.”

To make the Atlas look sharper, Jack had the flyball governor chromed. The Governor was produced by Gardner Governor Co, Quincy, Ill. Photo by Nikki Rajala 

Life is for living

Recently Jack went to Kentucky to buy a small steam engine. “My wife thought it was pretty foolish, since I’m 87 years old,” he says with a chuckle. “But my motto is, ‘Buy the day you die.’ I still like doing things, even though I’m an old man.”

Nearly 90, he remains fascinated by antique engines. “I just like to see things run,” he says. “I have different types of stuff, and it’s just fun to watch them run. I still go to as many shows as I can, and I enjoy taking small stuff to exhibit.”

And then there are the restored steam engines in every room of Jack’s home, including one dating to 1868. “I have some nice engines that are 28-30 inches long that I run in the house on a real quiet compressor,” he says.

When friends come to visit, if they show the least bit of interest, he’ll run the engines for them. “But people come over here and don’t even see a thing,” he says. “They can walk by the engines like a horse with blinders on. We’re all different, I guess.” FC

For more information: Jack Strand, 2416 Windsor Place, Plano, TX 75075.


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: bvossler@juno.com.

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