When Wayne Kennedy set eyes on the dilapidated 1902 New Giant steam traction engine, he knew the farm treasure was worth saving.
That doesn't mean he wanted to restore the old engine that once powered Midwest sawmills, because it was in truly terrible condition. Yet, he couldn't resist the lure of that old steamer. Today, five years after he first turned a wrench on the 18,000-pound steel hulk, it's finally restored to its once-pristine beauty and thrilling crowds again each summer. This is the tale of Wayne's journey with the giant and how one collector's love for old iron helped preserve a unique piece of farm equipment history.
Preserving the Past
The story actually began when Wayne, of Danville, Iowa, was a boy. He fell in love with steam traction engines at the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion held each year at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. While most children eagerly anticipate Christmas, Wayne says he looked forward to seeing steam engines and other farm machinery at the annual reunion. He says he was also inspired by his great-uncle, who threshed with a 1925 Case 75 hp steam engine, which has been in the farm collections at Mt. Pleasant since the reunions began in 1950. That early exposure gave Wayne a lifelong love for old iron and led him to breathe new life into the New Giant.
Ironically, Wayne attended the reunions as a child and so did his future 1902 New Giant steam traction engine. The old engine arrived after its owner, Milo Mathews, a thresherman at each year's reunion, bought it in Utica, Neb. The engine was so special that it made the cover of the May/June 1952 IronMen Album.
The steam engine thrilled crowds for decades, Wayne says, and was most often operated by Lowell Burden. Even though the engine functioned, it wasn't easy to operate, he adds, and other engineers always admired Lowell's ability to handle the old-iron hulk. Lowell was so closely associated with the engine that Wayne immortalized the former engineer by painting his name on the restored steamer.
Even though the steam engine was a popular attraction at each year's reunion, it was sold at auction when Milo died in 1984. A husband-and-wife team bought the engine, Wayne explains, and intended to restore it someday. Yet, life rarely turns out the way people plan, and after the couple divorced, the engine seemed destined to rust away as a flower planter. Wayne rescued it in 1995 and restored the steamer for future generations to learn from and love.
'It was nostalgia,' Wayne explains. 'I didn't want to see that engine disappear.'
Not for the faint of heart
Armed with the best intentions, Wayne never thought that the restoration work would be simple. After more than 90 years of use, he says, the New Giant was nearly too far-gone to restore. 'I knew the engine was going to take an enormous amount of work,' Wayne recalls. 'It was in bad mechanical condition.'
Wayne isn't the run-of-the-mill, shade-tree restorer. The 53-year-old collector has worked with steel as a tool-and-die maker since he graduated high school. He's used those talents to restore four other steam engines and build scale models of steam engines through the years.
More than his mechanical talents, Wayne was well-suited to tackle the job because he was also dedicated to passing on the old-iron hobby to others. He served on the Old Threshers Reunion board of directors for 14 years, and says he always did what he could to educate people about America's farming history. Part of that effort included serving as an instructor at the organization's steam class held each year since 1985. Wayne helped establish the class, and has educated hundreds of novices and old hands alike about steam engines ever since.
It's one of those things you fall in love with after a while,' Wayne explains about the hobby.
Even with all his skills and a solid background in old-iron collecting, Wayne says the New Giant was a challenging project. While many of its components were worn with age, Wayne says he was prepared for the worst. Luckily, the steam engine's condition wasn't as poor as he originally believed.
Waking a sleeping giant
Wayne bought the engine and stored it until the fall of 1998 when he could finally tackle the time-consuming chore. Wayne's goal was to restore the 1902 New Giant in time for the 2002 Old Threshers Reunion and the steam engine's centennial. With time running short, Wayne spent nights and weekends tinkering.
He began the project by removing the rear wheels and all the engine components. With nothing left but a naked boiler-shell, Wayne literally rebuilt the engine from the ground up.
The steamer's engine wasn't in terrible shape, but the boiler was almost irreparable, Wayne says. The boiler's steel casing was originally 1/4-inch thick, but had deteriorated from rust and heat to a mere 1/8 of an inch in some places. That meant Wayne had to replace the old steel to ensure the boiler would safely hold pressure.
Wayne wanted to accurately preserve the steam engine's original fabric as much as possible to ensure its historical integrity. Yet, after he assessed the boiler's bad condition, only 50 percent of the original steel was salvageable. The worst part was the boiler's belly, which Wayne pared away with a cutting torch to make room for new iron.
Next, he measured and drew a pattern for the new boiler belly, and took the design to a nearby steel tank manufacturer. The company rolled the steel to match the boiler's curved shape as closely as possible. Wayne then machined the piece in his home shop to a precise fit. The sheer weight of the new steel made the work difficult, and Wayne used techniques that included block-and-tackle rigs to maneuver the massive metal. Once he knew it would fit, Wayne welded the piece into place. The New Giant was originally riveted together, but he explains that the method was used only because electrical welding wasn't available. To guarantee the new boiler belly matched the rest of the steam engine, Wayne fabricated and attached mock rivet heads.
After the boiler was completed in 1999, Wayne turned his attention to the remainder of the engine. First, he remounted the wheels and steering mechanism to move the steamer inside so work could continue during Iowa's notoriously fierce winters. Wayne used his own shop milling equipment to machine the wheel bearings, which took ingenuity because the hub casting was nearly too big for the equipment used. Yet, after decades of daily milling experience, Wayne had few problems adapting his machines to the task.
That's part of the game,' Wayne explains about his efforts to work with what he had. 'You just figure out what you have to figure out.'
By December 1999, the belly was intact, the wheels and steering components were reattached, and he moved the engine indoors to complete the restoration.
Wayne moved on to the engine mechanism in 2000. Like most parts on the old steamer, the engine was well-worn. Wayne replaced most of the pins and linkages as a result. He also fabricated babbitt bearings and built a special fixture to hold the crankshaft steady so it could be milled and aligned.
Next, Wayne machined the valve face on the engine's steam chest, as well as the crosshead guides. The guides were the biggest challenge, Wayne says, because they were nearly too large to fit in his mill, much like the wheel bearings. The valve spool for the governor was too worn to reuse, so Wayne manufactured a replacement. Like most other components on the New Giant, the engine's piston cylinder also needed work. Wayne rebored the cylinder, so it's now slightly larger than its original 9-inch bore. He bought new rings for the piston as well. When the engine was reassembled, he replaced the engine's 38 flues, which he ordered from another steel supply company. Wayne also plumbed the entire engine with schedule 80 pipe to ensure the engine was safe to operate under pressure.
The paint job was the last detail Wayne addressed. After meticulously painting the flywheels and other components, Wayne added a simple message as a reminder to everyone who ever loved that engine: Restored in memory of Lowell Burden. Since Lowell operated the New Giant for decades, Wayne said he added the words so the late engineer's memory would remain.
Most would think Wayne would be proud when his 1902 beauty once again blew smoke. 'No,' he says modestly. 'I was tired.'
After four years of hard work, Wayne finally fired up the New Giant on June 15, 2002. The engine wasn't in perfect running order just yet, and 'lots of debugging' was necessary, he adds. In fact, he's still tinkering with it to this day. 'Even after it's done, it takes never-ending maintenance,' Wayne explains.
Yet, four years after he started the project, Wayne met his goal and restored the engine in time for the annual reunion in Mt. Pleasant. To honor his accomplishment, the reunion's organizers selected Wayne's masterpiece as the engine of the year for 2003. More than achieving that goal, Wayne awoke the New Giant from its slumber, preserved a piece of farm history for posterity and saved the steamer from life as a flower planter. FC
- To learn more about Wayne Kennedy's 1902 New Giant steam traction engine, write him at 10212 Jimtown Road, Danville, IA 52623; or by phone at (319) 392-8239; or you can reach him by his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Engine was a giant among steam machines
Wayne Kennedy's 1902 New Giant steam traction engine (Serial No. 4712) was built by the Northwest Thresher Co., in Stillwater, Minn. Its horsepower was rated at 18, which carried the spur gear-driven engine at a brisk 2 1/2 miles per hour. The original specifications show the single-cylinder engine had a 9-inch bore and a 10-inch stroke.
Because it's a return-flue engine, the smokestack is located above the firebox. As a result, the water supply tank, or head tank, is mounted on the engine's front end. That helps provide extra weight and stability for the 18,000-pound, 15-foot engine, as well as being a convenient place to locate the re-supply water. The engine was built to burn straw, wood or coal.
The Northwest Thresher Co. manufactured steam engines and other farm equipment until the Advance-Rumely Co. purchased it in 1912. Today, Wayne says, only six New Giant steam traction engines exist.
Tips from a giant tamer
Those considering a steam engine restoration project should know that the work entails more than just painting an old piece of iron. Wayne Kennedy has restored many vintage steam engines and says the process is more costly and time-consuming than most would-be restorers may imagine. Wayne has 35 years experience as a tool-and-die maker, used his own equipment to mill the metal and did most of the work, although he had some help from his son, Brian. If he'd paid to have the New Giant restored, Wayne estimates it would've cost at least $100,000.
Wayne offers these tips to consider before buying that rusted, old steamer you've had your eye on:
Don't start the project unless you intend to finish the job. Wayne's New Giant restoration took four years, and brought frustration that might make a less-experienced person quit. Determination -more than money or equipment - is the key to any restoration.
Nothing is easy about restoring old iron. Even the most miniscule problem can cause enormous headaches and drain your wallet before the project is complete.
Safety, safety, safety! The most-important component of steam engine restoration is avoiding injury. Even before the engine is restored and operational, heavy components can be dangerous to handle. Yet, safety doesn't end when the last paint dries. Most steam engineers are trained and spend many years working with old hands before they dare to fire up an engine alone. Before you operate a steam engine, learn about how they function and what dangers exist.
'Steam engines are not a hobby for everybody,' Wayne cautions. 'Most importantly, you must be safe.'