3250 County Road 92 North Independence, Minnesota 55359
I confess to being fascinated with steam power since I was a
youngster. Growing up in the old lumbering, shipping, railroading
city of Duluth, Minnesota, I got in on the very tail-end of the
The lumber mills had shut down by the late ’40s, so there
wasn’t much to see down on the waterfront from the days of the
big log rafts and the giant saw rigs. About the only sign of the
logging era were a few derelict bums that hung out in their woolen
logger’s clothes down by the ‘Classy Lumberjack”
Bar in the rough end of town.
In the early ’50s, there were still a few remnants of an
aged fleet of steam tugs, like the ‘Edna G,’ down at the
harbor. They still steamed up on occasion, but the quicker-starting
diesels were always beating them to the good ‘tugs’ when a
lake freighter would call for assistance entering or leaving the
The D. M. & I. R. Railroad still steamed up a few giant road
engines in the closing days of each shipping season. The massive
articulated ‘Mallets’ off the Mesabi Iron Range were
usually relegated to stationary service. They were lined up in the
Proctor yards to steam carloads of iron ore frozen rock-solid
during the 60 mile run from the mines down to the ore docks in West
Duluth. The red iron-rich ore, which had carried the nation’s
industrial might through two world wars, was nearly depleted. But
millions of tons still were sent down lakes to the blast furnaces
of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo.
In the bitter days of January, racing against freeze-up on the
Great Lakes, the trains would run around the clock, pulling wet,
washed ore out of the mines and across northern Minnesota. Only
steam from roaring boilers could thaw ore sufficiently to cause it
to dump into the bellies of anxiously waiting ore boats. As
youngsters, a family treat would be to bundle up in Dad’s Ford
and head up to the yard, where we would watch from afar the
spectacle of a dozen or more steam engines at full pressure. The
volcanoes of Hawaii could not match the stupendous clouds of vapor
billowing skyward in the crystalline still, sub-zero air over the
city! Occasionally, the brakes, too, would freeze up, and men would
scurry to cut a steam engine out of the thaw line, and assist as a
‘pusher’ to shove a train of loaded cars down the five
miles to the docks always against the ‘retainers,’ as the
men called them the brakes. It was common knowledge among the
engine men that you needed more power to push loaded ore trains
DOWN to the docks (against the retainer) than to bring empties up
the steep grade.
I’m sure there were old ‘donkey’ engines up in the
woods still around Duluth, but I never saw one in operation until
later years at steam shows.
It wasn’t until years later that I saw a farm traction
engine in operation. It was, as I recall, John Schoening’s 80
Case, and I believe he was steaming com for the American Legion
Convention at the Armory in downtown Minneapolis.
Over the years since then, I have learned to know and appreciate
John for the many things he does for the preservation of steam in
Minnesota communities. He has been tireless in his willingness to
haul his several engines from one parade to another, and from one
festival or centennial to the next.
Most importantly for me, he taught me how to care for and run
his engines. And, after he was convinced that I was taking it
seriously, he consented to sell me his 50 Case three years ago.
John had owned it for twenty years or so, and believes it powered a
sawmill in Wisconsin at one time.
For the past four years we have threshed here at the farm, using
all our own equipment. Our practice is to invite all the neighbors
and community friends to join us. Everyone is encouraged to
‘dress the part’ of the old threshing days, and to come
ready to work. Old tractors and equipment are welcome, as well as
teams of horses and grain wagons. At the end of the thresh, a huge
traditional meal is served, with wonderful food cooked on a giant
We use a ground driven John Deere binder which ties perfect
bundles of our spring wheat. Our completely rebuilt
McCormick-Deering 22 inch separator is easily handled by the 50. We
keep her thirst quenched from a carefully crafted wood and water
tender carried on wood-spoked truck wheels we found off an old fire
engine. We fire with wood, of course. Oak slabs are cured and
stacked in readiness for the threshing bee. A rebuilt McCormick
10-20 industrial power unit, belted to a 32 inch buck saw, neatly
trims the slabs to perfect firebox dimension. A 1936 Farmall F-12
on steel serves to pull a bundle rack, giving each old timer a
chance to spin the crank for old time’s sake.
Steve Eckman (student) at left, with John Schoenning
(professor), of Independence, Minnesota, on threshing day at the
Eckman Farm, August 1996.
But it certainly is the 1916 Case 50 that gets the most
Most of my work on the 50 has been cosmetic painting,
pinstriping, polishing, etc. I have replaced much of the piping,
and brassed the cylinder tin. All the wood was refinished and the
color brought back to ‘generally accepted’ original.
John had reflued her, and the inspector gave me 150 pounds on
the last go-round, so we seem to be in good shape. I do detect an
annoying ‘knock’ when she’s working hard with a delayed
cut-out, so I’m going to do some investigating this winter.
Hopefully, there’s just some play in various spots that’s
adding up to what I hear. Interestingly, old-timers don’t hear
the knock but I think that’s a product of their hearing rather
than the actual situation. I did replace a leaking cylinder head
gasket, and, while I was in there, I was able to take about a half
a turn on the nut on the top of the piston, so that may have been
part of the noise.