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 steam era.
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 harbor.
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 charcoal grill.
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 attention.
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.