Midwest Collector's Passion for Steam Engines and Equipment Creates an Amazing Collection
A Minneapolis steam traction engine.
Somewhere in the Midwest lives a man - let's call him "Jake" - who has collected with an unflappable passion all his life. Scattered over the 41 acres that make up his "yard," sometimes in rows and sometimes haphazardly, there are steam engines, tractors, fixed engines, farm equipment, large cranes, ditch diggers, and almost anything else that could be imagined, all sitting silently, waiting. "I will not let them go to the scrap yard," Jake says.
This man, single handedly in many cases, has moved pieces of equipment each weighing many tons to his property. Once, Jake even built a special transporter to move a large engine weighing over 80 tons. Imagine the dedication and work it took for him to accumulate this amount of history in one place. He has passionately and quietly given much of his life to gathering these remnants of the past.
Sheep graze among the historic steam engines to keep the weeds down, a llama walks among the sheep to keep the wild dogs and coyotes away, and so it has gone on this way for many years. "I bailed hay last Sunday and put it up to feed my sheep next winter, I ran out of hay this spring and had to buy some," said Jake. "I wouldn't need the sheep in the winter, but when spring comes you can't find any sheep to buy.
"I got the idea to start collecting in high school days," says Jake. "Around 1932, we had manual training in high school. We got old motors and tore them down and fixed them. Then is when I really got interested."
Around 1935, Rural Electric Membership Corp. put in electricity around the area. People used electric motors to pump water or run a feed grinder, which left many old engines just sitting around and worth only junk price.
"In 1937, I made up my mind to get started when I saw this old engine sitting on a lot," Jake says. "I went and talked to the guy, he said it was a 1919 International kerosene, 3 HP igniter engine and, yes, it was for sale. I bought it for $2 or something like that." Jake took his old tractor and a farm wagon to pick the engine up. It was not easy - that engine weighed 300-400 pounds - and he didn't have any help. "I finally got it loaded and went home. When I took the engine apart I saw it needed some repairs so I went to the International dealer and would you believe he had the parts on his shelf? Anyway, that was my start in collecting," Jake says.
"I didn't get into the steam engine business until the late 1940s. I guess I was about 25 years old when I got my first steam engine, which was the 1892 12 HP C. Aultman Star. I paid $300-350, and of course, had to get it right away," Jake says.
The engine had been sitting in a briar patch for years and was sunk into the ground about a foot. "We worked our tails off," says Jake. "All we had were pick axes and shovels to get that engine loose and out of there." He took it over to his neighbor, Gus, who was an old thresher man and had steam engines for years. "He gave me some pointers and said my engine had hardly been used and it just needed a couple of flues. There really was not much wrong."
Jake has had the Star inside a shed for about 50 years. "The Star is all original and just like new," he says, "this engine is pretty rare too. There are only about seven of them in existence that I know about." The last time he ran it was about 40 years ago, with 100 pounds of steam pressure.
"I thought about getting the Star out in 1992 and doing some threshing with it," Jake says. "I had this 22-inch Geiser Peerless hand-fed separator that was not a wind stacker, but still would fit pretty good." The wheat was not good back in 1992, and so the idea getting the Star out was just too much. "I would have to take all this stuff out (of the shed) and then take out the back wall, otherwise I would have had to move all those other big engines.
"All the things setting in this shed have been in here around 50 years," he says. "You are not going to find another shed anywhere that has engines sitting in it in original condition for all that time. The thing with me is that I don't want to part with any of this stuff."
Jake feels that investing in engines is a good place to put your money. "Just like that old 20-40 Case over there. I just heard of one recently that sold for thousands of dollars, mine is in almost new condition." Jake also has an 1895 16 HP Gaar-Scott, along with a 1908 6 HP Case portable, both in fine shape.
Behind the shed is a very rare 10 HP Case portable, no. 2260, built in 1883. "I got that (Case) from some company in Virginia," Jake says. "There is also an 1898 16 HP Advance I got from a guy in Chicago. He didn't know anything about steam engines and had cut the crankshaft in pieces to take off the flywheel. I got that all fixed; the boiler was in real good shape.
"That big Huber in the field that says 'The New Huber' is a 1916 or 1917 plow engine." Plow engines are different from a threshing engine in that they have much heavier gearing and a differential gear. The engine itself was made to turn three or four more revolutions faster to make up for the lower gearing. "This engine would take a lot of work to fix, but I have some new replacement parts in the shed," Jake states.
"I bought a 1921 20 HP Minneapolis steam traction engine, no. 8425, in 1952," he continues. "It was in a sawmill and had never done much work." The original name was still visible - The Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. "The whole thing is kind of dirty, but it is a really good engine." There was a head tank on the front and a water tank on rear, both were good with very little rust and held water.
"I threshed with this engine in 1954 on a 32-inch Avery separator. A guy about 5 miles from here came over and wanted to know if I would thresh a 20-acre field of his wheat. I wasn't in the threshing business, but I thought this would make a nice show." Jake hooked the engine to the separator and drove to the neighbors - the roads were all gravel at that time so he didn't have any problems. "I like to see a really nice straw stack when I'm finished and there was enough straw for that on those 20 acres," Jake says.
The Minneapolis owner had told Jake that he should have an International tractor his neighbor owned. The neighbor had bought it new in 1912 just to move hay balers around. He parked it behind a shed in 1935 and had not used it since. "Anyway, I went over and bought that, too," says Jake. "It was a 12 HP International gasoline tractor. I totally rebuilt it about 20 years ago, but stopped and never did get it back together." This is a very rare tractor and as far as anyone knows, there are only two left. "I think I gave about $100 for it. The farmer had taken the front wheels and put them on a corn picker, but I got them back." Jake made new axles then took the tractor completely apart and had it sandblasted.
The Advance-Rumely Universal is probably Jake's favorite tractor. "They just have real good construction, you can see both front wheels when standing on the platform. If I was going to buy a new engine and wanted to make a living with it, I would have bought the Rumely," he says. Jake kind of likes the Frick engines too, especially the good design, but doesn't like the looks of the center crank - he prefers a side-crank engine.
In 1949, Jake bought the 1915 20 HP Baker counter-flow engine, no. 1192, that is sitting in his shed. "I've had that a long time. Actually, I am the second owner." The engine was on exhibit at the state fair in 1915. "My friend, Gus, and I threshed with this in 1950, he ran it most of the time and thought the Baker was easy to handle. You can stand on the platform and see both front wheels, which means an awful lot when you are pulling a threshing machine down a narrow county road. I didn't have a separator at that time so we used his 48-inch steel Advance-Rumely he bought new in 1924," says Jake. "I still have it over in the shed - we put it there 57 years ago right after we finished threshing."
Since then, Jake has gotten several separators - a late model Minneapolis 32-54, probably made in the early 1920s, one of the last steel separators built. "About half the pulleys are Rockwood pulleys, which is something you hardly ever see on a separator," says Jake. "The separator here is a wooden 30-50 A.D. Baker. This is a rare separator as there are very few wooden Bakers, and I think it was built between 1910 and 1920."
Jake bought a 1906 2-cylinder 17 HP Huber, serial no. 7776, in 1955 or 1956 - this is the engine with one vertical cylinder and one horizontal cylinder. Jake stated, "This is a very rare tractor; I don't know of another one in existence and I have been in this business for 60 years now. It is totally original, but I think it may have been repainted once."
Getting the Huber was an interesting story. Jake was driving around in another state and stopped at several small town stores. He asked if anyone knew of any old steam engines and one man said he knew of one nearby. Jake followed the directions, went down country roads and through several gates. Way out in a field he could see an engine in a shed. "I ended up buying the Huber and went back later with my lowboy to pick it up."
Jake picked up another small steam engine then loaded the Huber. On the way back he had to take a small ferry. "I was the only vehicle they loaded and as soon as I drove on the ramp that ferry went down in the water. I thought, man, is this thing going to hold me? I worried all the way, but the ferry slowly made its way across the river."
Jake originally built the large building that now houses his engines and tractors for the airplane he owned in the late 1940s. "I got so busy and had so much to do that I didn't have the time to fly," says Jake. "I ended up parking it over at the airport. The last year I owned the plane I flew only 5-1/2 hours, so I just finally put it up for sale. I was getting all these engines and they needed a shed. Since that first engine in 1937 one thing has led to another, and I think my collecting business has gotten out of hand."
Having been in the excavating business for about 40 years, Jake had equipment to handle heavy moving and lifting. "I had mostly Caterpillar tractors, they are the Cadillac of crawlers compared to an International or Allis-Chalmers or any of them. For example, most of the bearings and gears on a Caterpillar are on a tapered shaft, the International has it on a straight shaft and held with a key." He still has seven bulldozers sitting around along with three big cranes and a lowboy. Jake says, "I quit moving dirt about 1997. Someone else can do it now."
Jake remembers, "One company in the 1950s junked an Allis-Chalmers Corliss cross-compound engine, it had a 24-foot flywheel and I wanted to buy it. I guess everybody can't be like me, at least I saved a little of the stuff. I have been fooling with this stuff for 60 years, even 50 years ago there was not much interest in collecting - everybody thought it was just junk."
Several years ago Jake bought three De LaVergne engines from an old city power plant and moved them to his field. One is an 8-cylinder, 1,000 HP engine weighing 81 tons, and the other two are 6-cylinder, 750 HP engines. Their size is unbelievable. "Those big De LaVergne engines, you just don't see anything like that any more," Jake says. "This was a big job - you know, I never took the first picture of it."
They had to take the wall out of the building then use jackhammers to break some of the concrete in order to cut the engines mounting bolts off to remove the engines. Jake used 200 tons of lift force to break the engines loose from the concrete so they could be moved. The flywheels had to come off, too. They each weighed 11 tons and each generator was about the same weight.
"I took some 24-inch I-beams and made my own transporter, it had four axles in the rear with 28 wheels. I put a gooseneck hitch on and made a hitch on a lowboy so there were 32 wheels holding the weight," Jake says. "When we put that 81-ton engine on the transporter the 24-inch I-beams were bending like little sticks - I had to stop and weld on some 8-inch pipe braces to add strength. The whole thing weighed about 200 tons and I did not want that to break down on the road."
They had one semi tractor in front pulling and another in the rear pushing, and were able to move along at about 10 MPH without a bit of trouble. Jake says, "It took all summer to move those three engines."
"I've got parts and engines everywhere, people will probably find only about 10 percent of my stuff - that's the way I've been, I'm just telling you the facts," says Jake. "Well, I'm not in this for the money, there is a lot of stuff and I just enjoy keeping it around. There is so much outside that I'm going to lose some of it to the elements, I know that. Of course a lot of things would have already been gone if I hadn't gotten them."
Now, Jake can get up in the morning and take a walk through a lifetime of memories.
Donald J. Voelker, 5511 Kimberley Road, Ft. Wayne IN 46809-2140; (260) 747-9504; e-mail: email@example.com www.voelkerphotography.com