51Years Experiences

article image
I. A. Stellmacher
Courtesy of I. A. Stellmacher, Box 162. Cottonwood. Minnesota 56229 This is a partly built 1 inch scale, locomotive being built by I. A. Stellmacher, Cottonwood. Minnesota. 6 inch drive wheels, 1 3/4 by 2 cylinders., Laird cross-head, Walschaert valves re

Box 162, Cottonwood, Minnesota 56229

Can a Reeves threshing engine boiler make steam faster than the
pop-valve can let it out? This question has puzzled me ever since
the year 1915. But let me start at the beginning.

I was born in 1895 at Renville, Minnesota, and all my childhood
I was interested in seeing wheels go around. when I was about 4
years old I got a Weeden toy steam engine with vertical boiler. My
dad ran it for me, and I wonder who had the most fun, him or me?
When I was about 6 years old, my uncle (mother’s brother),
bought a Gaar-Scott threshing rig. The engine was a return flue,
with a mud-drum below the belly of the boiler, where the blow-off
valve was located. I don’t remember the separator, but it had a
picture of a farmer with a straw-hat, with the name ‘Happy

My dad ran the engine, and my uncle tended separator, and when
not too far from home, I always hung around the engine. I remember
one time when ‘we’ were threshing in Grandpa’s yard, my
dad acted a little excited and told me to get a stick of stove wood
from the wood pile. I gave it to him and he bumped the side of the
pop-valve, and then it popped-off O. K.

Along about this time those old German Preachers used to thunder
at the congregation that Hell was a place of ‘Fire and
Brimstone’. Keep this in mind, because it fits in later in this

Of course I had to go to school like all the rest, so there is
not much more to tell until I got old enough to ‘work out’.
In 1906 we moved to Marshall, Minnesota. For several years I worked
on various farms around Marshall, but the nearest I got to
threshing was hauling bundles. In 1914 I got the job as fireman at
the Marshall Milling Company, furnishing the steam for an Allis
Chalmers, 750 H.P., cross-compound, Corliss engine, turning out
1000 barrels of flour a day. Then came 1915, and through a friend
of mine I got the job of ‘Water-Monkey’ out at Kidder,
South Dakota.

This engine was a Reeves cross-compound, I think 32 H.P. It had
a water tank ahead of each drive wheel, and also a larger water
tank lying cross-wise on the back end of the platform, with a coal
hopper on top of that. The engine also had a canopy just about full
length, so the machinery was protected from the weather, as well as
the engineer.

Every Sunday we washed the boiler. had to pump the old
‘armstrong’ pump while the engineer amused himself
squirting water around where he thought it was needed, and I
sometimes wondered if he needed it all. Anyway I was glad when it
was done. Then make new gaskets and put in the hand-hole covers.
Then some more pumping to fill the boiler, but this pumping was not
so hard, as I did not have to pump against pressure.

We were brought up to ‘Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep it
Holy’, and I sometimes wonder if we were Justified to clean
that boiler on the Sabbath Day? The reasoning was that there were
14 bundle wagons, about 4 grain haulers, 2 spike pitchers, and
separator man that would be idle if we washed the boiler on a work
day. The engineer and water monkey be busy anyway, whenever it was

All along, the engineer was ‘educating’ me on the care
and operation of a steam engine and boiler. The crown-sheet had to
be kept clean of dirt and scale, and the fusible plug not allowed
to scale over, the water legs kept clean to permit good
circulation, so that the side sheets would not overheat and
rupture. This included the water space above the fire-door, which
was a likely space for dirt and scale to collect. All in all, the
main idea was to keep the entire boiler clean. Besides all this I
was told the use of the cylinder cocks, how they let the water out
of the cylinders when starting a cold engine.

Now and then, between tanks of water, the engineer showed me
how-to work the injector, even letting me turn it on several times.
Right here I might say that this Reeves had a steam ‘jet’
or ‘syphon’ that was used to take the water out of the tank
wagon and put it into the tanks on the engine, so it did not need
to be pumped by hand. The engineer cautioned me not to open that
steam valve more than needed, otherwise it would heat the water in
the engine tanks, and the injector would not work.

One rainy day the engineer wanted me to help him pour babbitt in
some of the valve-gear linkage. We had a fire in the boiler to melt
the babbitt. After this work was done, he let me run the engine, as
the drive belt was off anyway. When the high-pressure crank was on
dead center, there was a foot pedal that could pass live steam into
the low-pressure cylinder-to roll it off center. This foot pedal
had to be released instantly as soon as the engine started to roll,
so the engine could keep on running.

The boss of the rig noticed that I was fairly handy at running
the engine. One day when I had a short ways to get water, I had a
little free time between tanks, and the engineer left me in charge
of the engine for a while. Soon the boss strolled over to the
engine, and he looked at the water glass. I perceived that he was
worried about the water in the boiler, so I reached over and turned
on the injector. You should have seen the expression of relief on
his face. He then strolled back to the separator, evidently
satisfied that his engine was being taken care of.

This was all shock threshing, making 4 settings with 4 straw
piles to each section of land, so the bundle haulers never had very
far to go. We used to start the wheels turning at 6:00 A.M. and
thresh until dark, with time out to eat of course.

It was getting late in the fall, and the mornings were getting
colder, so we had to wear sheep-lined coats in the morning. One of
these mornings we came out to the rig at the usual 6:00 A.M., and
the engineer was ‘mad as a wet Hen’, with very little steam
pressure in the boiler. He was furious enough, that, if
‘He’ were put into the fire-box, we would have had steam
right now. The fusible plug was the culprit. As most everyone
knows, the fusible metal must be bonded to the body of the plug.
Well this one wasn’t, the soft metal just sitting there in a
tapered hole. The pressure in the boiler kept it tight, but this
particular morning the boiler had cooled so much, that the vacuum
sucked this soft metal core loose.

At this date, after 51 years, I do not recall if the engineer
tried to get up steam to force this soft metal cone back into the
plug or not, but I do know that he finally took a ‘regular cast
iron pipe plug’ and put it in the place of the fusible

Shortly after this the engineer got a telegram: ‘COME AT
ONCE THE JOB IS YOURS’. It seems as if he had an application in
for Chief Engineer in a municipal electric light plant in some town
in Minnesota. The boss of our threshing rig knew this, but was
hoping the season’s run would be over before this job opened

Now, try to get another engineer this late in the season. The
boss offered me the job, but the engineer felt I was a little too
‘green’ to have complete charge of an engine. As things
turned out later, I wish I had taken the job anyway. Where he
located the man he did get, I don’t know, but his home town was
Terre Haute, Ind.

Through all this changeover, everybody seemed to forget about
that ‘cast iron plug’ in the crown-sheet. The new engineer
did not seem to be very adept around the engine, but things went
fairly well for a few days.

We had to have some more coal, so the boss told me to go to
Newark, S. D., to get it which was about ft miles away. He also
said to have one of the bundle haulers to get water for the engine.
I selected a half-breed Indian we called Sam, to haul water. After
instructing him about not using too much steam on that
‘jet’, I left to get my load of coal. Getting back to the
rig while it was still daylight. I noticed that they had quit
threshing, so I left the coal in the farmer’s yard, and put up
the horses.

About this time a number of the bundle haulers gathered around
me, all trying to talk at the same time. ‘Gee, water-monkey,
you should have been here’. One said that water came out of the
smoke-stack, that felt like a rain shower when it came down around
him. Another said that the engine pounded like it was going to
break something. Still another said that the engineer could not get
the injector to work, so they shut down for the day.

Wait a minute, this did not all happen at the same time, and
since it was only mile over to the rig, a few of us walked out
there, Sam included. I don’t know where the new engineer was,
as we did not see anything of him.

When we got out to the engine, I noticed that the water glass
was broke. This probably explains why the engineer got the boiler
too full of water, for if I remember correctly, the gauge cocks on
that Reeves were rather inaccessible. Maybe the new-engineer did
not know what they were for anyway. I also felt of the tender tank,
and it was quite hot, so I asked Sam how far he opened that steam
valve on the ‘jet’ ? He said ‘about 2 turns’.
‘Two turns’! Didn’t I tell you to turn after the
‘jet’ got primed? ‘Well, I was in a hurry’, is all
he had to say for himself. At any rate he managed to tie-up the
crew for the latter part of the day. No, an injector will not work
with hot water, and the day was too far gone to drain the tanks and
refill them with cold water, so we just let them cool

The next morning, the tender tanks being fairly full of water, I
hitched up to the load of coal first. But before I could get to the
engine with it, they decided to move to a new setting. While they
were moving, I drove along on the left side of the engine, so I
would be right there if they ran out of coal.

We came to a place where the field sloped ever so slightly down
hill, and the pop valve let go. This did not surprise me, nor the
horses. But the pop valve did not close when I thought it should,
so I held back the horses a little so the engine would get ahead of
me, so I could see the steam gauge. ‘Ten pounds above pop-off
pressure’! Can this be possible? At any rate I was worried
enough that I stopped the horses, and let the rig move on, coal or
no coal.

When they got to where the field was more level, the pop valve
closed again. They made the setting, and got the separator humming,
so I pulled the load of coal cross-wise behind the engine to shovel
some coal into the hopper. Since the wagon box was full, I stood
with one foot on the end of the reach, which extended about a foot
behind the wagon box, and the other foot I put on the wagon box
floor where it extended about 1 inches behind the end-gate.
Passable, but not too satisfactory standing room.

The coal was somewhat lumpy, so it was not too easy to dig down
to get a shovel full. From my precarious place on the end of that
wagon, my head was just a little below the top of the coal hopper
on the engine. It was cold morning and I had on my sheep-lined
coat. I had not tossed many shovels of coal into that hopper. but
just as I tossed the last one, and was still looking at the top of
the coal hopper, ‘BOOM’!

Fire and Steam came blasting out from under the back end of the
canopy and over the top of the coal hopper, just past my face. Hell
did break loose! That old German Preacher was right! I got out of
there fast, but in jumping off the end of the wagon, I got the hot
water coming out of the ash-pit door, which was below the platform.
This boiling water hitting my rear, below the sheep-lined coat, no
doubt gave me a speed that I never knew I had. For, when I got out
of the steam, I found myself about 100 ft. away from the engine.
The terrific heat from my pants, caused me to let them down fast,
but when that cold northwest wind hit me, it felt like ice, so I
pulled them up again.

Several of the men said they saw me running in that column of
steam, and had I swerved either right or left, would have been out
of it sooner.

All the nearby bundle loads were on fire, and the men were
frantically pitching off the burning bundles, to save as much of
the load as possible. The explosive force was so great that it
broke the latch on the smoke-box door, and the door swung open with
force that it broke the hinges, and landed some 30 or 40 feet to
the left of the engine.

The front of the separator was all plastered with wet soot,
which came through the tubes. I don’t remember if the separator
got on fire or not; if it did it was minor, because it was still in
working order.

Nobody could find the engineer, but they finally found him
behind the separator, and everybody wondered how he got there, as
nobody seen him go. The boss took the engineer and me in his horse
and buggy, but at this date, my mind seems to be blank as to where
he took us. I do remember the engineer was taken to a hospital. I
must have not been burned too bad, because that afternoon I went
out to look at the engine, and you should have seen all the
spectators around it.

The broken water glass had been removed, and a new glass was
about ready to be installed, laying on the seat box. This must be
what the engineer was doing when she blew up. The crown-sheet had a
long slit about 18 inches long, about 4 inches wide at the widest
part. The edges of the hole were flared downwards towards the
grates. The grates and ash-pit were as clean as if they were

The next morning the boss and his wife came with his car and
asked me and one other of the crew if we wanted to go along for a
ride, to arrange for another engine. We went to Aberdeen, South
Dakota, and he decided on a Russell Gas Tractor. I think it was a
40-80, and had about 7 foot drive wheels. This tractor arrived in a
few days, but I don’t remember if I hauled bundles or not. I do
know I was getting home-sick, so I went back to Marshall,
Minnesota. No, I was not cutout to be a Boomer.

Before offering my opinion on how that Reeves could boost the
boiler pressure 10 pounds, with the pop valve blowing, I would like
to tell of my subsequent experience, which helped me form this

I was, and still am, interested in steam engines, but not
particularly threshing engines with their short seasons, but
rather, some plant or factory where they are in use the year
around. So I took an I.C.S. course in Steam and Electric
Engineering, with the idea to qualify for Chief Engineer in some
municipal light plant.

While studying this course, I took a job with the Bladholm
Machine Shop, here in Marshall. One job we had was to make and
install a new fire-box in a threshing engine. I could not hear for
weeks after that job, for part of my duties was to buck-up the
rivets from the inside, while the air hammer was doing the riveting
on the outside. Another job we had was at the Marshall Milling
Company, (a flour mill), on the same boiler I had fired myself
about 2 years before.

This was a horizontal, return flue, with a ‘Dutch Oven’
at the front. It seemed that they neglected to keep the boiler
clean, and the shell ‘bagged’ down where the heat was
greatest. The opinions held by most, was dirt and scale prevented
the water from getting to the shell, thereby allowing it to get red
hot, and as it started to let go, the dirt and scale cracked,
whereupon the water chilled it before it let go completely. Pretty
close! The bulge was about a foot wide, and about a foot and a half
long, with the bulge about 3 or 4 inches at the deepest point.

To ‘beat’ this back, we rigged up a sheet metal forge to
truss up under the bulge, and when the metal was red hot, we
quickly took away the forge, and hammered at it until it needed to
be heated again. We had a template cut to the same radius as the
boiler, so we could check on out-progress.

I don’t remember how this turned out, as I was sent out on
the construction of a steel road bridge, which had to be completed
before winter set in. As it was, the snow was flying when we
finished. This was the late fall of 1916, and seemed to wind up the
work for this season.

That same winter we had ‘Revival Meetings’ in our
church, and while I was brought-up in a Christian atmosphere, it
was not until these meetings that I experienced Christ as my
personal Saviour, ‘The Peace That Passeth All
Understanding’. One evening after the meeting, I overheard the
Sunday School Superintendent inquiring as to where he might find a
man to help with his feeder cattle. Being at loose ends at the

I offered to help. At first he though I was joking, but he
agreed to give me a try.

He took me in hand as his own son. He asked what I planned to
make my life’s work, and I told him about my I.C.S. course, how
I hoped to be chief engineer in some municipal light plant. He
helped me see that those opportunities were few, and besides in
such jobs it is not ‘What you know’, but ‘Who do you
know’. He advised me to take up automobile work, as steam was
fast being replaced by gas engines.

To prove how sincere he was, he financed me to go to the Rahe
Auto School in Kansas City, Missouri. While there, I had to
register for the draft of World War One. Receiving my Diploma, I
returned to Marshall, Minnesota, the fall of 1917. Since it would
be but a matter of time before being called into the War, I did not
try to locate permanently.

The Great Northern R.R. needed an engine watchman to take care
of a locomotive each night, while the train crew took an 8 hour
rest. The retiring watchman broke me in for this job. The duties
were to clean the fire, keep the boiler at water level, and
definitely, don’t let the water line from the tender tank to
injector freeze up. To do this you close the over-flow valve, open
the water valve, and then crack open the steam valve, just enough
to get intermittent ‘thumping’ in the tender. The colder
the weather, the faster you made it ‘thump’. When water was
needed in the boiler, you shut off the steam, open the over-flow
valve to let a little water run out to cool the injector, and then

While the watchman was teaching me, one evening they came in
with an engine in which the flues were leaky badly. The engineer
sent a wire for a boiler-maker to come up on the night passenger
train to fix the flues. We met him at the train and took him over
to the engine.

He first shook out all the fire, and then rolled the engine away
from the fire so as not to damage brake beams, etc. They then threw
in some grain doors to stand on, and then took off their
sheep-lined overcoats, and crawled into the fire-box. The watchman
held the torch so the boiler-maker could see. The boiler-maker had
a tapered plug which he stuck into a flue, and did he wallop that
plug. But as that flue stopped leaking some others around it were
leaking worse. He tapped the plug sideways to get it out, and then
put it into another flue and started walloping again. It seemed as
if he would never get them all tight, but he did. I was watching
the work from the fire door.

It was hot in that fire-box, and when they came out into the
cold winter air again, they lost no time getting into their heavy
coats. If I remember right, there was still 100 lb. gauge pressure
when they came out. A few days later, the retiring watchman turned
over the job to me. I was on this job about 6 months, and then came
the call of Uncle Sam, April 7, 1918.

The War Department sent 500 of us to the University of
Cincinnati to make truck mechanics out of us. In the final quiz I
got a mark of 77 out of a possible 80. This gave me a rating of
Expert Mechanic. I still have this Certificate.

Sometime after the war I went to work for Packard Motor Car,
Factory Branch, in Kansas City, Missouri, but I could not then, or
now, go along with labor unions. If ever there was a tool of Satan,
the labor unions have turned out to be just that. I will not say
anymore, lest I lose my temper, but if anyone reading this belongs
to ANY union which would compel others to ‘Join or Else’,
and at the same time professes to be a Christian, let him read
Revelation, 13, 16-18. Some theologians may make a different
application, but it certainly fit the labor unions. Also read
Revelation, 14, 9-11 and see how God will deal with those who would
compel you to ‘Join or Else’.

After about 6 months on Packard Twin Six Cars, I went back to
Marshall, Minnesota, where one could work at his trade without men
standing outside with clubs and bricks, ready to kill you. During
the years in the automobile business, I also owned and flew two
airplanes, building up some 830 hours flying time, and never an

Steam was still in my blood however so I took to building a live
steam locomotive, scale 1 inch to the foot. This is a 4-6-4 wheel
arrangement, 1 by 2 inch cylinders, 6 inch drive wheels, Walschaert
valve gear, 75% cut-off, .025 inch lead in forward motion, no lead
backward, 300 lb. weight on drivers, 75 lb. draw-bar pull, 4 to 1
factor of adhesion, 20 ft. minimum radius of curve. Am enclosing a
picture showing part of the engine under construction. Everything
except the wheels were machined from bar stock.

Now lets get back to that Reeves threshing engine. During the
past 51 years I have gained a smattering knowledge of the thermal
efficiency of heat generating units.

So, my theory is, when that Reeves was moving across the stubble
field, slightly down hill, the water was just low enough that it
left the crown-sheet practically dry. The surging of the water, due
to the uneven ground, splashed water on the crown-sheet, thereby
acting like a flash boiler. This could possibly raise the pressure
10 lb. even while popping off. It must have been dangerously close
to blowing up right then.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment