A Tale of Two Steam Road Rollers

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Left: A front view of the Case 40 HP steam road roller at Rollag, Minn., owned by Jim and Lynette Briden, Fargo, N.D., and Jerry and Claudia Axvig, Hawley, Minn.
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Top: Unlike a regular traction engine, there aren’t any lugs protruding from the smooth rear wheels on the Case 40 HP steam road roller at Rollag.
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Opposite page: A view of the Case 35 HP steam road roller at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. This road roller is owned by the Duane Coonrod family, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Image courtesy Nikki Rajala.)
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Center: The simple-cylinder on the Case 40 HP steam road roller.
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Bottom: A side view of the roller wheel on the Case 40 HP steam road roller.
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Left: The chain steering and the smooth rear wheels. Bars could be inserted in the holes in the wheels to make a sheepsfoot roller.
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Right: Rivets on Case steam engines were inserted hot for a tight fit.
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A closer view showing how the steering chain winds to turn the Case 40 HP steam road roller.
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Left: The side of the Case 35 HP steam road roller at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has the Case eagle, Old Abe, painted on it.
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Bottom: Another view of the Case 35 HP steam road roller. (Images courtesy Nikki Rajala.)
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Below: The front wheels on the Case 35 HP steam road roller are smooth, as are the rear ones, making the road rollers susceptible to getting stuck – or at least stopped – easily.
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Right: A closer view of the Case 40 HP steam road roller at Rollag, Minn.
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Below: The 40 HP Case steam road roller takes a break during its showing at the 2006 Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, Rollag, Sept. 1-4, 2006.

It gets stuck easily. Its parts are not
interchangeable with any other steam traction engine. It has
limited uses. Yet everywhere the Case steam road roller is shown,
it draws a crowd.

“People are used to a steam engine having four wheels,” explains
Lynette Briden, Fargo, N.D., who along with her husband, Jim, and
Jerry and Claudia Axvig, Hawley, Minn., owns a rare 40 HP Case
steam road roller They show it every year at the Western Minnesota
Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minn. “People like it too
because it’s a little smaller than the other steam engines – I
noticed it first with the interest in the 9 and 18 HP steam engines
– although the huge ones do have a certain draw,” she says.

A 35 HP Case steam road roller is also shown at the Midwest Old
Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, each year, owned by the
Duane Coonrod family, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It’s a crowd pleaser in the parade,” says Bob Gilchrist, who
got involved with the Case road roller through George Bare, a
mutual friend of the Coonrod family. “I showed up at Mt. Pleasant
in the late 1970s, and George gave me all the dirty jobs to find
out if I could come back the next year.” He did, and one of the
perks was working with the Case 35 HP steam road roller.

Bob says he figures the Case road rollers are rare because most
businesses or the military who had them discarded them when
something else came along – like the internal combustion engine
machines that did the same work. “Businesses scrapped them quicker
because they didn’t have an orchard or fencerow to push them to,
and the call for scrap metal during World War II was the demise of
most steam engines, including many of those steam rollers.”

A Touch of History

The first Case road rollers were produced in 1906 when a 10-ton
road roller, serial no. 17093, appeared along with about 40 others.
The quantity manufactured increased each year through 1911, when
they sold for $2,200. After that, the number of road rollers
manufactured fluctuated, until 1921 when the greatest number (the
exact number isn’t known, but was probably several hundred) was
constructed. None were produced in 1922 and only six in 1923.

Twelve-ton road rollers appeared in 1908, but weren’t as popular
as the smaller 10-ton. In fact, there’s scant advertising for the
12-ton road rollers at all. In 1914 they sold for $2,500.

Case steam road rollers had either an 8-1/4-by-10-inch simple
engine or a 6-1/8-inch tandem compound engine and a 9-inch bore by
10-inch stroke.

A period advertisement for Case road building machinery said it,
“… plays an unusually important part in building the good roads of
the nation. Wherever you find good road construction you will
invariably find Case road building equipment. Each year hundreds of
additional contractors, municipalities and townships choose Case
machinery. On the basis of first cost they may not be the cheapest,
but, we believe, they are most economical in the long run.”

Road rollers could be protected from the elements overnight by a
roll-down canvas canopy option that could be secured to cover the
machine. But it was so expensive that few people bought them,
although the Briden-Axvig machine does have one. The tarp covers
the machine completely so the smokestack won’t freeze at night in
cold weather. Others without the canopy were forced to use a bucket
over the smokestack.

Most of the Case road rollers had a power steering device to
help turn the front wheel, as C.H. Wendel writes in 150 Years
of J.I. Case
: “It consisted of a rather simple friction clutch
arrangement which imparted motion to the steering shaft. This
movement was controlled by the engineer with a simple hand lever.
Adding the power steering attachment substantially reduced the
engineer’s work, particularly if he was also responsible for firing
the boiler.” This is the same option that was available for the
huge 110 HP Case steam traction engines.

The front wheel is something of an enigma. “If you look closely
at the front end of a Case road roller, you’ll see that basically
it is made up of four belt pulleys from Case steam engines,” Bob
says. “So Case found another use for their belt pulleys.” The four
are joined and turn as one. The front wheel was made to work on
uneven ground, and will tip sideways up and down depending on
obstacles.

Operating the Case steam road rollers isn’t much different than
the standard steam engine. “Firing the boiler is basically the
same. The major difference is the steering mechanism,” Bob
says.

Steering is accomplished not with a wheel, but a bar, Bob says.
“You push it one direction and the worm gear winds up the chain and
the road roller turns.” But not much, he says. “Basically the road
roller was built to go two different directions, forward and
backwards, and a little bit to one side or to the other side. All
it did was go back and forth, back and forth”

A good illustration of the back-and-forth is shown in a story
Elmer Bare told about his earliest experiences with a Case road
roller during World War I, Bob says. Elmer made the mistake of
raising his hand one day when soldiers were asked if anyone knew
how to run a steam engine. He was put on a road roller that was
making a parade ground, so after the initial jubilation he got
bored with going back and forth and back and forth. “So he filled
the road roller with water so the level was really high in the
boiler,” Bob says. “Then he got over near a bunch of commanders,
people with a lot of brass on their chests, and opened the
throttles.”

Water was drained out of the boiler and the oily liquid sprayed
all over the brass. One of the commanders said, “Get that fool off
that engine! He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“But he knew exactly what he was doing,” Bob says, laughing as
he recalls the story.

The Workings

Case steam road rollers had limited uses: roadwork, construction
leveling and powering rock crushers. However, they could be
converted to regular traction engines with an unusual front axle,
Wendel says. Road grouters were also furnished for the rear wheels.
In 1921 the 1,800-pound conversion cost $175.

Though the front wheel gets most of the attention, the back
certainly deserves some as well. Back wheels on the road rollers
are basically flat, with no cleats on them, which means the machine
can easily get stuck – although “stuck” might not be the correct
word. “Lots of times we’ve gotten it stuck in wet grass,” Jim
Briden says. “It will just stand there and spin in a low spot.” If
it isn’t stuck in any serious way, a tractor can pull it back onto
firmer ground, he says.

If you ever got one stuck in mud and started spinning, Bob
thinks there’s no way you would ever get it out because it has no
cleats and no traction of any kind. “The front and back wheels have
a nice smooth surface, so we’re pretty careful with it. We always
laugh that when it’s raining, it would be nice to follow the roller
during the parade because it would have all the mud squished out
and you’d be driving on dry dirt.”

Bob says the Coonrod family built a tongue for the 35 HP that
can be hooked on the top of the roller to pull it out of any
situation. “That way you don’t even need somebody to steer it,” he
says. “I’m not sure the tongue was made out of necessity, but it
sure is handy, because the machine has to be moving for you to
really turn it one way or the other. The tongue makes it easier to
transport when it’s not under power.”

Pins could be added to the back wheel to make a sheepsfoot (used
for compacting soil), says Tom Delaney, who has worked with the Mt.
Pleasant road roller. He says the road roller has been at Mt.
Pleasant as far back as he can remember, which is 36 years.

For packing, the three wheels are set to complement each other
so there’s a flat rolling surface all the way across from the outer
edge of one back wheel to the outer edge of the other one.

The boiler on Case steam road rollers is different from other
Case boilers, Jim says. “It’s 1-inch smaller in diameter than the
regular 40 HP Case steam engine.” Bob has noticed the smaller
boiler on the 35 HP machine, but notes that it’s not as long.
“Basically, I think they figured out all they needed was power to
roll it. And they couldn’t pull anything with it because of the
lack of traction, so my guess is that made the smallest boiler that
still had enough weight on it and power to do what they wanted it
to do.”

Tom says the road roller is quite comparable to other Case steam
engines. “The injector pulls water out of the water tank and puts
it into the boiler, and there’s also a water pump that runs with
the engine that will pump water from the same tank into the boiler
as long as the engine is running.”

Though no new Case road rollers were made after 1923, it appears
the company still had stock, as both the 10- and 12-ton road
rollers were offered for sale in 1927 at $4,000 and $4,400,
respectively.

The last vestiges of the Case road roller was a gasoline version
designed in 1923, but other than a prototype, nothing came of
it.

Today’s Uses

The 40 HP Case steam road roller at Rollag is used to run a rock
crusher, and the rest of the time it’s just driven around. “It has
too small of a flywheel for running a regular threshing machine,”
Jim says.

The rear wheels are the size of the 65 HP Case, so if the road
roller was used for a regular threshing machine, the spikes on the
rear wheel would hit the flywheel. “It was designed strictly for
running a rock crusher or packing the road,” Jim says. “It was made
for construction.”

The road roller is run yearly in the parades at Rollag, and it
has been used to do dirt work as needed, Lynette says. “It’s
probably not as efficient as the modern construction equipment,
which we don’t have accessible to us, but it does a good little job
for us. It’s a machine we run a lot at Rollag because it’s a
smaller engine. And it’s very popular during our June kid’s day,
when K-8 kids come and gets hands-on at Rollag. The kids drive and
ride the steam engines and get familiar with them.”

Lynette says she remembers her first time going to Rollag. “I
figured if Jim wants to go, I can go with him. When I got there, I
remember thinking, ‘What’s the excitement about this old junk? We
farmed with it, so it’s nothing new.'”

But appreciation came as she got older. “Now I realize how hard
my father and my grandfather worked to farm,” she says. “My
grandfather talked about the threshing crew and how my grandmother
had to work in a cook car, and all the work involved for a crew to
thresh down a field. They didn’t have the equipment we have today,
so it’s good to educate the youth so they know how they got where
they are today. I never thought I would be this involved in the
hobby, but now I have a real passion for it. It becomes part of
you.”

Bob says a few years ago they did some work on one of their
museums with a rock floor at Mt. Pleasant. “That’s where we store
some of the steam engines. We went in and were grading it down and
leveling it, until finally somebody said, ‘Wait a minute, we have a
road roller out there.’ So we brought it in and spent a day and
half inside the building leveling down the floor. When we were
trying to figure out how we were going to do that to the floor, we
almost forgot we had one. So once in a while we actually use it for
the purpose it was meant.”

Road Roller Upkeep

Like all steam engines, the road rollers need basic upkeep. In
addition, Lynette says their 40 HP road roller, which was
originally owned by the late Kenneth Kelly from Pawnee, Okla.,
needs a bit of work. “The inspector dropped the pressure on us when
it was inspected this year, because there’s one area of the boiler
that needs work. But we’re lucky, because it’s something we can
have fixed as long as we have an ASC-coded person do it. It’s not
the boiler itself, but a thin spot on the door, so it’s a fixable
thing.”

Bob says there are repairs common to all the engines. “The
firebox might need some work, the material around the soft plug
might need to be replaced, things like that.” He adds that “people
have to realize the engines were made to last perhaps 10 years. And
now we’re basically trying to keep 100-year-old equipment
going.”

Tom Delaney adds that the upkeep on the circa 1912 35 HP Case
road roller has mainly been paint work since he’s been familiar
with it. “We’ve put it in the shop and taken some of it apart and
painted the boiler by hand with brushes so it doesn’t rust. Some of
the piping on it was not painted and that has some surface rust,
but it takes a long time for it to rust clear through. The painting
is mainly for looks. We wouldn’t want rust running down the
boiler.” He adds that the bunkers were restored on the 35 HP
machine, too.

“There are only six or seven of the Case road rollers left, I
think,” Jim says. “The last one I know of that sold at auction
brought $36,000. The Case road roller is just different than a lot
of the other engines around. It’s unique.”

Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane,
Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com

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