Clyde E. Corley and the "Strawberry" Engine
It was in 1969 that I first laid eyes on an Advance 30 HP cross-compound plowing engine. I little knew it then, but I would eventually own that steam engine, and treasure my friendship with its former owner, Clyde Corley.
In the fall of that year, my dad got a custom harvesting job at the Buchanan Ranch, south of Geraldine, Mont. My brother, Alan, and I were along one day – I was 4 and Alan was 3 years old.
It just so happened that on that day, the pitman arm on Dad’s Massey-Harris 90 combine broke. The nearest welder was at the Clyde Corley Ranch, just down the road about a mile. Dad took the combine to Clyde’s place and they repaired it.
Meanwhile, my brother and I found a yard full of steam traction engines to play on that Clyde had lined up along the fence by the road. The biggest engine, with the big blue wheels, especially intrigued me. This was a 1909 Advance 30 HP cross-compound plowing engine, serial no. 11574. Clyde called it the “Strawberry Engine.” I never forgot that day!
Years passed as my fever for steam engines grew. I was in second grade and our little country school took a field trip to Carl Mehmke’s place near Great Falls, Mont. I really enjoyed his collection of tractors and steam engines. I wrote letters to Carl thanking him for the experience I had. Carl says he still remembers my letters today and how excited I was about the engines. We became great friends. Later, I worked for the Mehmke farm during the winter months in the 1990s.
I contacted Clyde in 1984, and inquired about purchasing an engine from him. He had an unrestored 1900 15 HP Rumely, serial no. 3587, that he said he might sell. I made several trips to Clyde’s place and got to know him well. I did purchase the Rumely late in 1985 (I was 20 years old at the time) and restored it over the next year with lots of help from Clyde and other friends. It is a very nice little engine to run. I really wanted to buy the big 30 HP Advance, but didn’t have the money at the time. I just had to dream of owning it someday.
One summer day in 1985, I was heading out the door when the phone rang. I was on my way to the famous Augusta, Mont., rodeo. I had my hat, boots and good clothes on. Clyde was on the phone telling me he had a fire lit in his 22 HP Advance traction engine and that if I wanted to learn to run an engine, this would be a good opportunity. You can guess what happened. Yes, I put the phone down, changed into my grubby clothes and headed to Clyde’s. (I still haven’t made it to the Augusta rodeo.)
That day I met another man who would become one of my best friends: Ove Larson of Choteau, Mont. He and his wife, Sarah, were at Clyde’s for the day. (Ove had two 60 HP Case engines that he used at the threshing show on his farm near Dutton, Mont.) We put lots of miles on the old 22 HP Advance that day. It was a fine running engine with a straw-burner boiler, and it steamed easy. Clyde later donated this engine to the agricultural museum in Fort Benton, Mont., and it is on display there today. At lunchtime, Clyde’s wife, Minni, cooked up a seven-course meal for all of us. She was one of the best cooks and when you couldn’t fit one more bite, Minni would offer you more.
As for the 30 HP Advance, it was nicknamed the “Strawberry Engine” by the original owner. Strawberry Johnson (we don’t know his real first name) bought the engine new in 1909 and broke sod with it east of Grassrange, Mont. Johnson was said to have a big red nose, hence the nickname. Johnson sold the engine to Paul Horvet after his sod-breaking run. Horvet started a sawmill at the head of Beaver Creek south of Lewistown, Mont., on the Pratt Ranch. The Pratt family purchased the engine from him a short time later and continued the sawmill operation. A man by the name of Babe Lewis was their engineer in the mill. The sawmill continued operations until late 1939.
In 1951, Clyde and his best friend Jim Spevac of Geraldine, Mont., also an engine collector, purchased the Strawberry engine from the Pratt family and hauled it to Geraldine. The two men restored it and used it in threshing bees held at the Corley Ranch. Clyde eventually sold the 30 HP Advance to Alvin Hagen of Shelby, Mont., in 1988. Alvin used it for a few shows that he had on his farm until his death in 1991.
The engine went up for sale at Alvin’s estate auction on May 23, 1992. Clyde was hired by the family to have it steamed up for the sale. He invited me to help, which I certainly wouldn’t have refused. Clyde told me at the time the boiler on the old Advance wasn’t perfect and to keep that in mind if I were to bid on it. I wanted to buy it and Clyde knew it. I would fix the boiler if I got it.
The auctioneer pulled his truck up near the 30 HP Advance. Boy was I ever nervous! Clyde lit his pipe. I loved the smell of that old pipe. (I’m not sure if Clyde spent more time smoking it or just keeping it lit.) The auctioneer had Clyde run the engine both directions and blow the whistle. The bidding started. As the numbers went up, Clyde elbowed me and said, “Remember what I said about the boiler.” I kept bidding and ended up with it. Clyde turned to me and said, “Well David, you got yourself an engine! You’ll like to run this engine. It’s set up nice and one man can handle it fine.” Clyde took another puff of his pipe. I could see a sparkle in Clyde’s eyes and I could see he was very happy that I got the engine. I have to thank my very good friend Carl Mehmke of Great Falls, as my purchase of this fine machine would not have been possible without him.
After several years of paying off my loan at the bank on the Advance, I began the renovation. It needed a partial crown sheet, new babbitt in all the valve links, valves re-adjusted, a proper paint job and many little things. John Schrock of Michigan came out to our farm and cut, fit and welded in a partial crown sheet and put in new stay bolts as needed. A new fusible plug was also installed. John did a wonderful job and it passed state inspection.
Painting the engine the proper color was a challenge. I was able to retrieve original blue paint chips from deep under grease layers in various parts of the engine and wheels. I was able to match the paint to a shade of royal blue. Clyde informed me that when he purchased the engine from the Pratts all those years ago, that much of the original blue paint was still on it. Clyde also told me, from his own personal experience, that Advance painted only the cross-compound engines blue. All the others were red. The logos on the coal box and rear water tank were hand painted by Jay Eastman of Lewistown, Mont. He is quite an artist and did an excellent job.
Today the Strawberry engine runs and looks great. The boiler is certified for 125 psi. I have displayed it at Pioneer Power Days for three years. It plays with my 8-bottom John Deere plow set in the ground as deep as it will go. It tips the scales at 37,500 pounds loaded for work. It has an 11-inch stroke, a 9-inch diameter high-pressure cylinder and a 12-inch diameter low-pressure cylinder. This is the only known example of a 30 HP cross-compound Advance traction engine in existence. These engines were built from 1909 through 1911.
Unfortunately, Clyde never made it to Lewistown to see the old Strawberry engine run again. I did send photos of it to him at the nursing home in Fort Benton, Mont., where he was staying the last year he was with us. Clyde made it to Carl Mehmke’s steam-up on June 21, 2002. Clyde, Jim Spevac and I talked about the Advance and the photos I sent of it. He was glad to see it was all restored again. Carl had his Nichols & Shepard engine fired up that day, powering his sawmill. Clyde managed to get up on the operator’s platform one more time and smoked his pipe. His smile was ear-to-ear. Clyde passed away one month later.
Over the years, I sort of adopted Clyde as the grandfather in my life since my real grandfather passed away before I turned 4. He so enjoyed teaching me how to be a good and safe engineer. He left me with many good life lessons as well. I loved learning all I could from him. We would meet up at various threshing bees across Montana, and how the stories would flow. He loved telling about things in his “wilder days.”
Clyde was one of the original steam engineers who actually made a living with these machines. Most of his steam experience was in sawmills back in Illinois when he was young. Clyde said he fudged his age to get a steam license at 14.
Clyde was born on March 5, 1908, in Tower Hill, Ill. He grew up on a farm there and came to Montana in the late 1920s. He worked for Walden Johnson Farms where he met his sweetheart, the crew cook, Minni Knaup, of Great Falls, Mont., and fell in love. Clyde then became journeyman and shop foreman for Connelly Machine Co. (a Caterpillar dealer) in Great Falls. Clyde and Minni were married in September of 1936. He bought a farm/ranch in 1943 south of Geraldine and he stayed until about one year before his death on July 30, 2002, at the age of 94. Clyde loved music, played the fiddle and loved to dance. He was preceded in death by his loving wife of 63 years, two years earlier. Clyde and Minni are survived by their two daughters, Lois (Steve Tonne Payne) of Athol, Idaho, and Kathleen (Kate) J. Nelson of Stockton, Calif.; three grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Many times when I steamed up one of my engines on our ranch north of Lewistown, without informing Clyde, he and Minni would come driving down our lane. Our places were about 60 miles apart. How did he know I was steaming one up? Well, I think he had a sixth sense about such things. This happened more often than not, so I am still amazed when I think of those times. We both enjoyed putting miles on the engines and the stories that go with it.
I will miss my best friend, I will miss his colorful stories and jokes. I always think of him when I’m on a steam engine. I can still smell the smoke of his pipe … how sweet it is.
Contact steam enthusiast David J. Vanek Jr. at: 4035 Chara Lane, Billings, MT 59101; (406) 252-7321; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org