All in the family

Learning about steam from the in-laws


| May 2009


When one marries into a family, it is quite an interesting experience.

I knew that my father-in-law had been a farmer years earlier, but knew nothing about the uncles I inherited. It was not until a few years later that I learned that the three uncles had been part of a steam threshing ring in their earlier days, and that one the uncles had steam traction engines. He was talking at a family gathering about selling one of his engines because he couldn’t find anyone to help him with it. I was interested in learning about steam engines and offered to help him with the engine. Nothing more was said until several months later, when on a Thursday evening, I received a phone call from Uncle Walt. “Are you interested in helping me with my engine?” he asked. I was and said so. “Be at Greenville at 9 a.m. tomorrow,” he said and the phone went dead. He was a man of few words.

Being a chemistry teacher, I knew a little about steam, and having fired a coal furnace as a child, I thought I would be ready for the experience. What a mistaken notion that turned out to be!

Arriving at the appointed hour, I found the engine and was told to shovel some wood from a pick-up truck into the firebox. No problem! I was about to light the fire when I heard, “Stop! Are you sure there is water in the boiler?” Since there was water in the glass, I assumed the boiler had water in it. I then taught to empty the water out of the glass and see that it refilled from the boiler. Only then is it safe to light the fire.

Finding the grease fittings was a challenge, as a 23-90 Baker has some hidden fittings which only show up when the reverse lever is in a certain position. I was then taught to check each of the drip oilers. Even if they have oil in them, that does not mean they will work as they should. Always make sure they are dripping oil before starting anything. I was getting a real education.

The next lesson occurred when there was enough steam to move the engine. I knew steam condensed when cooled, but had not thought about water collecting in the cylinder and pushing out a cylinder head if not properly vented.