Cross Country Steaming

| May/June 1991

  • Case engine

  • Jim Thomas
    Jim Thomas

  • Case engine
  • Jim Thomas

S. Main, Suite 201 , Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57102

DRIVE a steam engine 180 miles cross country? Not a thought that flashes through the mind while loading 20 tons of steam engine on a low boy. Even if you're only 30 miles away, driving an engine home seems like a fantasy horror story. FACT: in 1918, a group of 30 men and one nine year old boy drove nine Case 65 traction engines 180 miles cross country from Wichita, Kansas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. That nine year old boy, now 81 year old James Cecil Thomas, generously shared his remarkable story with me while we recovered from the fun and excitement of Temings' Steam Show near Wichita, Kansas, this past Labor Day weekend. His deep voice rolling like distant thunder on a warm night, Jim leaned back in his motor home to tell the tale. His gray-blue eyes fixed on distant points of his past as the story rolled out in the soft, lilting rhythms of Oklahoma and northern Texas:

Jim Thomas was born in 1909 in Crawford County, Arkansas. The 1911 oil boom in Tulsa attracted his father to the oil fields; the whole family moving to Tulsa in 1915. While Tulsa was then the capital of oil, Wichita was the capital of wheat threshing. As a result, the Case Company, like most major manufacturers of steam engines, had a large parts depot at Wichita and regular rail shipments to Wichita from its manufacturing plant in Racine, Wisconsin.

By 1918, American doughboys of World War I were filling the trenches of Europe with their blood, and Flanders field with row upon row of white crosses. The United States was feeding England, France, and the troops overseas. Here at home, wheat was rationed. In an effort to increase wheat production, the government offered $200 or $300 as the down payment on a $1400 Case 65 tractor and a government guarantee of the loan or the interest rate. Because of the favorable freight tariff, the Case Company had to ship to its depot in Wichita, where program participants were required to pick up their steam engines.

When the Tulsa oil rush slowed down, Jim's father began working for J. A. Sewel who ran a threshing crew with three steam rigs. When Jim was about eight, he began to operate the engine for the thresher and showed considerable mechanical ability. When Sewel decided to participate in the government program to get a new Case 65, he directed Jim's dad to make arrangements to pick the engine up in Wichita and bring it back to Tulsa. Others from the Tulsa area decided to pool their resources together to pick a total of about nine engines. And young Jim, a proven operator at nine, was brought along by his dad.

Eight Scale Case 65 engines at Terning's 1989 show. Billy Ward at left, passed away soon after the show. Next year's Terning show will focus on scale engines


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