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
The proposed trip presented difficult planning problems: Enough supplies and equipment to operate the engines and sustain a large group of men for a six week trips had to be shipped from.
Tulsa to Wichita. This included a chuck wagon and provisions, and what were known as 'punching boards'three inch thick boards used to protect concrete walkways across dirt streets from the iron cleats of the engines. Several water wagons had to be transported, not only to carry water to steam engines but also to fight fires which sometimes ignited as the engines rolled across fields and grassy lands.
Jim watched the engines coming off the train in Wichita. To unload the behemoths, the men put timbers on the tracks. Some engines were pulled onto the timbers with winches, while others were pulled off by two good teams of horses on level ground. Once unloaded, only a small amount of assembly was required to prepare the engines to steam up: The grates for the engines were bundled under the cab, while the brass parts were stored in the coal bunkers in boxes. Nine engines, about 30 men, and one nine year old boy left Wichita, bound for Tulsa, 180 miles and three weeks away.
Because the weight of the engines could cause serious damage to roads and cause some bridges to collapse, the route included detours to avoid city streets and bridges. This steam engine 'caravan' was regarded as a valuable contribution to the war effort, so townspeople were anxious to help the engines move cross country. Townspeople would often meet Jim's group to tell of the strength of the bridges and areas of possible damage to the roads. They would often build a ford for streams on which the bridges couldn't sustain the weight of the engines, and suggest alternate routes to avoid roads which could be extensively damaged. Jim recalls crossing the Arkansas River by bridge. But two large rivers, the Cimarron and the Canadian River, as well as all the small streams, had to be forded. One engine would bank the fire, cross the river, then restoke and help pull the others across. These fords and avoidance of town sites frequently required detours of five to ten miles.
In hilly country, the engines could break away going down hill, if the governor belt broke. So the group removed the belts, requiring close attention to throttle and engine going down hill. They would sometimes attain speeds of three miles per hour, making as many as 25 miles per day on the prairies outside Wichita. But in hilly country and areas crisscrossed by creeks, where the going was tough, a day's effort might have taken the caravan only a mile. Frequent adjustments and repairs further slowed progress. Part of the problems arose because the engines were new and untried and many operators were inexperienced. Jim did anything he could to get acquainted, serving variously as operator, mechanic, water boy and go-fer. His dad would hunt for him about every 30 minutes. But the men seemed not to notice or consider him - they had other things they were interested in. And a rather constant and widely pervasive over-indulgence in moonshine liquor was taking a toll, too.
These were men who had never had a vacation in their lives. This trip presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for adventure and fun. Though liquor was illegal, the group had large quantities of rot gut and many were tipsy as each night of the six week trip fell upon the group. Some drank and wanted to fight but would generally be corralled by the others before any great harm could occur. Some played games (particularly galloping dominoes) and some told stories. Jim's heroes were those brave men who told of fighting experiences around the fire. He'd listen as long as his young eyes could stay open, but would eventually fall asleep under a wagon with his dad, the men's stories, full of braggadocio, ringing in his innocent ears.
As the weeks passed, some of the men began reaching their destinations and dropping from the caravan. As each would take his leave, the men would shake hands all around as if losing a brother and talk of getting together-pulling it off again. Jim and his dad were the farthest from Wichita and made the last 15 miles of the trip alone. Jim's dad spent much of this time patiently explaining the importance of not discussing details of the trip with Jim's mother for fear the accounts might offend the 'good Christian woman', as Jim's father called her. For Jim's dad, the trip was once-in-a-lifetime-a highlight of his hardworking life. For Jim, the trip was the foundation of a life that would keep him involved with fighting men and steam.
Jim's grandpa had a jewelry store in Bixby, Oklahoma. Because of his mechanical ability, Jim divided his time as a youngster between learning watch repair at his grandfather's side and learning to operate steam and, later, gas engines at his father's knee. He bought his grandfather's store in 1938 and lived quietly in Bixby. His outside activities were calm compared to his boy hood singing in the occasional quartet and working from time to time at the Macknick Company, manufacturing parking meters.
Jim was in his jewelry store in Bixby when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Sunday, December 7, 1942. Monday morning, at the age of 32, Jim presented himself to a recruiter. The 'experienced men' of perhaps 20 years of age who sat on the other side of the recruiting desk explained to Jim that they wanted 'fighting men', not 'old' men. Not satisfied with this answer and hoping to help end the fight before his son would be old enough to be caught up in it, Jim asked the school superintendent to write a letter to the Navy, explaining that Jim's years as a watchmaker might be of assistance in avionics if they'd just let him in. The Navy wrote back for three references to verify the time he had worked as a watchmaker. His grandfather, a local banker, and school professor vouched for him. He was to report to Oklahoma City where, after training, he became Chief Aviation Machinist's Mate.
Following three years in the service, Jim was a civilian teacher to military personnel, instructing on the overhaul of aircraft instruments for the next 12 years. Then he was a civilian teacher in a four year apprentice program teaching the same subject matter.
After 16 years teaching aviation instrument repair, Jim was bored. He began inspecting aviation instruments for the Navyradios, props, guns, turrets, anything in avionics. After a short time, he became a supervisor and then quarterman. He was transferred to California where he was chief inspector for avionics division in Alameda.
Jim found out he was a capable fellow with a lot of skills while he was in the service, giving him the confidence to pursue his old love: STEAM. In 1955, Jim heard of the Mount Pleasant show and came from Corpus Christi, Texas, to 'have a time.' Jim had built a 1' scale using supplies from Cole. Jim didn't see another scale until he saw one built by Jack Kauer from Wichita. After two or three trips, Jim began building bigger and bigger, finally stopping at 3. With Jack Kauer, he is generally recognized as the father of the V4 scale.
The story might end here, but it doesn't. While Jim worked at the Macknick Parking Meter Company, he was supervised by Mr. Hauser. While Jim was in the service, his former supervisor, now Lieutenant Hauser, recognized Jim and remembered Jim's fine singing voice in the quartets. He asked Jim to' 'pitch'' the sale of war bonds over the public address system. Jim's success earned him a lifelong reputation as a fine public speaker, particularly 'pitching' over a public address system. Although Jim no longer wants to work with models because of the strength required to move parts and engines about, he continues devoted service in promotion of steam by serving as a public announcer of unsurpassed skill at steam shows throughout the prairies of America.
And so it is with things of quality and enduring importance steam engines and Jim Thomas: What goes around, comes around.