Dad's Steam Engines

Remembering dad and his steam engines – steam runs strong and true.

| September / October 2005

I remember being about 4 or 5 years old, and knowing just that Dad ran an “engine” with yellow flywheels and a diamond-shaped smokestack. Now, being a bit older, I know all the details I couldn't be bothered with before.

Born Nov. 1, 1920, my father, Vernon Haffner, became a third-generation steam traction engineer. It started with his grandfather, Anton Haffner of Frankfort Township, Minn. He ran a small sawmill not far from St. Michael, Minn. We're not sure what exactly Great-grandpa had for engines, but we do know for sure about one in particular.

In 1896, Great-grandpa bought a 12 HP center-crank Case steam traction engine. He bought it for some of the “small jobs” around the farm and neighborhood. It ran a small wooden thresher that Grandpa burned when he found my two older sisters playing inside, afraid they'd hurt themselves. (You'll see a growing trend with this later in my story.)

When Dad was a boy (knee-high to a grasshopper, as Grandma would say), he took an immediate liking to this thing that made all these things work without having to hitch-up the horses.

Dad's first job on his grandpa's steamer was to watch the water level. Great-grandpa tied two strings to the water glass. Dad was told to watch it. When the water reached the bottom string, he was told to “open this valve,” and when it reached the top string, he was to turn it off again. For Dad, as he got older, running that little steam engine became as natural as breathing. They worked perfectly together as a team, and it didn't step on his feet like the horses did.

Well, time went on and Great-grandpa was getting to the age where he just couldn't deal with it anymore. The most natural thing for him to do was to give the steam engine to the one person he knew would love it and take care of it the way he had: His grandson. When Dad got the engine home, two miles away, and told all his friends, they swarmed over to see what the hubbub was about. All the engine really did then was give rides to the neighbors, it seems. Oh, she still did some of the chores around the farm, but not as much as before.