Elmer Gray Steams Up

By Staff

The following story by Ronald J. Rice is reprinted with
permission from the Great Falls, Montana Tribune. The photo on the
back cover is of Elmer Gray, and the article originally appeared
June 4,1987.

Sunday was ‘steam up’ day on the Gray Ranch on Little
Belt Creek and friends came from miles around to watch 81-year-old
Elmer Gray build a head of steam in the boiler of his one-fourth
size model of a Case 65 tractor.

It was almost as much fun watching Gray stoke the fire box with
dried chokecherry wood, monitor the gauges and check the fittings
on his black, brass, green, red and silver tractor as it was to
watch him run it.

Martha and Carl Mehmke, who have the Mehmke Steam Museum on US
87-89 between Great Falls and Belt, were among those attending the
afternoon ‘steam up’ at the Gray Ranch, which is on Ewing
Lane northeast of Belt. Rains had washed down the area during the
morning.

When Elmer was asked if it was his toy, he answered, with a
grin, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that. I was down in Stanford and
I saw one of these. It was a two-inch (to the foot) scale model and
it could pull two men so I decided I would build one which was
three-inch scale.’

That decision was reached nearly 30 years ago. It was on July
16,1959, that Elmer went to the Great Falls Iron Works and
purchased the material for the boiler. The Iron Works rolled the
wrapper sheet and fire box sheet and cut the eight-inch piece of
well casing to fit the length of the boiler barrel.

Elmer and his younger brother, Raymond, were actively engaged in
farming at that time so it took six years of Elmer’s spare time
to complete his model. It was also difficult to obtain the parts he
needed to build his tractor.

His plans came from Coles Power Models in Ventura, Calif. They
did not have any plans in the scale he wanted so he purchased a set
of one inch to one foot plans and tripled the size of
everything.

Most of his castings came from C. E. Jack Kauer of Wichita,
Kan., who also was an expert machinist and did machine work for
Elmer for free. Other castings came from Alexander Enterprises of
Kansas.

His master gears and pinions are the drive gears and pinions
from a Myers pump jack; a 1924 Chevrolet steering worm and gear
were used in the chain steering. Elmer did as much of his own
machine work as he could but he continued farming until 1975 so
others did much of the needed work most of it without charge.

The T-shaped water tank on the engine, called contractors
bunkers, were made from copper so that he would not have a rust
problem but he cannot stand on them or they would cave in. To get
around this problem, he constructed a water wagon on four wheels
that the tractor tows.

Elmer rides atop the water wagon and controls the engine from
there. The water wagon is connected to the engine so he can draw
water directly to the engine while he has the machine in
operation.

Gray said he burns dried choke-cherry wood because it is harder
and burns with more heat than other available woods. He cuts each
piece to size so it will fit the small fire box.

But starting the fire and bringing the boiler pressure to near
100 pounds per sq. inch requires considerable effort because the
boiler has small flues. To offset this problem, Elmer puts a
special ‘T’ on the end of a vacuum cleaner hose on which he
has attached a special plug which he plugs into the steam
engine’s stack.

He reverses the motor on the cleaner and this produces a strong
draft to make the fire burn hotter and draw the heat through the
flues, thus shortening the time required to build steam
pressure.

It isn’t just any water that goes into the boiler of Elmer
Gray’s tractor. He only uses rain water which he collects
through an intricate gutter system he devised. This gives him water
that has very low mineral content and reduces mineral buildup
inside the machine.

During its construction stages, the miniature tractor had to
share quarters with the regular farm tractor and had only a very
cramped space. It was not until the Gray brothers ceased their
farming operations that Elmer’s Case 65 model got a home of its
own.

‘I didn’t get to steam the engine up for the first time
until Dec. 5, 1965,’ Elmer said, ‘and it ran
perfectly.’

And it still runs perfectly it purrs quietly like a sewing
machine. It is then that Elmer puts it into gear, advances the
throttle and ‘chuffs’ slowly across the yard, giving all of
the ladies present rides if they want them.

The ride is a tour from near the tractor shed, northeast to the
garage area where he turns right and moves along the edge of a hill
past the end of of the chicken house and then up toward his
extensive garden. Another right turn brings the tour back to its
point of origin.

At this point, Elmer stops, tips his engineers cap and stokes
the firebox with more wood as the smoke and steam swirl around
him.

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