Marrying into a steam family develops man's lifelong passion for the hobby
The love of a woman snared John Gallahue into a lifelong fascination with steam traction engines. “My wife, Tara, and I started dating in about 1979, and her father, Lloyd 'Bones' Dehm Sr., was running the 1917 Reeves 16 HP steam traction engine at the Mt. Pleasant (Iowa) Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, and had been since the early 1960s. He ran it over the years and helped maintain it.
“Tara has been going to Mt. Pleasant about every year since she was alive. So, because we were dating, in about 1980 I went to Mt. Pleasant with her for a day. Of course, then I was more interested in my father-in-law’s daughter than in steam,” the 56-year-old laughs.
But that soon changed. “I started helping him and got attached to the idea of steam and the Reeves. So when I had the opportunity to buy it, I jumped at the chance and ended up with it.”
The Reeves didn’t require a lot of work to keep it going. “It had been re-flued not long before I got it and new babbitt bearings had been poured for the valve linkage rods. Other than that, it just needed cleaning up. I want to get it painted before I take it back to Mt. Pleasant in September,” John says.
John is pretty sure that other than when it was manufactured by the Emerson-Brantingham Co. of Rockford, Ill., the 1917 Reeves 16 HP steam traction engine, serial no. 8017, has not been out of the state of Iowa. “So it’s getting kind of homesick sitting here at my place,” he says. There weren’t many steam traction engines in the Piper City, Ill., area where he grew up and now lives, mostly because the area was swamp land until drainage ditches were dug.
“Steam engines couldn’t cross the bridges built over the drainage ditches because they were too heavy and would break through. They did have steam engines around here, of course, but it seems like most people went right from horses to the gas tractors,” John says. Most of the remaining steam engines were cut up for scrap during World War II.
But there are quite a few of the Reeves 16 HP engines around. “It’s not a rare engine, but it’s special to me,” John says. He says his father-in-law is a dedicated steam man and has only missed one Mt. Pleasant show, the first one in 1960. “We tease him about that,” John says. “We say everybody was trying to keep it a secret so he wouldn’t show up. But teasing aside, he’s the one who got me started in steam. One thing led to another and now I also have a 1915 Port Huron 19 HP Longfellow steam traction engine.”
The 16 HP Reeves was made to burn wood or coal, but coal holds the fire longer. “But with what we do with it, putting it on a sawmill or a veneer mill at Iowa quite often, wood makes enough steam for something like that.”
The 1917 Reeves doesn’t have its factory jacket over the boiler any longer, which is a thin sheet of steel wrapped around the boiler that helped keep the heat in.
“The jackets usually had wood insulation, and most were taken off the steam engines several years ago so the boiler inspectors could examine the boilers,” John says. “My father-in-law remembers the jacket for the Reeves. It had cherry wood insulation between the boiler and the jacket, and brass bands. He claimed it even had a radius on the wood that fit the shape of the boiler. It would have been quite a talent to put that insulation and jacketing on. It was taken off at Mt. Pleasant for the inspectors. The next year when he went over to put it back on, it was gone.” John is also familiar with the jackets, as his Port Huron steam engine still has one.
The major item that is different on a Reeves from other steam engines is the drive system, John says. “It does not have a clutch, but direct drive so there is no slippage at all.” That made these Reeves engines great for plowing, and popular in plowing country. “A pin would lock the drive in so you wouldn’t have anything slipping if you were going to plow. When you were using it on the belt, like threshing, you’d take the pin out so it could run the threshing machine or sawmill, or whatever for belt work.”
It’s hard to figure out why more steam traction engines didn’t use this system, but it might have had to do with convenience. “Usually there’s a lever right by the engineer to disengage the flywheel to use it on belt work,” John says, “and to take the pin out can be done from the operator’s platform on the left side of my Reeves, but it’s a lot easier if you get off and disengage the pin.”
John says he found out firsthand how hot it could be when working around steam traction engines at Mt. Pleasant when the air temperature was over 100 degrees in the shade. “It was really hot. But when you got away from the steam engine, it seemed kind of cool.” He remembers hearing that from old steam engineers, too.
And people are always surprised how silent steam engines are, John says. “They say, ‘It doesn’t make much noise for how big it is.’ People stop at my shop to see it and without any of the background noise from Mt. Pleasant, they can’t believe how quiet the Reeves is and how smoothly it runs for how big it is.”
This steam is quite a hobby, John says. “Basically steam is how the country was made, steam locomotives and steam traction engines broke the prairie, so it’s kind of neat to keep that history and tradition going.”
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John Gallahue is in the middle of creating a 2/3-scale model of his Reeves 16 HP steam traction engine and hopes to have it ready for this September’s Mt. Pleasant show.
“I want to get it done and my father-in-law, who is 87, wants to see it run,” John says.
Originally, his father-in-law had planned on building the model. “I always heard him say he wanted to build one, but he just never did get to it. Probably five or six years ago he said he was too old. By this time I had gathered stuff to build one and I thought I’d do it someday. Then I realized if I didn’t get started on this I’d never get it done, because I was saying the same things he did,” John says.
The advantage in the scale model is that it can be taken to different shows easier than the big engines, John says. “Instead of needing a semi to haul the big ones, I could put this one on a car-haul trailer and move from show to show if I want to."
John says he took lots of photos and a lot of measurements to get everything he needed for making the 2/3-scale model of the Reeves. “The old literature on the Reeves has the dimensions of the boiler, the number of flues and the wheel size. The 16 HP had certain size wheels and a certain size boiler, and so on. I got some of the dimensions out of that.”
The fact that he has his own welding shop also helps him, he says. “I don’t know how you’d do something like this without it. I turn stuff down on the lathe, use a milling machine and so on to make a lot of that stuff. It would be tough without it.”
So far, the hardest part of the project was finishing the castings and making the connecting rods, and getting the links right on the connecting rods for the engine, John says. “It’s a double-cylinder, so you’ve got to have them as close to perfect as you possibly can. Other than that, it just involves a lot of time. You try to measure twice and cut once to make it a lot easier.”
All that remains at the time of writing is some plumbing and mounting the engine. “It doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it takes a lot of time to run all that piping. You need two ways to get water into the boiler’s two injectors, or one injector and one steam pump. This one will have two injectors. That’s for safety reasons,” John says. The boiler has already been tested at 200 psi and will run at half that.
Having attended his first Mt. Pleasant show while dating, it is no surprise that John Gallahue and his family (wife Tara, daughter Cortney and son John III) continue to attend the annual Mt. Pleasant Midwest Old Threshers Reunion.
John III has especially taken an interest in steam. “I think he knows more about the Reeves than I do,” John says.
“I got interested in steam by going to Mt. Pleasant with my family, and hanging around Dad and Grandpa since I was about 5 years old. It just came to me. I’ve been around it ever since and I learn something new every year,” John III says.
He’s learned how to inject the water into the boiler, how to lubricate the engine and that if you don’t open the cylinder cocks to let water drain out of the steam engine, the water will shoot down the exhaust pipe and out the stack. He had just finished with the Cavalcade of Power Parade when two girls were walking by the Reeves. “I disengaged the engine and set it in reverse, and I saw one girl walk through and one back up and I thought, uh, oh, I just gave her a free shower.” He adds that it isn’t the water that’s the problem, but the steam cylinder oil. “If you have a white shirt on at the time, you’ll soon look like a Dalmatian.”
John III enjoys steam engines because they have a more labor intensive process than other machines and he likes to tinker around with them. “It’s amazing how these things work. They can outpull some of those Farmall As or John Deere Bs. There’s a thrill to running steam engines and how they work. They’re fun and neat to mess with.”
John III often pilots the Reeves from place to place during the Mt. Pleasant show and takes it around the track during the daily Cavalcade of Power Parade, piloting it while his grandfather operates the throttle. “Right now I’m working on one of the most complicated parts of an engine, lining up the pulley on the steam engine with the veneer mill, so I’m learning how to pilot and figuring out how to line it up,” John III says.
He adds that the chain steering is a challenge, too. Up to now the only engine John III has run is the Reeves, but he’s hoping to be able to run some other steam engines, especially the Averys. “The under-mount is my particular interest because they look like a steam locomotive to me. I haven’t really asked anybody if I could run one, but I would really love to,” he says.
One of the things he enjoys most about the Reeves is that it’s a double-cylinder, so he doesn’t have to worry about it getting stuck on center and not starting. “You don’t have to worry about any slippage with the direct drive, either,” he adds.
Though his friends might give him a hard time about his hobby, John III isn’t dismayed. “I just say, ‘If I put you on there and you don’t know what you are doing, you’d get seriously injured or even killed.’”
Remarkably, John Gallahue has a complete record of owners for his 1917 Reeves 16 HP, serial no. 8017.
1918: First purchased by a group of farmers at Tama, Iowa.
1945: Clifford Vaverka, Tama, Iowa
1965 (approximately): Wilbur Skaar, Alameda, Calif.
1975 (approximately): Jim McAllister, Mt.Union, Iowa.
1980 Bob Welander, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
1985: Weleander Bros. (sons of Bob and Barb); Dave, Matt, Tom, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
2000: John Gallahue family, Piper City, Ill.