Box 674, Beaverlodge, Alberta, Canada T0H OCO
'Is that your steam engine?' asks an interested visitor.
'Yep!' says 7-year old David McLean. 'It's a 1912 Case.'
'What'll it do?' another question is fired from the crowd.
'She's got 25 HP on the draw bar and 75 on the belt. She'll pull a 10-bottom plow or thresh 1/4 section of grain a day', answers David as he reaches up to pull on the whistle to signal the start of the big engine.
Three thousand people watch as David and other members of the South Peace Centennial Museum sponsor their annual Pioneer Day on the third Sunday in July at Beaverlodge, Alberta.
David is dressed in striped engineer's coveralls and hat, fitted gauntlet gloves and a red scarf. Except for his bright blue and yellow Adidas tennis shoes and his 3'5' height, David looks like any other steam engineer from the early 1900s. He and his engineer run the big engine all day to give spectators a good look at it along with all the other antique steam engines parading behind. Old timers reminisce while the youngsters run alongside like kids did in the early days when these huge, flashy, noisy machines were an impressive sight to everyone.
David and his steam engine have a unique relationship. His machine was donated to him in 1977 by his grandfather, Ted McLean, curator of the museum. Every year when the boiler inspector makes his annual inspection, David takes a half-day off school to be present with his dad, Gordon. David likes to be there because he worries all day that it might not pass the inspection, indicating that it cannot be operated at the annual Pioneer Day. This year again the steamer has passed and David proudly displays the certificate, attractively framed over his bed.
David's 33-year old father, Gordon, is president of the South Peace Centennial Museum. He too has been around steam engines most of his life. But, by the time Gordon was old enough to enjoy machinery, steam power had long disappeared from the farm. However, he and his dad, Ted, always tinkered with an old steam engine on the farm and always stooked enough oats to justify getting the old engine to run a threshing machine for one day each fall.
Gordon currently has a 1914 28-80 HP Waterloo steam engine which sits proudly at the museum. Two or three times a year he and his dad, Ted, start it up just as they used to when Gordon was a youngster. It, too, operates at every Pioneer Day, displaying its magnificent abilities to operate the sawmill.
For 71-year-old Ted McLean, seeing his son and grandson on steam engines brings back lively memories of past years when he too first became interested in steam. Ted was born in 1909 in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. When he was 7 years old he used to run away from school just to be around the steam engines. Threshing was the big attraction in those days and it meant a holiday from school when the threshing crew was on your farm. Threshing represented good things to eat, a big crowd of workers and lots of fun! When Ted was 10, he was allowed to steer the steam engines as the crew was changing the set from one field to another. At 14, he was allowed to 'pitch bundles' and had to get up at 4:00 a.m. to fire up the engine. Ted gained enough experience to allow him to operate an engine on his own by the time he was 18. When he first came to Alberta in 1937 he operated an engine at a sawmill. In those days the engineer was the most respected, highest paid person on the site. Ted earned $5 a day.
By the time Ted was able to purchase his own farm, the steam engine was gradually passing into history and gas tractors were becoming more popular. By 1947, steam was more of a hobby for Ted.
In 1957 he bought his first steam engine, a 50 HP Case. He rebuilt the engine and used it every year for fun to thresh some of his crop. In 1964 he traded the 50 HP Case for the 75 HP Case that was to become the South Peace Centennial Museum's first steam engine. Ten years later he purchased a 28-80 HP Waterloo engine which he subsequently sold for $1.00 to his son, Gordon. In 1977 he donated the 75 HP Case to his grandson David and purchased a 1909 36-120 HP Rumely steam engine from Prince George, B.C. It is the largest steam engine at the museum and is currently being restored.
Ted's father, William Townsend McLean, also had a long history in steam engines. He was born in 1879 in Nova Scotia but moved to the Ft. Qu'Appelle region of Saskatchewan when he was 5 years old. He ran his own steam threshing outfit with a 60 HP Case in the Indian Head area of Saskatchewan until 1924. He farmed until the Depression and in 1947 moved to the Beaverlodge-Hythe region of Alberta. But by 1925 he had traded his steam engine for a gas engine. William Townsend McLean died in Hythe in 1960 at the age of 81.
Colin McLean, Ted's grandfather and William Townsend McLean's father, was born in Scotland in 1844. He moved with his family to Nova Scotia and then to the Ft. Qu'Appelle region in Saskatchewan. He purchased his first engine, a 45 HP portable Case in the late 1880s. It was moved by horses on a sled! His second engine was a 20-60 HP Case traction engine purchased about 10 years later. He purchased a steam threshing outfit before 1900 and farmed most of his 82 years at Indian Head, where he was buried in 1926.
The present three generations of McLeans: Ted, David and Gordon (L to R), and the 1912 25-75 HP Case steam engine at Beaverlodge, Alberta in 1980.
Colin McLean standing by the wheel of his steam engine at Indian Head, Saskatchewan in 1920.
William McLean standing in the foreground of his steam threshing outfit at Fillmore, Saskatchewan in 1924.
Steam has played an important role in the lives of all five generations of McLeans. Colin and William spent most of their working life operating engines. Ted saw steam power give way to gasoline, and steam was history by the time Gordon was born. But Gordon was attracted to the big, flashy, noisy machines just like his son David and like all other kids have been for generations. David has watched his steamer run a threshing machine and drive a sawmill, but never off the grounds of the museum.
It was due to Ted McLean's interest in maintaining some of the history of his father and grandfather that his hobby developed into the South Peace Centennial Museum. Without 7-year-old David McLean and others of his age having an interest in steam engines, we will not likely see an important part of our history enacted the third Sunday each July in Beaverlodge. Kids like David must have the desire to obtain the necessary license to operate steam engines. To do this they need someone like David's father, Gordon, and grandfather, Ted, to teach the necessary skills to operate, maintain and repair these huge machines. Otherwise the only place we will see a steam engine in the future is in a display building shining brightly, waiting forever for someone like David McLean to come and start it up. For if David does not learn how to run these machines, then the thrill and excitement of seeing the huge, flashy, noisy steamers go rumbling by, will be history too!