At a thresher’s reunion a few years ago, Frank Selly of St. Peter, Minn., was negotiating a right turn with his 1915 22-60 HP Advance steam traction engine and its chain-drive steering towards the sawmill when someone in the crowd yelled, “Hey, you’re smoking pretty good!”
Frank said the steamer, burning wood, had been producing a lot of smoke at that time, so he just smiled and said back, “That’s what it’s supposed to do!”
He drove a little bit further, and began to realize that his head was starting to feel hotter than normal. That was when he realized his cap was on fire. “That’s what they had been talking about,” he said. “I ended up with a couple three holes in my hat that day.”
On June 2, 1936, Frank’s Advance steamer was bought with absolutely no humor in mind. “Six brothers near Nicollet, Minn., called the ‘Big Six,’ had owned it, and on that day my dad paid them $125 for it. My grandfather, hadn’t wanted to buy it. That was a lot of money at the time. But dad bought it because he wanted to save the family farm.” Like thousands of farmers, the Great Depression had taken a toll on the Selly family farm.
For the next few years, Frank’s father custom-combined. “My father told me they would thresh all day at a farm, and move to a different one at night. He had to have two gentlemen go in front of him with red lanterns to show him where the ditches were.” They pulled a separator with them. Eventually Frank’s father brought in enough money to pay off the farm’s debts, and save the land for future generations.
In 1950, the Advance went to Mankato, Minn., to help build St. Joseph’s Hospital, used inside as a boiler to provide heat.
In 1959, the Advance steamer became a show tractor. That year it was loaded on a lowboy and taken on gravel back roads to West Concord, Minn., where the Budzinski brothers, Louis, Burt, Bud and Ed, had a show. After the deaths of Louie and Bud, the show was disbanded, and the Advance was moved to the Carver Threshers’ Assn., where it was used and displayed until 1989, when Frank’s father died. Frank’s uncle Pete operated it for a year before he passed away, after which Frank brought the engine home and began operating it himself. “I ran it at the Le Sueur (Minn.) County Pioneer Power Assn. Show until 1991, when I brought it back home and restored it, repainted it, and all that stuff,” Frank says.
The only major work that was required was replacing the operator’s deck, which was tricky because it took precision to drill holes through the 4-inch thick wood so it could be attached with bolts.
Since then, Frank has run the Advance at Le Sueur each year. “I’d like to get it to other shows, but with farming and driving a truck, there just isn’t a lot of time available, and it is time-consuming.”
The 1915 Advance has turned out to be a rarity among steam engines, because it burns not only wood and coal, but straw to hold steam. “Steamers like the Case can’t burn straw,” Frank says.
Burning straw is a dicey proposition, though. First, straw burner grates have to be fitted into the bottom of the firebox, which allows more air to pass through, and then straw has to be fed in very slowly. “When fire creeps out the little door, you have to push more straw in slowly,” Frank says. “If you push in too much at one time, you’ll put the fire out right away. Straw burns fast and hot, so you have to have a good fireman in order to keep steam under straw.”
There’s also a spark resistor on top of the smokestack to help prevent fires. “So many sparks go out with straw and would set straw piles on fire in the old days, so the resistor has to be adjusted to keep the sparks inside.“
At shows, Frank burns mostly wood, although sometimes he’ll put in the grates and run with straw. “At an average show we might use 1/4-to-1/2 a cord of wood in an hour,” he says, “depending on how hard we’re working it. If we get into the separator we’ll use a lot of wood. If there’s coal available, we’ll use that, because it will make a hotter fire and keep the pressure up better.” The Advance produces 22 HP to the drawbar and 60 to the flywheel.
Obviously, lots of water is required. The engine boiler holds 300 gallons, and tanks on the front and back each hold 100 gallons. “If you work hard and constantly, you might go through 500 gallons of water at a show. If you don’t work that hard, you’ll go through maybe 150-200. It all depends.”
One surety is the machine always has to maintain a certain amount of water to cover the crown sheet so you don’t blow your plug out. “A lot of times when you see an engine go down a hill backwards, that’s because they want to keep water over the crown sheet so you won’t blow a plug out.”
Frank says people at shows tell him how amazed they are and how extraordinary it is these old things are still running, and how quiet they are compared to modern day stuff. “They always ask how you get such a big and awkward thing around, so I tell them I put it on a lowboy and use winches to winch it on and off.” He used to try driving it up and down, but the front end is so light that one time it almost slid off the side, so now he strictly winches.
Basically, Frank had to learn to run the Advance by himself. “As a kid, dad never let me run the engine because I was too small, but I watched him and remembered how he used to do it, so after he passed away I brought out my memory bank and started operating the machine.” He also earned his boiler’s license.
The chain steering is unique to work with, Frank says. “It isn’t power steering, that’s for sure,” he chuckles. “If you’re sitting still and trying to turn it, it’s almost impossible, although you can do it when you’re moving.” The Advance weighs 13 tons empty, and 2 tons more with 500 gallons of water and two operators on board.
Though operating the Advance is not only a lot of fun and it brings back fond memories of childhood and Frank’s father, it can also create some challenges. “One time at Le Sueur it was 99 degrees out and we brought the Advance up to a rock crusher. The rock crusher leaned one way and the Advance leaned another. My son, Jason, and I tried for an hour and a half to get the belt on the steamer pulley and then the rock crusher pulley, but we couldn’t do it. We had a large crowd by that time, and finally we had to give up, so I stood up on the wheel and announced to the crowd we just weren’t going to get it done. My son and I got a standing ovation,” he says.
But the steamer can also be a lot of fun. “One year we had a steam engine slow-race. There were several Case engine, another Advance and mine. The other Advance ended up winning. I got stuck in a furrow,” he chuckles.
The boiler on the Advance has to be checked every year by members of the Minnesota Division of Boiler Inspection. One year the boiler is checked dry, with the engine completely drained. “Inspectors attach an electronic device to the side to find out how thick the walls are. The thickness determines how much pressure you can carry, and they have to be a certain thickness in order to allow the engine to run safely.” Inspectors also crawl inside the firebox and measure places inside, as well.
On alternate years a hydro test is done by inspectors, with the boiler filled with 300 gallons of water. “When it was new, and when dad ran it, it could run at up to 200 pounds per square inch, but now we’re limited to 100.” Frank remembers that his dad told him that a good engineer never lets his popoff valve blow. “It will blow and release pressure when it gets over 100 pounds, and then blow it back down to 100 pounds.”
Usually the steamer stays at Le Sueur, but this winter Frank has the steamer at home with him because he’s required to replace the bolts in the smokestack. While he’s got it there, he’s going to repaint it. “Getting it ready for winter is a process of draining it of all the water and pretty much opening everything up – the petcocks, valves, everything wide open.”
A few years ago, Frank thought about looking around for another steam engine, but he decided not to. “If something would go wrong with this one, it would be very expensive to get it going again, so we’re just going to keep this. Parts are sometimes very hard to come by. You can’t just go to the hardware store and buy it,” he notes.
One time someone wanted to buy the Advance, but Frank turned him down. “He asked me ‘Why not?’ I told him there was no price on it. He said there was a price on everything, but I told him there wasn’t a price on this machine. It has too much family history in it. I just want to keep handing it down generation to generation.”
Frank keeps the Advance shipshape and runs it in memory of his father. “I enjoy being able to run the engine, to take over dad’s position, speaking with people, telling them about the history of the engine. It’s in my blood. I grew up with the engine, and I want to keep it going. My son Jason is 33 years old, and he’s involved, and he has a son who’s two years old. We want to keep it going in the family, just like my father did. He’s smiling every year up there, watching over me.”
Contact Bill Vossler at: Box 372, 400 Caroline L, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org