Leroy McClure comes from a long line of people who love steam traction engines. “I’ve lived with them all my life,” the 58-year-old Colchester, Ill., farmer says. “My father bought a 20 HP Minneapolis and threshing machine new in 1923. Before purchasing the new machine he had used steam engines to operate sawmills and various threshing rings. He started collecting steam engines in the 1950s. He had a lot of different kinds, Huber, Rumely, Case, Gaar-Scott, Aultman & Taylor, Reeves, Advance-Rumely, Peerless, Wood Bros., Kitten, Russell, Baker and Keck-Gonnerman, having bought and sold several during his collecting years. He had 23 at one time.”
Today, Leroy has 16 of the engines left. (Some of them are now owned by Marshall and Michelle, his children. “I am merely the caretaker for the next generation,” Leroy says.) One of his steam traction engines is this 1914 20 HP Harrison Jumbo.
For Leroy, steam traction engines were a part of his life growing up. “My dad and two other guys got together and started a threshing show here on the farm, starting in 1953. That was basically where I started getting involved, because I was too young to have worked on threshing crews and the like,” he says.
The show was incorporated as the Illinois Threshers’ Jubilee, but was disbanded after three years, although the private show on the McClure farm continued.
Leroy’s earliest steam memories involve operating a Buffalo Springfield steam roller. “There was an older guy who was retired from the railroad, being the owner of the engine, and would come out here every Sunday as weather permitted to play with the toys. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and he taught me how to run a steam engine. I was pretty excited,” he says.
Besides the Jumbo, Leroy likes all 16 of his steam traction engines for different reasons. “The 1937 25 HP Kitten, the 1915 12 HP Russell and 1901 18 HP Birdsall I bought myself, and the rest Dad bought, but we still have. The other seven have been parceled out to other family members. I just kind of like the Kitten and Birdsall because they’re different. They’re good engines. As long as you don’t have to work on them,” he chuckles.
The 1914 20 HP Harrison Jumbo, serial no. 2165, is different from many other steam traction engines in a couple of ways. “It used a high drive wheel compared to some of the other engines, about a foot bigger diameter than a lot of them. Some of the Reeves engines had high drive wheels as an option, but the later Jumbos had high drivers.” The Jumbo name was attached to the Harrison Machine Works engine when they went with the high drive wheels in the mid-1880s, Leroy says.
The Jumbo has a 2-speed gear arrangement (slow and slower,) Leroy says, that allows the operator to drop the intermediate gear away from the crankshaft gear. “This sure comes in handy when someone gets the drive belt in the gears!“ Leroy adds.
Additionally, he says the throttle is a bit touchier than some of them and the reverse lever works a little difficult at times. “But like all of them, you just get used to it,” Leroy says. “Each engine has characteristics that you have to get used to.”
The Jumbo was purchased in the early 1950s. A collector in west-central Illinois had it, and he and Leroy’s dad were good friends. “The collector told my dad that he had several engines for sale, so he set them by the road and had them all painted up. But he only painted the side facing the road!” Leroy says.
When the Jumbo is working at the yearly Mt. Pleasant (Iowa) Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, the operators burn wood. “One characteristic of the Jumbo is that it has a large firebox and it’s really good for firing wood, Leroy says. You just fill the firebox full of wood and let it go. It’s a good-firing engine. On that particular engine, you can get large fires going as well on good, dry wood as on coal. Of the other engines we’ve got, the only one that fires better is the Birdsall, which has a small firebox, but is an exceptional steamer on wood. With the return-flue engines, like the Huber and Kitten, there’s a limit on the firebox area, so you need a whole different method of firing it. You have to deal with a small fire in them, because the fire is built right in front of the door. And it’s a small fire, so you have to keep poking, especially with some of the green wood you get a lot of times at Mt. Pleasant. But in the Jumbos, you have a real large-size fire. Just fill it full of wood and you’re set.”
For several years from the mid-1950s into the 1980s, the family had up to eight steam engines they kept at Mt. Pleasant. Right now, Leroy usually has four engines each year: the Jumbo, the Kitten, the Birdsall and the Huber. The Huber, a 30 HP double-cylinder steam traction engine, is the only one Leroy has ever seen. “I could be wrong, but I have talked to people who have never seen another double-cylinder (Huber). There is a single-cylinder 30 HP that a guy just bought, but the double-cylinder is fairly rare.” Leroy says. Leroy’s dad bought the Huber from a sawmill not too far from Colchester, “He brought it back here in the early 1950s, but I really don’t know a lot of history about this particular engine,” he says.
The Jumbo had been painted a lot back in the 1950s, but as far as boiler work, Leroy’s father didn’t do much to it. When Leroy got it, he did some work on the engine: a patch in the barrel of the boiler by the pedestal in the 1970s, a new firebox in 1993 and repairs on the bottom of the boiler, along with other minor repairs.
“There isn’t much yearly upkeep,” Leroy says. “Just minor things, replace pipe fittings every once in a while and try to keep it clean. Not a lot of mechanical work is required on it from year to year, which is good, because I don’t have a lot of time to spend on it.” He does check the boiler thickness at times with ultrasound. “Most of the time you have a good idea where the problem areas are, and I just start cutting or drilling holes through the sheet metal to see how far I need to go in my repair.” Sending the boiler to a certified boiler shop to repair it is expensive, and so is replacing the whole boiler.
Although he personally prefers to operate the single-cylinder engines, Leroy says he likes double-cylinder engines like his Huber, because the double is easier to operate. “If the valves are all set right on the double-cylinder it won’t stop on dead center, so when you need to start it, you just start it. But with a single-cylinder, the piston has to stop on the right quarter in order to restart in the proper direction you need to go, and if it’s not in the right position, it won’t go when you try to start it. You have to rock it back and forth because it might be on the wrong quarter with the position of the piston verses the valves to let steam into the cylinder, and might not go the direction you want it to go. This is one operating procedure that needs more emphasis on being taught to new and some older operators, as many of us have witnessed some potentially dangerous situations at shows arising from the operator having no clue to which direction he or she was about to embark.”
But because the double-cylinder consumes more water and takes more steam, many threshermen liked the single-cylinder more, because it was more economical, Leroy has heard. “To me, a double-cylinder is like an automatic in a vehicle. It’s just handier. Anybody can operate it, but a single-cylinder, like the Jumbo, is more of a challenge to the operator,” Leroy says.
Today, Leroy regrets that he didn’t spend more time with his dad asking questions about steam. “Dad talked about steam all the time, but during those days I was too busy working. That’s how we are, though. We don’t take the time when we should, and pay attention, and that’s exactly what happened with me. I was old enough to know better, but not smart enough to do better,” he laughs.
People who don’t know much about the steam hobby look at Leroy like he’s crazy when he tells them he has 16 steam traction engines. “But the people who are familiar with the hobby understands why you collect them,” he says.
At shows, Leroy gets numerous questions about the engines. “They ask what they were used for, how much pressure we run them under, whether we’re afraid of them. I tell them that I’m not afraid of the boiler, but of some of the operators who are running the boilers. Education does not take the place of experience and too many people don’t understand that yet. Some people go to these steam classes and afterwards they’re not willing to take advice, because they think they know it now. That’s one of my biggest complaints about this hobby. You can’t learn it in two days, but this is an excellent place to start. Normally, everyday playing with this tired iron can be a learning experience and I have a lot to learn yet,” he says.
“A lot of credit has to be given to the people who devote their time to educate the new and also the ‘experienced’ steam operators,” Leroy says.
He adds that he’s willing to teach whatever little he can to people who are interested. “But somebody has to be interested in it, or enjoy it themselves, or they’re not going to learn anything. A lot of young people have learned about the hobby and continue to, and I’m glad, because I hope somebody will carry this hobby on,” he says.
His love for the steam hobby and his Harrison Jumbo engine remain unabated. “It seems as though I’ve worked on them all my life and I enjoy them,” Leroy says. “It’s a connection back to my dad and granddad’s heritage. That’s my way of life and I enjoy it. These engines have been the highlight of my life ever since I was old enough to know about them.”
Contact Bill Vossler by e-mail: email@example.com