He’s ‘Hooked’ on Old Steam Tractors

article image
Ennis Sterner
Ennis ''Yampy'' Sterner oils 1914 Case steam engine at Old Threshers Reunion.

(Register staff Writer)

Sent in by Ennis Sterner, Agency, Iowa 52530-and with the kind
permission of The Register and Tribune newspaper of Des Moines,
Iowa. We thank you Ed Heins, managing editor for allowing us to use
picture and story.


Among the steam engines on hand for the annual Midwest Old
Settlers and Threshers Reunion here last week was a 1914 J.I. Case

 With the exception clicking noise in the oil pump, the old
Case still runs about as quietly as it did 54 years ago.

At the throttle was Ennis ‘Yampy’ Sterner of Agency, who
bought the Case engine and a Case separator in 1914 and threshed
with the ‘rig’ until 1942 ‘when the combines came

‘Never ran a combine,’ he says. ‘Never had no desire
to after running a threshing machine.’

‘Yampy’ is 79 years old. And like the 54-year-old steam
engine, he is in remarkably good condition.

He is wearing an engineer’s cap, blue denim overalls and a
matching jacket, and a red handkerchief around his neck. There are
spots of black grease and flecks of coal soot en his face.

He opens a valve just under the reverse lever on the Case and a
jet of steam spews out over the iron spokes of the left rear

‘There’s something about a steam engine,’ he tells a
visitor. ‘It’s pretty near human.

Yampy remembers the days when ‘steam was king.’

‘We used to start about four in the morning grease the b e a
r i n g s , clinker the grates and swab the flues. It took about
three hours to get fired up and ready to go. We’d start
threshing about seven o’clock.

‘We’d thresh 2,000 to 2,500 bushels of oats a day. Got
three cents a bushel for threshing oats and a nickel for wheat.

‘It was a dog’s life, but it was fascinating. I liked

‘I remember one night we didn’t start moving to the next
farm until late in the evening. By the time we got there it was two
o’clock in the morning and everybody was in bed.

‘We left the rig next to the barn and crawled up in the barn
loft to sleep.

‘A mouse run up my water boy’s pants leg. God, he let
out a yell. Woke up all the roosters on the farm and they
didn’t stop crowing until sunup.

‘When we? were threshing, I spent most of my time on the
engine. Lord, I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent on
that platform.

‘You have to watch the water level pretty close. If you get
too much water in the boiler, it starts through the cylinder.

‘That’s called priming the cylinder. And when it primes,
you don’t have no power.

‘You want dry steam. Wet steam don’t have the power.
Hot, dry steam that’s what makes ‘er go.’

He opens the firebox and  throws in a shovelful of

‘I like the swell of steam,’ he says. ‘Never did
like the smell of gasoline.’

LIKE MOST ‘old threshers,’ Yampy likes to talk about the
big threshing dinners.

‘Never seen such feeds in your life. Every woman would try
to outdo the other. They’d fix chicken and beef and all kinds
of pies. You name it, they had it.

‘The flies were so damned bad that they always had to have
one woman with a tree limb to keep the flies away from the

‘There weren’t any insecticides to fight the flies in
those days. Just had to shoo ’em out, that’s all.’

Remembering the big dinners and the flies and the women with the
tree limbs, he laughs and lights another cigar.

YAMPY bought his first rig in 1912a ’13-horse Russell engine
a n d a Nichols & Shepard Red River Special 32-54

Two years later, he invested $2,000 in a new Case engine, and
$1,800 in a new Case separator.

He pulls the whistle chain and is rewarded by an ear-splitting
blast. A girl standing nearby squeals and Yampy laughs.

‘It makes one hell of a racket,’ he says. ‘You can
hear it five or six miles away.

‘I used to blow the whistle in the morning about a half hour
before we were ready to start threshing.

‘Sometimes I’d use it to call the water boy. A couple of
toots and he’d come right in. But that noon whistle was the one
they liked to hear. That stopped everything.’

Yampy, who now operates a blacksmith and repair shop in Agency,
served two years as president of the Iowa Brotherhood of
Threshermen in the late 1920’s.

Several years ago he sold the 1914 Case to Milo Mathews, a
collector from Mt. Union. Yampy, however, retained the right to
operate the engine each year at the reunion here.

He checks the fire in the firebox again. ‘Just keep her
hot,’ he says. ‘That’s all you have to do.

‘Don’t have no vapor locks like you do with a gasoline

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