Joe Steinhagen and His Steam Engine Demonstrate ‘The Way It Was’

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Reprinted by written permission from Senior Perspective,
Glenwood, Minnesota Sent to us by Joe Steinhagen, 11980 Kluver
Addition Road SE, Alexandria, Minnesota 56308.

Joe says, ‘This Senior Perspective is an interesting paper.
I used to always pick it up when I would see it around because the
lead article was generally pretty interesting. So I called them and
asked them if they would be interested in doing an article on a
steam engine and they called back and said they would be, so here
is a copy of it. 1 had Arlene Fults from the Rune stone Museum help
me with the interview. She’s so good at adding the human side
of the story. I tend to get stuck on the nuts and bolts of the
operation. I’ve been working with the Rune stone Museum in
Alexandria and maybe someday we’ll put on a demonstration there
for the folks to see. Right now, my engine is housed at our Rose
City Threshing show grounds. It is a nice, smaller show that is
growing slowly. Our show is centered around and in Harvey
Danielson’s farm yard and everywhere it is covered with lawn to
walk on. We’ve got all the usual stuff, but on a smaller scale
with a relaxed atmosphere. Show dates for 1999 are August 14 and
15.

‘I have to thank my help on the steam engine this past
summer, Jim Pospisil and Paul Roers. They even had an opportunity
this past summer to show Richard Rovig from Roth say, MN that they
know how to belt up to the threshing machine in one try. I was
impressed also good job.’

Take me back So I can see The simple way Things
used to be. . .’

The theme song from a 1975 television drama called The
Family
Holvak explains the fascination people have
for vintage farm equipment, nostalgia for a time when people could
understand exactly how machines and communities worked. The steam
engine tractor symbolizes a brief era in our history when farming
and community life were different.. .the era of the threshing
bee.

Joe Steinhagen of Forada owns a fully functional 1913 Case 60 HP
steam engine tractor and has a hobby license to operate it. He
shows it off in parades and at threshing bees. Eager crowds press
close to examine it. ‘You can walk right up to it and see how
everything works,’ Steinhagen explains.

Steam engines worked American farmland from about 1900 to 1920,
and Case was the Ford Motor Company of steam engine manufacturers,
Steinhagen says. ‘They made them comparatively inexpensively
and they made a lot of them.’ Still, a steam engine cost more
than most farmers could afford individually. They were more likely
to be a community investment, which made sense, because it took a
small community to operate the engine plus the water wagon and
thresher that were hooked in tandem to it.

‘There was an engineer who watched the levers and controls
and made sure everything was operating properly,’ Steinhagen
explains. ‘There was a fireman who shoveled coal or wood. And
there was a fellow who hauled the water wagon and supplied water
all day long. Plus it took a crew of men to feed bundles into the
threshing machine. When you’re threshing for a full day with a
steam engine, you’ll use a thousand gallons of water and about
a cord of wood.’

Arlene Fults of the Runestone Museum explains how the steam
engine tractor changed farming. ‘This was really a step up from
working with horses. One man could not farm very much acreage using
horses. Horses needed to rest; they could only work so many hours.
It took a lot of horses to farm, and a lot of what a farmer
produced went into maintaining the horses. Then along came steam,
and the same number of men could produce far more. The steam engine
never got tired as long as men were there to keep it
running.’

‘When they were breaking prairie with steam engines in the
Dakotas on the bonanza farms,’ Steinhagen adds, ‘they’d
plow around the clock.’

Steam engine tractors can plow as well as thresh. They can power
sawmills by a belt attached to the flywheel, and two of them
together can pull a building. They can also plant. ‘When they
first broke the prairie in the Dakotas,’ Steinhagen explains,
‘some people pulled the plow with a seeder right behind it.
They seeded right in their plowing on those turn-of-the-century
bonanza farms of thirty to forty thousand acres. But that only
worked for a few years. Then the land rejected that idea and they
had to work it more.’

Steinhagen estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 functional steam
engines remain in existence today, maintained at great expense by
folks with a passion for nostalgia. But when gasoline-powered
tractors became widely available eighty years ago, the steam engine
heyday came to an end. Gas tractors were more affordable at about
$1,400, as opposed to $2,000 for a steam engine. A gas tractor
could accomplish a day’s work with just sixty or seventy
gallons of gas and a crew of just one or two people. This made the
farmer much more independent.

Steinhagen operates his 1913 Case steam engine. ‘I don’t
know who took this picture,’ he admits. ‘It appeared in my
lunch box one day. You gotta wear the little outfit or you’re
not official.’

‘When a farmer owned his own machine,’ Fults says,
‘he no longer had to rely on the schedule of the threshing rig.
What if the threshers couldn’t come until Tuesday and then
Tuesday it started raining for a week? With his own machine, a
farmer could do is own plowing, his own seeding, and his own
threshing by his own schedule. It gave him real independence he
hadn’t had before when he had to rely on hired labor and steam
engine crews.’ But individual independence diminished the sense
of community. ‘Gone were the big threshings with thirty guys
working and women and children preparing big meals,’ Steinhagen
notes.

Gone but not forgotten; Minnesota boasts about 50 threshing bee
shows each year including those in towns as close as Albany,
Atwater, Donnelly and Dalton. Steinhagen brings his steam engine to
the Rose City show. ‘You like to show it off, how it operates .
. . how we did it before.’

The shows are put on almost exclusively by volunteers. ‘They
usually start with a few folks getting together and saying,
‘Let’s get together and thresh a little grain! It’s
been thirty years since anyone had threshed any grain around
here!’

The shows include craft and hobby displays, animals, old cars,
quilting, wool carding, good music and good food including ethnic
dishes and the traditional thresher’s breakfast (pancakes,
eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, jelly, and lots of strong coffee).
They attract crowds of all ages. Rollag has the largest threshing
show in the nation, attracting 70,000 visitors over four days
during Labor Day weekend.

‘People like watching the steam engine power a sawmill
because that really makes the engine work. It huffs and puffs,
whereas with threshing it just lopes along,’ Steinhagen
says.

‘I’ve pitched bundles at some of these shows,’
Steinhagen admits ruefully. ‘It’s hard work. We’re
there for more than just the demonstration. We actually have to get
the harvesting done. I can see why threshers really got hungry.
They were fed at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m. and again before they
went home for the night.’

‘They also got breaks,’ Fults adds. ‘They really
needed those fifteen or thirty minutes of just sitting down to
recharge.’

Steinhagen attended school in Rollag to get his hobby license,
which requires twenty-five hours of verified operating time under a
licensed operator. The two-day school, which takes place over
Father’s Day weekend, is not required but is helpful in passing
the mandatory test, and features hands-on experience with fired
steam engines. The school and the exam cost $50 each.

Safety is an important consideration. Steam engine tractors have
to be licensed by state boiler inspectors ; their boilers are
similar to the ones used to heat schools and hotels, producing
between 100 and 200 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI).
‘The only boilers that are exceedingly different are the ones
you’d find on ships. They run 1,000 PSI. If you’re in the
boiler room of a ship and there’s a leak, you can’t see it,
because 1,000 PSI steam is invisible. You hear it. To find the
leak, you take a broom handle and walk around holding the handle in
front of you at all times. When you come to the leak, it cuts the
broom handle off. ‘

The horsepower (HP) rating of a steam engine is misleading.
Steinhagen’s 60 HP Case is rated at 20 HP on the drawbar and 60
HP on the belt. But the 20 HP drawbar will pull a six-bottom [row
or furrow] plow. ‘A modern tractor would have to be 90 HP to
pull a six-bottom plow,’ Steinhagen asserts. ‘I recently
saw a 25 HP Minneapolis steam engine pull a twelve-bottom
plow.’ But for all that power, they’re not fast. They only
do 2.5 miles per hour on the open highway, so Steinhagen uses a
semi-truck to haul his engine to shows and parades. To keep it
supplied with water, he hauls an ‘ugly’ 1,000-gallon water
tank to the site and then hides it behind trees and runs a hose to
the engine for more picturesque photo opportunities. ‘The first
year a buddy and I threshed together, we knew we were going to need
a lot of water, so we stole a fire truck for a little
while.’

Steinhagen bought his steam engine from Harvey Gloege in 1992
and jokes about one day writing an article for a steam engine
magazine, ‘I Bought My First Steam Engine Off a Used Car
Lot.’ It stood for three years on the used car lot on the hill
in Glenwood. ‘Harvey was old and the boys had absolutely no
interest in it, they didn’t even know what the heck it was,
whether it was a gas tractor or a steam engine,’ Steinhagen
remembers. So he brought it home and started restoring it, and
after a summer and a half of work, it was ready to go.

Joe Steinhagen poses with vintage set of farm equipment toys.
The steam engine is followed by a water wagon and thresher.
Steinhagen suspects that production of such toys ceased in the
1970s because he’s seen them for sale in back issues of farm
equipment magazines from the fifties, sixties and seventies, but
not beyond. Each piece originally sold for about $5. Photo by
Rebecca Webb.

How do you get parts to restore a steam engine nowadays?
‘You make ’em,’ Steinhagen admits. ‘You have to
know a good foundry man and a good machine shop guy.’ A
collection of vintage farm equipment catalogs also helps.
‘There’s great information in them. They tell you how the
boilers are made. You have to know how they’re made if
you’re going to fix them.’

Steinhagen also enjoys steam engine publications like
Engineers and Engines and Iron Men Album. ‘They were
at their best in the 1960s and 1970s when the old timers were still
around to tell stories from when they were used regularly. Sawmills
cutting people in half, stuff like that. It happened.’

Less gruesome but more common was the danger of fire. ‘The
back end of the thresher threw out the straw,’ Fults explains.
‘It made a big pile just right for kids to play in. Or to catch
fire, whenever the rig threw out some sparks. They’d hit the
dry straw pile and cause a little excitement.’

To combat this and other dangers, a code was developed for the
steam engine whistle. A sequence of blasts were used to communicate
the following messages (Steinhagen s explanations follow in
parentheses):
One Long = STEAM IS UP (‘The boiler pressure is operating and
it’s time to get to work.’)
One Long, One Short = COME TO WORK.
Two Short = BELT WILL START (‘When the belt starts to turn, if
anybody’s got a hand in the wrong place, he could lose
it.’)
One Short = BELT WILL STOP (‘Same thing can happen when the
belt stops.’)
Six Short = WATER IS LOW (‘Water guy, get on the stick, we
need water.”)
One Long, Five Short = FIRE (‘You have to put your back end
into the wind to get the proper draft into your firebox. Any sparks
would start the straw pile on fire.’)
Two Short, One Long, One Short = RUNAWAY TEAM
Three Short = GRAIN WAGON LATE (‘They had more than one. One
would be getting filled while another was hauling a load to the
farm.’)
One Short, One Long, Two Short = BUNDLE WAGON LATE.
One Long (held) = LUNCH (‘That’s the most important
one.’)

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