Farm Collector

Letting Off Steam

Some time ago, I asked readers if it was time for steam enthusiasts to band together and craft a national organization committed to furthering the interests of the historical steam community.

The thought comes up again, due to continuing uncertainty of the final wording in the expected revision of Appendix C of the National Board Inspection Code, which deals specifically with inspection of historic boilers.

The concern from many corners is that the National Board of Boiler & Pressure Vessel Inspectors has as its ultimate agenda shutting down historic boilers. The National Board, while never saying it opposes historic boilers, has been regarded as unreceptive to the interests of historic boiler owners.

The historical steam community exists thanks to the passion and enthusiasm of a relatively small number of owners and operators of vintage steam engines. The genesis of the community was an over-riding interest in preserving a disappearing element of American history, one whose impact on culture and society was far broader than most people could realize.

Through the years, the steam community has often referred to itself as a hobby. Iron-Men Album used the term frequently to describe steamers, and we have as well in Steam Traction. But now I wonder; do we inadvertently harm our image and mission when we refer to our activity as a hobby?

As lovers of steam, of American agricultural heritage, we are much more than simply hobbyists. We are in fact preservationists, dedicated to restoring and demonstrating the machinery that enabled generations of Americans to tame the soil and plant roots – both physically and figuratively.

By popular perception, hobbyists involve themselves in frivolous pursuits, whereas preservationists are idealists, committed to furthering their cause for present and future benefit. Doesn’t preservation more accurately describe the activity of the majority of people in the steam community?

Few people spend $50,000 to restore a 100-year-old steam tractor just as a hobby. Most do it for the opportunity to preserve a piece of American history. And most consider themselves stewards rather than owners of an engine. They know that by their action of restoration and preservation, “their” engine will be around long after they’re gone.

It occurs to me that along with the continuing need for some sort of national body working to promote our interests, we need to ensure we’re protecting our interests by projecting an accurate image of who we are, what we do and why.

To the man on the street, the idea of shutting down a hobby that plays with 100-year-old pressure vessels sounds rational. But shutting down a preservationist group dedicated to restoring, maintaining and preserving our heritage sounds wrong. And it would be.

Richard Backus



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  • Published on Sep 1, 2006
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