A Minnesota Family’s History with Steam Engines

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Plenty of help getting the belt on.
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Mona and I taking a moment to congratulate each other.
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The 22'' McCormick separator with Bud Budenski giving brother Allen some ''education from experience.''
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The in-law ''pitching team.''
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Judson Schrick getting us started for the day.
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Mona ''at the throttle.''
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The ''45'' ?? in her Sunday best!
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Elvis (brother Larry) with Randy and Scott.

Steam has been a part of my family for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Ellsworth, a small town in southwest Minnesota. One of my first memories of my uncle’s 80 HP Case was of my father (George) and uncle (Jake) changing the valve from a slide to a balanced one. However, the history of steam in the family actually started with my grandfather. He was one of the early ones to be licensed to operate a boiler under the state of Minnesota laws. He had several engines, both steam and gas. He used those for threshing runs and grading roads around Ellsworth. He passed away at an early age, when my father was very young. My Uncle Jake raised my father and taught him most of what he knew about life and of course, steam.

Jake’s 80 was well recognized in the local area. We ran it in parades up and down the main streets of just about every town within a 50-mile radius. Many of the times we would make a spectacle of it by pulling the water tank and the separator behind it. Instead of trucking, we would drive it to the neighboring towns. My cousin Gary, brothers Allen and Randy, and I would switch back and forth from driver to engineer.

The engineer got to be the showman, always adjusting and oiling something whether it needed it or not. These “adjustments” happened more frequently when there were onlookers.

In the meantime, our family had moved to a small farm in Florence, another small Minnesota town 55 miles from Ellsworth. On three different occasions, we made the two-day trip on the 80. When it was close to dark, we would stay overnight in some farmer’s yard. We held yearly threshing bees on our farm and these became a focal point for the town of Florence and for our family, which by this time was scattered across this country from coast to coast.

In 1975, my dad purchased a 40 HP Case #10160 from Swede Ageson in Lester, Iowa. On August 2nd, 1975, Mona and I were married. The next day was also the last time the 80 would thresh in Florence. The 80 was sold, and after some much needed repair work, was on display at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show for several years. It was sold a couple more times after that and I no longer know where it is.

The 40 HP boiler had major damage to it. The front flue sheet was bulged, the crown sheet was pushed down. Half of the stay bolts were pulled out of the sheets, but we had a steam engine. With little money but big hopes, we knew that somehow Dad would find a way to get a boiler.

I am sure a lot of you will remember Bill Mayberry from Nebraska. In 1963, my uncle Jake sold him a 30/60 Aultman-Taylor with a 42-inch Case separator. Bill had many engines. He put on quite a show back then, so Jake sold him the outfit with the understanding that Jake would join Bill each year, and run the 30/60 for Bill’s show. Dad often went along, and while he was there one year he noticed a boiler sitting in the weeds. It was Case boiler #33180, a 50 HP butt strap boiler. He approached Bill about purchasing the boiler and explained to him our dilemma. Bill declined Dad’s offer, deciding against selling the boiler. Dad’s hopes were dashed for the time being, but he was never one to give up easy.

It seems that musicians are often engineers, as is the case with my dad and uncle Jake. With me being an exception, my whole family is musically inclined, no doubt inherited from my father’s family. Dad, two of his brothers and two sisters either played in or directed their own dance bands from the ’30s through the early ’70s, playing mostly in that same fifty-mile radius of Ellsworth. This was instrumental in the acquisition of the boiler from Mr. Mayberry. Although I am from another generation, 1 can still hear the music that they played, songs like ‘The Blue Skirt Waltz’ and the ‘Beer Barrel Polka,’ ‘Five Foot Two’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ The list of songs is endless.

One night after the show, the music started playing and the ‘spirits’ started flowing. Dad grabbed his saxa phone, and Jake his fiddle. They fit right in with the crowd of volunteers from the day and sometime during the evening Bill came to my dad. He told him that since he wanted the boiler to restore an engine that was out of service, he would sell it to Dad for the exact amount he had paid for it. So, fifty dollars and a fifth of Sunny brook later, we were on the way home to start a long-term project.

The 50 HP boiler was scaled bad. The boiler had been used in a cement plant as a steam source for curing blocks. We worked long and hard to clean the scale before we went further. The engine was under a pair of maple trees behind my house, while the boiler was pushed inside of Dad’s garage a couple of houses away.

We worked all winter stripping down the engine parts. It was a constant process. Cleaning, measuring, painting, mounting, and adjusting, but by spring we were ready to fire it for the first time. Our first job was a parade in Tyler, Minnesota, seven miles away. Of course we drove it there and back! We were still doing some restoration on the engine during the trip. We were excited! We had our own steam engine! Granted it wasn’t original. It had parts from an old style 40 HP boiler, mounted on a 50 HP boiler, but it worked great! With the combination, it fired with ease.

We threshed every year until 1989, the year our father passed away. We were left with a problem. Mom still lived on the farm, but only my brother Randy lived close by. We threshed again in 1991 but it turned out to be a lot of work. I had a degenerative spinal condition that eventually would leave me paralyzed. My brother-in-law, Jim Parsons and I lived in the Rochester, Minnesota, area. It was a 160 mile trip every time, but Randy, Jim, myself and my youngest brother Scott, put everything together and pulled it off one more time at the Florence farm. As a tribute that beautiful August day, we ran his old ‘straw hat’ through the separator when we finished. Even at that, Dad would not give up easily. When we were pulling the machine away, we found his hatband wrapped around the cylinder!

Mom’s health dictated that she be closer to the clinic in Rochester. The farm was sold along with all the equipment, except the Case engine and two model steam engines. Yes, during that same period, Dad and Uncle Jake (with intermittent help from all of us) built a half-scale and a quarter-scale model. I had purchased an acreage near Kenyon, Minnesota, and we had the engines shipped there (just a little too far to drive it).

I worked as chief boiler operator at Fold craft Company, a restaurant furniture manufacturer in Kenyon. As a matter of fact, I took over Dad’s position when he retired. My spinal cord problem was getting worse. From the summer of 1996, until March of 1998, I was going to work using a walker. The symptoms and side effects were getting worse and it forced me to quit my job in March of 1998. I have been in a wheelchair since that time. Depressed and discouraged because of my health, we did little with the engine from the time we moved it out here, until the summer of 1998.

Ron Trelstad and Bud Budenski, friends and fellow steam enthusiasts encouraged me to bring the engine to their farm and pull their separator for a short run. It was a lot of fun, and I was encouraged by the smiles I saw on the faces of the spectators and my relatives, especially my twin nephews, Brad and Brian Schmith.

For a few short years, the twins got a chance to help my dad with the engines. Just enough to develop that deep seated love for the smell of smoke and steam, mixed with the crisp sound of the wonderful chime whistles. During that short run in the summer of 1998, I saw the spark in their eyes and felt a strong pang in my heart. It was time to pass on the knowledge that I had gained from working with steam most of my life, but mostly what I had learned from Dad and dear Uncle Jake.

I had time on my hands. I had an acreage we could use. I had friends and neighbors that wanted to help me, why not do it again! It was as if someone were watching over us. My attitude improved. (It drove my wonderful, beautiful wife Mona crazy.) My neighbor Bruce Boyum agreed to plant the four and a half acres for me.

That was a story all in itself. He used a 42 ft. digger behind a 4-wheel drive John Deere to till the soil. Two rounds and he was done, but because of the frequent rains that spring, we could not get it seeded it down. Finally, on April 26th, after three attempts, the oats were in the ground. I went into the hospital for gall bladder surgery that day. No wonder they started making the steam engines bigger and bigger!

As I said, someone was watching over us. I went to an auction in Lewistown, Minnesota and got lucky. I bought a 22-inch McCormick Deering separator along with a late model 8 foot McCormick Deering power binder. They were both in great shape, just missing a few parts. We were in business! All we had to do was pray for good weather. When the time came, the binder worked flawlessly. It only missed two knots in the entire field! Two weeks after the auction a tornado struck Lewiston. The farm where the auction was located was completely devastated. None of the buildings where the equipment was stored were spared. What was left of the building site was bulldozed under.

With the oats planted, we had time on our hands. We started stripping and painting on everything, the binder, the separator, the steam engines, and my ’51 ‘B’ John Deere. My old co-workers pitched in and helped me build a new pole shed large enough to store everything. They helped with every facet of what goes into a threshing bee. Dave and Bill Sartor, Gary Pavek, Oscar Skogan, Ken Paulson, and Tim Thompson just to name a few. They spent a good share of their evenings and summer weekends helping me with the preparations and the new shed, while my nephews, cousin and brothers helped with getting the equipment ready. Our daughters, Crystal Autumn and Jessica did most of the detail painting on the engines and separators, with the help from my niece Christina. We were entertained by the twins’ constant antics. Justin Parsons, another nephew, spent two hard weeks as a ‘go-fur.’ Discouraged but determined, he survived the torment and tantrums of the twins and me.

The growing season started slow. We were inundated with heavy rains and cool weather. I was afraid the oats would not mature in time. Finally, just a week before the deadline, we got the oats cut. We had almost forgotten how to set the shocks, it had been so long, but it’s like riding a bicycle, once you start it all comes back (or to the back!)

Randy, Scott, my brother-in-law Tom Tvedt, his son Ryan, Mona, our daughters Autumn and Jessica all pitched in and the shocks were standing in no time. My son-in-law Matt was instrumental in getting this crew going. He was always there when I needed him most.

August 7, 1999, was the deadline and we made it. ‘Boomerfest99, The last TOOT of the Millenium’ was underway! We had three racks of bundles in the shed. The morning started with a slow, constant drizzle. I was anxious, but the rain finally quit and the skies cleared. We started slowly at noon. We had a little belt trouble on the separator, but with the expert help of another friend, Judson Schrick, we were not down long. We switched off with Fred Barsness’ beautifully restored ‘R’ John Deere. It ran flawlessly and by switching back and forth, we took longer and gave many ‘newbees’ a chance to get involved. When we were done with the three racks, the rest was ready to go and we made it through the day.

When the threshing was completed, we had a ‘Feast Fit for a King.’ Three hundred and twenty pounds of rolled pork roasts; sweet corn and tomatoes picked fresh that morning, along with all the trimmings. Looking back, I think the cooks and kitchen crew worked a lot harder feeding everyone than the ‘boys who played with the big toys’ did!

We estimated over 300 people were there that day, and no one went away hungry. The local fire department provided us with a large tent and we used that for the evening’s entertainment. What else but live music from the family band made up of four brothers, Larry, Allen, Randy, Scott, and Cousin Gary along with brother-in-law Tom! Elvis (Larry dressed in a classic white jump suit!) made a surprise appearance! He was there to celebrate the birthdays of several of the cooks.

My sister Kathy and her friend Lynn Lanners worked long and hard to print out some beautiful cookbooks. They worked on this right up to the last minute, also. The cookbooks were dedicated to our mom, Evy, the unsung hero of all those past years. How she did all that work through all those threshing events, we will never know. We sold the cookbooks along with some commemorative T-shirts to offset some of the costs.

I find that the large shows are great. You get to see some rare and beautiful iron, some beautiful demonstrations and some wonderful entertainment. However, the small operations give some people a chance to get involved that normally would not. We used my handicap van to bring some of the seniors from the local nursing home to the threshing site. Seeing the smiles on their faces, seeing the smiles on the faces of the young children as they played in the straw pile when we were done, made it all worth while to me.

I can no longer get my hands on the throttle. I do not hear the roar of the fire when the fire door is open. I cannot climb up and pump the oil can that my father used. Nevertheless, I have learned a new and better way to enjoy the sights and sounds of live steam. And that would be sharing it with others. My nephews now know it’s not just running a steam engine, it’s providing a window into the past. It is a window for those that were there to remember and a window for those that were not, a chance to understand. IMA

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