Farm Collector

My First Steam Engine

Rt 1 Marion, Kansas 66861

This issue’s front cover engine is a 20 HP return flue Avery
built around 1900. Glenn Litke of Rt. 1, Marion, KS 66861 purchased
the engine at Vaden Stroud’s estate sale in 1987. For the full
story, see page 1. And if you have an engine you’d like to see
on our cover, send it to us!

The auctioneer caught my wink one more time.

‘Going, going, going…Sold!’ The husky voiced gentleman
looked at me and I pointed to the bidding number in my shirt
pocket. Standing a few feet from me was my father, Virgil Litke,
who with a quizzical look asked, ‘Was that your
number?’

‘Yep,’ I said, with a nervous but proud tone of voice.
‘I just bought my first steam engine.’

Most would admit that this rusty hunk of iron with four wheels
didn’t have much eye appeal that spring day in 1987. It was
just another one of many iron horses lined up in a row awaiting the
short interval of silence from the steady rhythm of the
auctioneer.

This 20 HP return flue Avery, built around the turn of the
century, that I could now call mine was part of a most impressive
collection of the late Vaden Stroud of Hutchinson, Kansas.

Although the amplified vocalizing of a professional auctioneer
amongst such a large crowd creates the atmosphere of anticipatory
excitement in many, it can also be quite sobering to witness such a
fine accumulation of a lifetime being dispersed throughout the
country in a matter of two quick days. Perhaps this mix of emotions
is to remind us that, while material things can certainly give us
pleasure and add enjoyment to life, scripture teaches us that
‘A man’s life consis-teth not in the abundance of the
things which he possesseth.’ (Luke 12:15)

Again my father, with added excitement asked, ‘You bought
this, Glenn?’

‘I guess so, Dad,’ was the reply.

‘What do you think of it?’

Before he could answer, my good friend Richard Wall, of
Hillsboro, Kansas, with a bit of disbelief in his voice, asked,
‘Was that your bid?’

I quickly reminded Richard that if it hadn’t been for his
encouragement just hours before as we together examined the
restorability of this engine I would have never bought it. The
friendship between Richard and me is built not only on our affinity
for historical agriculture, but also that we were colleagues on the
faculty at Tabor, a Christian liberal arts college in Hillsboro, he
in the sciences and I in music. Richard is the owner of a 13 HP
Reeves (c. 1900) that he purchased in 1969, and over the years he
has done a most commendable job of restoration. Needless to say, it
was most reassuring to have a close friend like him to help me
learn the physics of steam power.

It was also apparent within minutes that my dad was supportive
of my purchase. I never really doubted that he wouldn’t be,
considering that he and his family have collected this old iron for
years and that our machine sheds house dozens of antique tractors.
His completed restorations include a one-of-a-kind 1916 35-70
Huber, a 1919 25-50 Avery, 1914 20-35 Emerson, 1916 7-20 Big Bull,
etc., etc. These are all gas (kerosene) tractors; for both my
father and I, steam was something we appreciated but had never
learned firsthand. Words like crown sheet, hydro test, cross-head
pump or even injector were not part of my vocabulary. A new chapter
of education was now being added to my background of farming and
vocal/choral music teaching.

While standing and admiring the old engine, a thought came to my
father that would only add to the excitement.

‘This looks like the same type of engine that my grandfather
purchased (used) in 1910 to custom thresh with in Osborn County,
Kansas,’ he remarked.

My ears gave him full attention as I recalled that this very
story of my great-grandfather is recorded in the book my father
authored in 1986, titled A Journey With My Grandfather, J.W.
Buller
. Immediately the same question popped into our minds:
Could this perhaps be the very same Avery he had once owned?

Any attempt at this type of identification is seriously
complicated by the fact that no serial number or date is legible on
my engine, making it impossible to pinpoint the year it was built
or sold. In light of this, it became apparent that the definitive
answer to this mystery would never be known, but it has been of
great interest to us to piece together the few fragments of oral
history which give evidence that it certainly could be the same
engine! Some of the arguments include: 1) Geographic location. My
great-grandfather Buller from Hillsboro, Kansas purchased and then
later sold his Avery return flue outfit in central Kansas. 2)
Excessive wear. Even Avery advertisements recommend this engine for
belt work and not heavy drawbar loads. After purchasing in 1910,
Mr. Buller and company drove that outfit (including Case separator
and cookshack) from Hillsboro, Kansas all the way to Osborn County,
approximately 200 dusty miles!! The final drive gearing, wheels and
axle showed excessive wear, and since Mr. Buller never farmed
(other than threshing) with that outfit, there would be no need for
such wear. 3) Broken ‘wheel’: The story is that late in the
harvest season of his second year (the engine was shedded on
location in Osborn Co. during the winter), someone had mishandled
the engine, resulting in a ‘broken wheel.’ Mr. Buller had
to shut down and send some of the crew home by train. No, my Avery
bought at Mr. Stroud’s sale had no broken wheel, but it did
have a severely broken clutch and a blacksmith-made clutch yoke.
Did the story of a broken clutch inadvertently come to be called a
broken wheel? Perhaps.

You’re right, I’ll never be able to prove this is my
great-grandfather’s Avery, but until someone out there proves
it isn’t, you can bet I’m going to treat it as though it
was.

After returning home from the sale, a phone call was made to
Dave Sebits of Hesston, a licensed boiler inspector and steam
collector himself. He generously offered his slick semi-trailer
rig, and the following day was spent loading and hauling the Avery
fifty miles home to Rt. 1, Marion.

During that summer, as time would allow, I stripped all parts
including the engine, crank, wheels and axles, and then later that
fall hauled the boiler forty-five miles to Valley Center, where our
good friend Tom Terning’s expertise would come into play. Tom
and I spent my next spring break from school (March ’88)
getting the boiler in shape. We were both surprised and relieved to
learn how positive the ultrasonic readings were on the shell, flue
sheets and center fire flue, but there was still much work ahead of
us. The major welding consisted of two large patches where the axle
housings fastened, and also replacing the bulged out surface of the
crown sheet and supporting stay bolts.

The restoration of any boiler has its tricks I’m sure, but
the return flue Avery must lead the pack with its crudity and
nearly impossible accessibility. There is no fire door in the front
so the rolling and beading of the front flues (including welding in
that new crown sheet) had to be done while laying precariously in
the 19 inch center fire flue! If you’re claustrophobic, forget
it! I am certain there were several ‘new’ tools we could
have patented once we were through with that job. The other major
trick was replacing the two inch by six foot dry steam line,
complete with elbows and water drain, inside that boiler with
nothing but one hand hole at the back and a two inch pipe hole in
the dome. Don’t tell anyone but I do believe I saw Tom sweating
a bit on that one.

Once the boiler was back in our yard and the sandblasting was
completed, I found myself enrolled in the self-taught class of
‘babbitting 101’. That too was quite a fun learning
experience. I quickly discovered that if it didn’t turn out
right the first time I could at least melt it out and start all
over again and again. The little experience I had had with my
dad’s South Bend lathe really came in handy too.

Undercoating, painting and eventual reassembly of parts was
certainly adding reality to my dream of someday seeing this thing
run. Cast iron specialist Jerry Abplanalp of Wichita had done an
excellent job of welding that broken clutch. The newly constructed
wooden bunkers and shiny steel water tank that nephews Jonathan and
Jeremy Jordan, ages 8 and 7, had helped me hand rivet was looking
great.

Loading the Avery at Vaden Stroud’s estate sale in
Hutchinson, Kansas, in May of 1987. Richard Wall is facing the
engine and nephews Jonathan and Jeremy Jordan are taking it all in.
My father Virgil is at the wheel.

Through correspondence, auctions and steam show attendance I was
able to pull together a lot of missing pieces. Henry Martens of
Fairview, Oklahoma helped me out with a couple of injectors. I
traded with Al New of Pendleton, Indiana for a cross-head pump, and
I purchased a fine Pickering governor at the estate sale for the
late Wallace Loewen, a fellow church member of Peabody, Kansas. New
grates will be made from a wood pattern provided by William Sater
of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and the whistle was bought at a gun show in
Wichita.

Since very little original plumbing was left on this engine, I
was most grateful to Gary Base of Sedgwick, Kansas for allowing me
to study and take photos of his beautifully restored 16 HP return
flue Avery. The boiler sizes on the 16 and 20 HP are identical, so
I was able to copy it rather closely. By the way, the meticulous
restorations that Gary’s family and his father, Quentin Base,
accomplish certainly set the standard for excellence. Coming away
from Gary’s place gave me a great motivation but also the
realization of what an enormous task I had undertaken.

Over the next two years, between farming, teaching and
involvement with church music ministry, the pieces slowly all came
together, and July 4, 1990 became the realized goal for the first
firing. Dave Sebits helped out with the final hydro test and did
the state certification. Several other engine buddies had come to
help us celebrate, including the Richard Wall family, the Robert
Unruh family, Don Blosser and Deemer Unruh. (Robert Unruh of
Hillsboro, a great steam enthusiast, model builder, and dear
Christian friend of our family, passed away of leukemia this past
January, 1991.)

It was quite a feeling to strike that first match and begin to
see the smoke curl out of the stack. The wait to build up steam
seemed endless but finally the moment came. With cylinder cocks
open, I slowly cracked the throttle valve. After a gentle rocking
with the reverse quadrant, that seven ton hunk of iron that
hadn’t blown its whistle for nearly 70 years and that no doubt
narrowly escaped the fate of the cutting torch during two world
wars was demonstrating its new life by chugging beautifully on its
own power!

What a thrill for this 37 year old to feel like a kid of seven
playing with his new electric train!

Still needing its fringed wooden canopy, painted decals and pin
striping, the Avery made its first show appearances at the Goessel
Threshing Days August 4 and 5, 1990 and later at Teming’s Steam
Show in Valley Center Labor Day weekend. By February 1991 those
final details were completed, and now steam engine ‘No. 1’
is parked in our museum representing well a vital part of historic
American agriculture.

Okay, so it did take more time and money than I may have
thought, but I’ll still say for those of you reading this
article who have never owned a steam enginefind a good auction and
go ahead and wink one more time at that auctioneer. It will be the
start of the best history, physics, engineering and general vo-tech
class you’ve ever takennot to mention the many friends
you’ll make along the way.

Footnote:

I replaced the original Avery coupler with a Buller snap
coupler. After his custom threshing endeavors in 1910-11, my
great-grandfather Buller went into manufacturing his many
inventions, one of which was the ever popular snap coupler. You
traction engine owners might want to check yours. There’s a
fair chance it is equipped with a Buller. That slick little finger
saving device was advertised in the early American Thresherman and
Threshing Review magazines and marketed all over the country.
I’d enjoy hearing from you if you own one.

  • Published on Jan 1, 1992
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