Nichols & Shepard, The Zach Steam Engine

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1914 Nichols and Shepard 20-70
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Threshing on the Zach farm in the 1930s.
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Zach Family Photo: left to right, Don Blecha, Harvey Zach, Frank Zach, Jr., Mildred Blecha (Zach).
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Engine at time of estate auction, 1974.
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Kelvin and Don Blecha pulling 18 ft. offset disk.

8946 N. Seneca, Valley Center, KS 67147

This is our 1914 Nichols & Shepard 20-70, single, side mount steam engine. “Nikki” as we call her. It began use in Alexandria, Nebraska, east of the State Lake, at the home of the Busing family. According to Paul Busing, his dad George and his two uncles, Otto and Gay, bought the engine new in Lincoln, Nebraska, along with a 36-inch Red River Special separator. It was the biggest separator around the area for quite some time. They did custom thrashing for all of the neighbors. They also bought an Ellsworth and Holyrod one-way plow to use on wheat stubble, but because the engine is a side-mount and light on the front end, the front wheels would slide in a turn, so they gave up using it for groundwork. The Busing family kept the engine until 1937. Joe Cropper, of Fairbury Implement in Fairbury, Nebraska, traded a Massey-Harris tractor on rubber for the engine. Cash Flowers and his two sons, Francis and Hershel, then purchased the engine from the dealer. They had a large dairy farm south of Fairbury. They only used it for a couple of years at the dairy.

My granddad, Frank Zach Sr., bought it from Flower’s Dairy for about $350. The best I can tell from talking with my uncles, it was in about 1942. As the bridges were in poor condition on what is now Highway 15 out of Fairbury, Granddad and Uncle Lawrence drove the engine home, via the Endicott Brick plant. It was 18 miles to Granddad’s farm near Morrowville, Kansas, so this was more than a one day affair. All three of my uncles, Frank Jr., Harvey and Lawrence helped Granddad saw lumber on a sawmill in the yard at the home place. A lot of the barns and houses still standing today were made from lumber sawed by Nikki. Most of the wood was either cottonwood or red elm. Granddad also had a 36-inch separator and did thrashing for the neighbors. During the ’30s and ’40s, this was a highly competitive business. All the people that had rigs would be trying to do your thrashing. As it was, one of Granddad’s neighbors got angry because he had taken business away from him. He proceeded to put some glass jars, with kerosene and matches wrapped around them, in some of the wheat bundles during the night. The next day, when they were pitched into the separator, the jars broke and the matches started burning inside the separator. Thanks to Granddad’s quick thinking, he opened the throttle wide open and blew the straw away from the stack or the whole field might have gone up in flames. They could never prove who had done the deed, but Granddad always had a pretty good idea.

During the years I was growing up, the steam engine sat in the yard at the old home place right in front of the sawmill beside the creek. When Granddad stopped using it in about 1951, he drained the water out and there it sat until 1974. I remember playing on it as a kid, not really knowing what it was. Once, when my parents and we kids were visiting our grandparents, I remember talk around the dinner table about a man who wanted to buy the steam engine. The following story was cut out of the local paper in Belleville, Kansas:

Flies From Montana To Sec Tractor

Frank Zach of Morrowville had a visitor Monday from Montana he flew in and landed on the Zach farm located 7 miles northwest of Morrowville. The visitor was Oscar Kirk, who owns a 20,000-acre ranch in Decker, Montana, who collects old steam tractors. Two weeks ago, he was going through Belleville, Kansas, on US-36 highway towing two steam tractors of antique vintage on a truck bed. A reporter from Belleville Telescope took a picture of the strange load and the picture appeared in the March 23rd issue. Harvey Zach, who lives at Munden, Kansas, and is a son of Frank, decided to write Mr. Kirk and tell him about an old steam tractor the older Zach had near Morrowville. Monday, Frank Zach noticed his turkeys were all worked up about something and the next thing he knew, Kirk had landed his 5-place airplane in one of the Zach fields. Mr. Kirk offered a deal for Zach’s machine, but thus far no sale has been made.

Needless-to-say, this steam engine could have changed owners a lot, if Granddad had sold it to Mr. Kirk. Especially since Mr. Kirk’s engines were recently up for sale or have been sold. Granddad would just not part with the engine. I bought the engine at Granddad’s estate auction in 1974, and to this day, I don’t know why I had to have it. I just knew that it had to stay in the family. It was in very bad shape, as it sat outside for more than 20 years. All the gearing was frozen up and would not turn at all. The rear wheels just slid. When we tried to pull it, the front of the boiler caved in onto the front axle and a temporary smoke box bottom had to be rolled and welded into place just to get the engine home. As I had no lowboy trailer, I engaged a friend of my brother to help us. We used his motor grader hooked up to a dual axle dump-bed trailer. It was 20 miles home to my parents’ house, 3 miles south of Chester, Nebraska, in Kansas on Highway 81. Nikki sat for 4 more years, while I looked for someone to help me restore the engine. This proved harder than one would imagine. I was working at the Boeing Company in Wichita, Kansas, at the time. I started to call some of the boiler repair shops in the Wichita area. AAA Boiler works on East Lincoln Street, told me that it would be no problem to fix. They told me to just bring it down and they would repair it. So, my brother Kelvin loaded it up on the lowboy trailer he now owns and drove the 160 miles to Wichita. On the way, he had to stop for some road construction. A man came walking up the line of cars to see where we were going with the engine. He left my brother his card, and to my surprise, on it was the name of Kenneth Kelly of Pawnee, Oklahoma. What a small world it is when it comes to steam men. Well, he finally got it to Wichita and what a mistake! When the boys at AAA saw the boiler, they could not believe their eyes. They not only told me “No way,” but discouraged me from even trying to have it done it was in such bad shape. So, back it went to my parents’ farm for another 2 years.

During this time, my mother Mildred actually sold the engine to a man who stopped in one day to see it. He gave her a $100 down payment and said he would be back after it. He was never heard from again. By this time, I was so depressed about my investment, that I really didn’t care what happened to the engine. One day, while at the local library in Wichita, I ran across a copy of IMA. In the back pages was an advertisement about a man in Valley Center, Kansas, who built scale Case engines and did custom boiler work. On a whim, I gave him a call. His name was Tom Terning. I flew Tom to Belleville, one Sunday afternoon in my airplane and he inspected the boiler and thought it could be repaired. In a couple of weeks, my brother Kelvin brought the engine back to Valley Center. In the spring of 1978 and over the next 2 years, it was totally dismantled and the boiler completely rebuilt. Nothing is quite as difficult as building a boiler that has all of the castings hanging on it. Everything had to be assembled and aligned two times before it was all done. Special fasteners were made to compensate for the curvature of the boiler and mounting of the castings. When it ran for the first time in 1980, no two people could have been more proud of their great accomplishment. It was also the first time our family had seen the engine run since Granddad drained it those many years ago. For those of you who know Mr. Terning and his reputation for doing the impossible, you know what I am talking about. There is no way I can express in words, how thankful I am for what Tom accomplished with this restoration. He is truly a remarkable man.

I finally acquired a lowboy trailer shortly after the restoration. My wife Margaret and I proceeded to take the engine to many shows around the state of Kansas. As I look back at all the traveling we did to go to these shows, me pulling the engine and she driving a separate car, I wonder where we got all the energy. I would leave work at 5:00 p.m. on Friday night and drive out to the tractor and trailer. We would winch on the steam engine, chain it down and take off for a show. We usually arrived late in the evening on Friday night. Then, we would play with it all day Saturday and Sunday, load it up on Sunday evening and take off for home. We’d crawl into bed late on Sunday night and I would be at work on Monday morning at 8:00 AM. I don’t have that kind of energy today. The engine has been to Mankato, Salina, Win-field, Gossell, Valley Center, and Fort Scott, Kansas, shows many times. We have also been to the Pawnee, Oklahoma, show and many other shows as well. We have also taken her to Steel City, Nebraska, where she was reunited with the sawmill from Granddad’s farm. I now know why Granddad enjoyed using it so much on the sawmill. It really sounds and works great. I don’t know how many flat tires and breakdowns I have had, as anyone that hauls heavy equipment can attest to, but this has taken a toll on us. Consequently, we have not taken it to a show for some time.

My brother Kelvin and I fired “Nikki” up recently on his farm where the engine is now stored. We decided to hook it up to his 18-foot offset disk. As it has a hydraulic lift, we raised the wheels off the ground and removed it from his 130 HP John Deere tractor. Needless to say, the engine pulled it with ease, even though it wasn’t the 6 or 7 miles per hour like the John Deere. It still sounded very good under load, a sound that makes all the hard work worth while. Turning around in the field still continues to be a problem for the engine, but there was plenty of ground, so we just made a bigger turn. I always look forward to the next time I will run the engine. I can never get a big enough whiff of coal smoke in my lungs to last me till the next time.

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