Old Bet

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Old Bet in the process of being removed from the Henry Ford Museum in August 2001.
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Old Bet out in the sun for the first time in decades, just prior to loading for shipment to her new home
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My grandfather, Paul Burch, introduced me to steam engines as
soon as I was old enough to walk. Grandfather Burch had a great
love for steam, and before I was even old enough to read I was
paging through his copies of Iron-Men Album and other
steam magazines. Whenever I visited him in the summer, he and
I’d go to the local steam shows. We always showed up early in
the morning as the engineers were getting up steam, and our
greeting was always the same the sweet smells of coal and wood
smoke, grease, oil and steam. We had arrived in heaven.

As we walked around the shows, my grandfather would explain the
individual parts of the engines to me, and we’d watch the
sawmills, shingle mills, balers, separators and Baker fans for
hours. They were all powered by steam engines, and for a child of 6
the spectacle was amazing. At one of those steam shows a kind
engineer, Larry Schunke, agreed to give me a ride on his engine.
Wow! A ride on a real steam engine.

On one of my birthdays, my grandparents gave me a Jensen model
steam engine. What a beauty. To this day, it is hotly debated who
got to run the engine more that day my grandfather or me. Either
way, I was a proud steam engine owner, and I cleaned the engine
after every use. I felt I was a member of the steam community, and
I was certain that one day I would own a real steam traction
engine. Experiences like those burned steam into my memory and
firmly planted the steam bug in my soul.

Geiser history buff Mike Rohrer dug up this shipping receipt for
Old Bet. According to the sheet, engine no. 5588 was part of
shipment of engines and threshers shipped to W.R. Fagg (a Geiser
branch agent) on Feb. 9, 1898. The list price was $1,290. Note that
the top of the page has F.F. Landis’ name on it. F.F. Landis
and his brother, A.B. Landis, designed Geiser’s engines, and
Geiser used these sheets to determine royalties paid to Landis at
the end of each year.


Grandfather Burch owned a Russell steam traction engine. He was
the John Deere dealer in Hillsboro, Ohio, and he ran his Russell in
local parades, using it as a rolling advertisement for his store.
Concerned about the liability involved in owning and operating the
Russell, he decided it was better to sell it than have a child get
hurt on it. He sold it in the late 1950s, and I’m not sure if
his engine ever made it to any of the steam shows. He passed away
in 1992, and unfortunately he never wrote down the Russell’s
serial number and if he knew it he never told me. His Russell
wouldn’t be too hard to spot, however, as it was equipped with
a Case smoke stack.

‘Old Bet’ as she looked when acquired by the Henry Ford
Museum in the early 1920s. This picture was taken on the museum
grounds, presumably after Old Bet’s restoration.

My great-grandfather, George L. Burch, owned a Gaar-Scott
threshing rig that he took from farm to farm in the Gambier, Ohio,
area, threshing with his crew. Unfortunately, he lost his threshing
rig after a few seasons because a few farmers wouldn’t pay him
for his work. I’ve been told a story about one farmer who told
him he’d pay several cents less per bushel than their
agreed-upon price, and it is said great-grandfather Burch responded
by telling the farmer he ‘could keep his ‘X’ cents per
bushel and go straight to …’ I’m not sure what the
outcome of that transaction was, but great-grandfather Burch
ultimately lost his threshing rig since he couldn’t make the


In the summer of 2001 I was paging through the July/August 2001
issue of the Iron-Men Album when I discovered a full-page
ad that read: ‘For Sale by Sealed Bid. Four Steam Traction
Engines From The Collections of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield
Village.’ The engines included an 1883 Russell, an 1895
Harrison, an 1885 Birdsall and an 1897 Geiser. Interesting. My
first thought was the engines would sell for a fortune.

Toying with the idea of bidding on one of the engines, I started
doing a little research. I knew I wanted an engine, but it would
have to meet certain requirements. One, it would have to be small
enough to be towed by a heavy-duty pickup truck pulling a gooseneck
trailer: I didn’t want the hassle of an engine that would
require the services of a semi-truck every time I wanted to move
it. Two, it had to be a traction engine – no portables. And three,
it had to be basically complete. These requirements immediately
ruled out the Russell because it was a horse-steered traction
engine, and I ruled out the Harrison because of its weight and
size. That left the Birdsall and the Geiser, but I knew the
Birdsall would bid high. That only left the Geiser.

I placed a ridiculously low bid on the Geiser, bidding well
below the $15,000 to $30,000 price a traction engine like this can
bring. I thought I was assured of being outbid, but I wanted to
someday say to my children and their children, ‘I once bid on a
steam engine …’ I assured my wife that my bid was so low it
would never win. Famous last words. Many things happened on that
fateful day of Aug. 2, 2001. My bid won, and more importantly
I’m still married. (My wife is a steam fan, too. Deep sigh of

We hired a local John Deere dealer’s rollback bed and semi
to transport the Geiser. We made plans to travel to Dearborn,
Mich., and pick up the engine on Aug. 20, 2001. We were just about
to leave when I happened to be thumbing through one of my
grandfather’s old issues of IMA. What I found shocked
and thrilled me.


The issue I was reading was the July/August 1975 IMA,
and on page 24 I noticed an article by John E. Bailey entitled,
‘Memories from the Area of the Steam Engine.’ The article
centered on John’s memories of a 10 HP Geiser Peerless his
family owned and the work it did for them and their neighbors in
rural Virginia. Since I was about to become the proud owner of a 10
HP Geiser Peerless, I was quite interested to read John’s
reflections on their family’s Geiser, an engine they had named
‘Old Bet.’ The kicker came when John described his sadness
at the sale of the Geiser to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn,
Mich. When the Geiser was sold, John committed the engine’s
number, 5588, to heart. This was the same engine I was preparing to
retrieve, and suddenly it had history and a name.


Prior to bringing Old Bet home, I contacted Larry Schunke (yes,
the same Larry Schunke who gave me my first ride on a steam
traction engine), and he agreed to inspect the engine and help me
bring her up to operating condition. I can’t thank Larry enough
for his time and the work he did on Old Bet. An accomplished
machinist, his work is highly respected throughout the local steam
community, and he is the reason this engine is in operating
condition today.

On a fall weekend, Larry and I made our first inspection of Old
Bet. With the crown sheet hand hole removed we could see threads on
the stay bolts, and they were solid from top to bottom. A smoke box
inspection revealed that the flues weren’t beaded, but the
firebox flue ends were beaded. The boiler and firebox were sound,
and we could find no visible thinning around the hand holes. From
our first inspection, we came up with the following items that
needed our attention:

New 100-psi safety valve
Fusible plug(s)
Bead the front flues
Replace all hand hole gaskets
New schedule 80 pipe
New nipple, globe valve and check valve for return from crosshead
New drain cocks
Belting for governor
New water gauge glass
Add force-feed oiler to augment displacement oiler
Gravity drip-oiler for crosshead

That was a good start, we decided, but Larry cautioned that more
items needing attention would be revealed as we worked. Winter was
fast approaching, and we both felt that any heavy-duty work would
have to wait until the spring or summer. In the meantime, my job
was to collect as many of the items on the list as possible. I
found a brass drip-oiler and purchased an old Manzel force-feed
oiler. I rebuilt the force-feed oiler during the winter months and
replaced the site glass on it.

Spring finally arrived, but our day jobs pulled us in the
opposite direction of steam. With summer approaching, I hauled the
engine over to Larry’s shop so we could start working on it in

We worked on the engine when we had time I helped with the
piping and small jobs, Larry worked on the big jobs. Larry spent
hours inside the smoke box, grinding flues that were too long to
bead and then beading all 25 flues.

Our work progressed well, and on July 8, 2002, we gave Old Bet
its first hydro test. The only leaks came from a few hand valves,
and after taking her up to 1-1/2 times her 120-psi rated pressure,
and holding her there, we drained the boiler down to the top of the
water glass and started piling in wood. As we built pressure, I
oiled everything and topped off the mechanical and displacement

At about 50 psi we started experimenting. First, we opened the
cylinder cocks and let them drain. Next, we opened the throttle,
and with a whoosh of steam from the cylinder cocks, the engine came
to life. So far, so good. We then moved the drive gear into place
and took Old Bet on her first voyage in over 50 years.

Old Bet gets ready for her first run in decades. Mike Johnson
looks on (left) as Paul Ward (center) and Larry Schunke tend to
engineering duties.

I steered her into a field to make a loop, but as I turned to
come back I ran into my first problem the metal band (or tire)
around the wood form (felloes) on the right front wheel was loose.
We very carefully made our way back across the field to our staging
area, and then we noticed steam leaking from the pipe that extends
from the injector and runs back to the boiler. The hydrostatic test
failed to reveal that the new schedule 80 piping we put on had a
pinhole leak.

We then tested the crosshead pump and discovered it needed new
packing. Okay, no problem there, but as we where shutting the
boiler valve that leads from the heater, the check valve (built
into the valve) got a piece of dirt or something lodged in it. This
led to steam exiting through the exhaust portion of the valve,
which was pointed at the platform where I was standing at the time,
and I received a good steam bath. Everyone (except me) got a good
chuckle out of this, and we decided when the engine cooled down we
would open up the check valve to see what was wrong.

All things being equal, my repair checklist from the first
firing was not as long as it could have been. It included:

Replace piping (again) leading back to the boiler.
Replacing packing on crosshead pump.
Check for lodged dirt in the check valve for the crosshead
Apply linseed oil to the front and rear wheels.
If needed, find a wheelwright to get the front wheels correctly

After replacing the injector return pipe, changing the packing
on the crosshead pump, removing the dirt from the crosshead check
valve and soaking the front wheels in boiled linseed oil, we loaded
Old Bet up and took her home for some cosmetic work.

Arriving back home with Old Bet, I started wire brushing her
down, and in the process I discovered some preserved paint under
the grease. I found that the boiler had been red, the frame had
been gray with black pin striping, and the flywheel was Confederate
gray. If those were Old Bet’s actual colors, she must have been
a site going down the road. (In retrospect, we now suspect these
colors were the primer coat.)

Prior to bringing Old Bet home from Dearborn, I tried to
research the definitive color scheme for a 10 HP 1897 Geiser
Peerless Model Q, and I couldn’t find a published document that
would provide the definitive color scheme for my engine. I had many
conversations with people who said it might have been this or that,
but until I have definite proof of what color it should be,
I’ve painted it to my tastes. I decided on a black boiler, red
frame and gears, and I decided to keep the Confederate-gray
flywheel. Pin striping will be gold. Ultimately, I repainted the
flywheel red, as the grayish-blue flywheel just didn’t look
right. I did most of the painting in the evening, working on Old
Bet from the end of July 2002 through early September 2002.


The linseed oil treatment did not expand the spokes and felloes
enough to create a tight fit for the metal tire, which meant we
would have to move to our next plan and find a wheelwright.

Fortunately, a healthy Amish community thrives here in Holmes
County, Ohio, and I was able to find an Amish wheelwright in New
Bedford who compressed the tires using a pre-Civil War shop tool
designed just for this kind of work.

The wheel is placed onto a round ‘setting’ machine about
10 feet in diameter surrounded with hydraulic rams. A fitting die
is then placed between the rams or presses and the wheel. A
hydraulic pump is then turned on, and the rams apply pressure (he
told me that each cylinder can apply 18 tons of force) in a uniform
manner around the wheel, squeezing the felloes, spokes and metal
tire together. The wheelwright must have been a steam man, because
he only charged me $25 a wheel. When I dropped off my wheels, his
shop was making large cannon wheels for the National Parks

As the 2003 show season approached, the State of Ohio finalized
its new requirements for historical engineers and boilers, and I
prepared for Old Bet’s inspection. I passed the Historical
Boiler Engineers test and then took Old Bet to my friend Mark
Parsisson’s workshop prior to the inspection scheduled with the
state inspectors.

During Old Bet’s maiden run the right front ‘tire’
slipped on the wood wheel (just discernable, left). An Amish
wheelwright repaired the wheel using a period tire setting


First, the inspectors needed to know the total heating surface
area of the firebox. The heating surface was documented as 96.1
square feet, so the inspector calculated the minimum capacity for
my safety valve as 672.7 pounds per hour (96.1 x 7 = 672.7
lbs/hour). I had previously calculated this to verify my
replacement safety valve would be sufficient. Second, they asked me
about the pressure gauge and if it has been tested. I had sent mine
in for calibration earlier, and I gave the inspectors a copy of the
documentation. They seemed very pleased the gauge had been
professionally calibrated and that I had documentation.

Third was the hydrostatic test. I want to run at 120 psi, which
was the Geiser’s published pressure when new. I gave a copy of
the published pressure to the inspectors, and again they seemed
pleased. (Side note: the more information you can give them, the
happier they seem to be, and keeping inspectors happy is a good
thing.) We then pumped the boiler to 150 psi (one-and-a-quarter
times the operating pressure), and that’s when I had a few
minor problems.

The main steam valve that connects to the cast pipe on the steam
dome had a small leak where the two surfaces meet. The inspectors
suggested I remove the valve and reseat it to verify that it has a
completely flat and snug surface. Not a huge problem, just one that
needed attention.

Prior to the inspectors arrival, Mark and I conducted a hydro
test and discovered a pinhole leak in one of the flues about
halfway down. I had fired the engine previously with no problems,
so I was a little upset because there was no time to fix the flue
before the inspection. I let the inspectors know about the problem,
and they verified the leak.

We then drained the boiler for the internal inspection, and they
were very pleased with the condition of my boiler. Everything is
very solid, and one inspector commented it was one of the best
antique boilers he had ever seen, and he suggested I look into
one-time use boiler chemicals to maintain the boiler.

Lastly, I was required to remove the soft plug. They looked it
over carefully, noting the ASME stamp, and asked if I had a new
one. They inspected that one as well, which was then installed.

Old Bet passed inspection, but it was a conditional pass. Before
I can show Old Bet in public the leaking flue must be replaced and
the main steam valve needs to be reseated. Old Bet’s new flues
have arrived, but the extra time I ordered has not, so we won’t
be under steam again until the 2004 show season is in full swing.
Even so, the process has been wonderful, and I can’t wait for
the day when Old Bet makes her return debut to be seen and enjoyed
by the rest of the steaming community.

I would like to give special thanks to my wife, Renee’, to
Larry Schunke, to the Richland County (Ohio) Steam Threshers, to
Mark Parsisson and to the folks at Steam Traction.

Contact steam enthusiast Paul Ward at: 592 Fox Road,
Lexington, OH 44904, or e-mail: psward@neo.rr.com

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