Farm Collector

Once Upon a Dream

I was a young man the first time I visited
Oscar’s Dreamland Museum near the Yellowstone River south of
Billings, Mont. The late Max Tyler insisted I needed to go out and
meet Oscar Cooke the next time I was in Billings. Oscar owned a
bunch of crawler-type tractors, and although Max had been a real
steam man from the original steam era, his real love later in life
became “Cats.” Both men had their Holts, Bests, Caterpillars,
Monarchs, Allis-Chalmers and Cletracs, and Oscar even had
McCormick-Deerings. Max wouldn’t own one, as he’d grown up running
Cats while in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great
Depression and had his personal reasons for disliking them.

I ventured out to meet Oscar the next time Sharon, my wife, and
I went to Billings. Cooke had just opened his museum to the public
in 1968. I was very pleased to see a huge old Corliss engine out
front that once powered the Great Western Sugar Co. in Billings
greeting the public.

I remember seeing this 16-foot (I believe) flywheel engine in
operation at “the Sugar Factory” in my boyhood. I remember walking
into Oscar’s shop, where he was working on a small, steel-wheeled
gas tractor. I sort of felt like an unneeded interruption, as my
age didn’t quite qualify me as anything but another “question
asker.” I soon turned our conversation to my love and ability with
steam traction engines. Oscar came right to life. After checking me
out a little further, Oscar insisted I needed to become part of his
engine crew for his shows. He set down his wrenches, cleaned his
hands and insisted on taking me around his museum on a personal
tour.

I don’t recall the size of the three (red, white and blue) sheds
at Oscar’s Dreamland, but they must have been close to
75-foot-by-150-foot or possibly larger. Some had lean-to roof
extensions on the outside, where he stored his steam traction
engines. It was phenomenal the amount of equipment he stored
inside. One building was pretty much filled with huge prairie-type
gas tractors. Another was filled with smaller tractors and the
third was a mixture of antique aircraft, antique automobiles and
other memorabilia, at that time.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was when we passed by the
scrap iron pile and the remnants of his “Kerosene Annie,” the
prototype of the famed Rumely OilPull tractor. She lacked
so much. There were massive amounts missing – gearing,
steering gear, engine parts, and it looked completely hopeless to
me.

I don’t remember which tractor magazine publisher visited the
museum and passed by this same tractor, photographing it for
placement in his magazine. Anyway, this publisher didn’t realize
who he was dealing with when he printed something like: Kerosene
Annie – It will never run again.

I don’t feel I can use, nor could Steam Traction print,
the actual language the somewhat flamboyant Oscar used when I’d
stopped by to visit him after he’d read that edition. It boiled
down to Oscar was going to show him. He had major, massive parts
cast and had that engine torn apart and put back together. I don’t
know how many other Kerosene Annies there were, nor do I know how
many remain, but I think this is the only one remaining today.

One thing Oscar did that was unusual in our part of the country,
was gather types of engines out of the area that didn’t make it in
any great numbers during the original steam era. We got to see
engines like Harrison Jumbo, Kitten, Keck-Gonnerman, Port Huron and
Frick, which weren’t ever popular out west. The Geiser-Peerless in
larger size plowing engines were quite popular out here, but not
the smaller size like Oscar had.

I lived in Billings for nearly four years from late 1969 until
mid-1974. Oscar kind of expected me to visit at times. I’d
remembered a 30-60 Aultman & Taylor gas tractor on the John
Campbell farm at Utica, Mont. Oscar was able to purchase the
tractor and this gave him a 30-60 with square radiator and exhaust
stack. He already had a 30-60 with the later round-style radiator
with cooling fans and really wanted the early type. After he
purchased that, I always felt special treatment and very welcome at
Oscar’s.

I didn’t have a Montana steam traction engine license at the
time, so I was never in charge of an engine. My good friend, the
late Clyde Corley, often ran the 20 HP Gaar-Scott double-simple. I
have only recently learned the rear mounted, double-cylinder simple
engines were referred to by Gaar-Scott as their “Montana Special”
engines.

My son, Mike, and daughter, Michaelle, went to Oscar’s shows
with me, which were likely their first recollection of a steam
show. Oscar’s shows were quite a production. His engineers stayed
pretty busy plowing, usually with steam and often with a 25 HP
side-mounted Nichols & Shepard engineered by Dick Tombrink.
However, I remember the first time I ever saw a Pioneer 30-60 gas
tractor running, it was plowing at Oscar’s.

Threshing seemed to be more than just “a sample” as is done at
most shows today; they made quite an extended production out of it,
kind of like it really was harvest.

The parades were spectacular. The antique car club from Billings
would have pretty fair attendance, and with Oscar’s 300-some
tractors, many of them participating, the parade was nothing short
of awesome. Of course, Oscar’s engine was always the Best steam
engine, and as I remember, he led the parade.

Oscar told me his oil-fired Best was rated at 100 HP at 100 psi
and 150 HP at 150 psi. I can’t refute that, although most of this
style is referred to as a 110 HP Best, today.

I know there are much larger steam shows in the eastern part of
our country, but when you consider that everything of the tractor
and equipment nature at Oscar’s show belonged to that one man, it
was stunning. He once told me he’d started gathering engines during
World War II, as he didn’t like seeing so many of them going to the
scrap yard.

Oscar moved in old buildings, including a church, store, saloon
and school, and he named his town Cookeville and the museum sat on
19 acres. Three sides of the museum grounds were fenced with
threshing machines on both sides and across the rear, next to the
Yellowstone River. There had to be at least a hundred of them.

I’d never viewed Oscar’s Dreamland from the air, but Oscar had
been an old-time pilot and was sure proud of how his establishment
looked from the air. He had his own hangar and airstrip across the
road from the museum.

He once told me he’d set up his sons with Allis-Chalmers
dealerships in Nebraska or Kansas, if I remember correctly. I
believe Oscar had also been an AC dealer somewhere in those areas
in earlier years. He was also a major stockholder and board member
in one of Billing’s major banks. This bank had the world’s largest
revolving clock built atop it in the late 1950s, and when they
decided to remove it in later years, guess where that clock ended
up!

Oscar was inducted into the EDGE&TA Steam Hall of Fame
before his death in 1995, as was Marcella, his wife, at a later
date. I have a few old photos I took at Oscar’s shows on a $7.95
camera in the 1970s, and have often wished I’d had a better camera
at that time. After Oscar died at age 95, I thought I’d better make
the eight-hour drive to the museum and get some photos, and I am so
glad I did. Marcella was still living and so graciously opened
everything up for me. She had hopes of keeping the museum operating
and everything going but died within the next year or so.
Naturally, with two deaths and two estates, the IRS became a great
part of the reason for the dispersion auction, later attended by
many steam and tractor men.

The state of Montana toyed with purchasing Oscar’s Dreamland
Museum, but the circa 1864 gold town of Virginia City, Mont., was
also vying for state funds after the Bovey family had all passed
away, creating the estate for that historical place. There wasn’t
overwhelming support to salvage a tractor collection, but everyone
wanted their grandkids to be able to pan gold and ride the steam
train at Virginia City.

There had been speculation that Oscar had gathered engines from
everywhere, so maybe he wanted his collection to go everywhere. It
could be, but he’d never stated that to me.

Lynn Simpson, my father-in-law, often said to me, “Nothing stays
the same.” I guess Oscar’s Dreamland Museum was a good example of
what he referred to. Oscar had planned his “Cooke Cemetery” and it
did me good to know his ashes were out there in that little old
Huber return flue, which he’d placed a wrought iron fence around
for this very occasion.

Now that I think of it, Oscar could still go out and plow fields
with steam … if he really wanted to, and the way I knew that
one-of-a-kind man, I am rather surprised he hasn’t attempted
it!

Contact steam enthusiast Gary Yaeger at: 1120 Leisha
Lane, Kalispell, MT 59901; e-mail:
yaegerg@wfps.k12.mt.us

  • Published on Sep 1, 2006
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