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Port Huron’s Road Trip Odyssey

Author Photo
By Bill Vossler

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Right: Part of an advertisement for Port Huron machinery advertised in Power Farming magazine, 1917.
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Opposite page: The front of the 24-75 Port Huron steam traction engine, a 1915 model in superb condition. Inset: Front cover of a 1908 Port Huron catalog.
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An action photo from the 1919 The American Thresherman of a 24 HP Port Huron steam traction engine at work with a threshing crew.
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Above: A circa 1915 Power Farming magazine advertisement promoted used and rebuilt Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. machinery. Although this practice was followed by a few other manufacturers, it was not particularly widespread.
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Left: This 1919 advertisement shows the only tractor Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. ever built, a 4-cylinder Model 12-25 with a 4-3/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke.
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One of Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co.’s most popular steam traction engines was their Longfellow.

This 1915 Port Huron 24-75 HP Woolf
tandem-compound steam traction engine was added to the collection
of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR) in 1976.
Perhaps the first Port Huron traction engine west of the
Mississippi, the story of how the 20,700-pound Port Huron came to
Rollag, Minn., is as interesting as the machine itself.

Bob Brekken, longtime editor of WMSTR’s official handbook,
Memories of Bygone Years, says he had wanted a steam
engine ever since he rode on his grandfather’s Reeves steam
traction engine many years ago at Watertown, S.D. “I carried the
incurable steam engine disease in my bloodstream,” he says.

Bob’s disease was aided and abetted by his good friend Norman
Nelson, who suggested Bob buy a Port Huron not only because it was
a good brand of machinery, but also because he doubted any steam
show west of the Mississippi had one. “When the time arrived that I
had enough funds to get into the steam engine business,” Bob says,
“Norman brought out several recent issues of steam magazines and we
examined the classified sections.”

They found Port Hurons for sale in Michigan, Illinois and
Indiana, called for details, and after a while decided on the 24-75
HP owned by Stanley Forwood of White Cloud, Mich. After coming to
an agreement, in October 1976 they organized the trip to pick up
the engine.

BACKGROUND

Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. began with the manufacture
of threshers starting in 1851. It was the first thresher shop in
the state, under the tutelage of William Brown, at Battle Creek,
Mich. Eight years later, the company merged with a concern run by
James Upton and became known as Upton, Brown & Co., and then in
1874 became Upton Mfg. Co.

As with many companies of the time, it was a family affair:
Upton’s brother Parley was a partner, as was Upton’s son-in-law,
Henry M. Strong. Seventy-five people worked in the plant making the
company’s Michigan Sweepstakes Threshing Machine, which was sold
throughout the wheat-producing states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota
and Missouri.

In 1877 James Upton patented a combination thresher, the
“forerunner of the present combine,” writes Jack Norbeck in
Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines.

The company’s first foray in the steam traction engine business
came in 1882 with the Upton-Port Huron traction engine, a machine
that Norbeck says, “was original in several important respects, and
it earned a high reputation.” Unfortunately, Norbeck doesn’t detail
just what those important respects were. Two years later the
company moved some 140 miles across the state to Port Huron,
presumably for the benefit of Port Huron’s proximity to Lake Huron
through the Clair River.

The Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co. moniker, by which the
company became best known, was adopted by amending the company’s
bylaws in 1890. A year later, Port Huron Rusher threshers and Port
Huron steam traction engines were part of the company’s
catalog.

In 1896, the company “developed the cylinders which proved to be
the best of all engine cylinders in the history of the thresher
trade – the Port Huron-Woolf compound,” Norbeck says. In 1907, Port
Huron experimented with 9-foot-long boiler tubes in double- and
single-compound traction engines, dubbed “Longfellows.” “At the end
of the threshing season of 1908,” Norbeck says, “Port Huron
received scores of reports from users and experts to the effect
that Longfellow Port Huron engines had proved to be the most
economical and the most satisfactory traction engine in the history
of the thresher trade; that they required much less fuel and water
than did any other make.” The difference came from the use of the
Grime-Woolf-Port Huron valve gear (developed in 1891 and upgraded
in 1893), which gave Port Huron compound engines practically a
square cut-off, and which along with the Longfellows resulted in a
3-4 percent savings in fuel.

With an eye toward increasing its fortunes, Port Huron in 1901
turned to manufacturing gas engines, introducing a line of engines
ranging from 2-1/2 to 50 HP. Three years later, however, the
company dropped the line, refocusing instead on other farm
products. In 1918 the company introduced the gas-powered 12-25 Farm
Tractor, which was only built for four years until 1922, about the
time the company shut down.

During Port Huron’s years in business, the company’s mainstay
product was their variety of Port Huron steam traction engines, of
which they built 6,030, including the 1915 Port Huron 24-75 HP
steam traction engine featured, which had one of the last lap seam
boilers built by Port Huron. It was purchased new by a Detroit,
Mich., man for threshing and sawing.

After three more owners, Merle Newkirk of Midland, Mich., bought
it, and in 1967 sold it as part of his collection of 28 steam
traction engines. It was bought by Glendon H. Flory of Milliken,
Mich., who subsequently sold it to Stanley Forwood. Bob Brekken and
Malcolm Frisk of WMSTR, Rollag, Minn., were aiming for Forwood’s
place when they set off on what they’d planned as a three-day trip
to retrieve the 24-75; one day from Minnesota to Michigan, one day
loading and one day back. It didn’t quite work out that way.

A LONG TRIP: OIL IS
NOT
WELL

To help with the project, Ulven Gravel Co. of Hawley, Minn.,
donated the use of a semi equipped with a newly rebuilt diesel
engine. A couple of hours after setting out, with Malcolm driving,
“a fine mist of oil began falling on the windshield,” Bob says.
After stopping to check what was wrong, they discovered that oil
was seeping out of the engine and hitting the fan, and was then
being thrown through the louvers in the hood onto the windshield.
After a phone call to the semi’s owner, Malcolm’s brother Maynard
Frisk, Maynard told them to press on, making sure they added oil as
needed.

“For the remainder of the trip,” Bob says, “the exercise went
like this: We used the windshield wipers until they no longer could
do the job. We then stopped, Malcolm and I each cleaned half the
windshield, we added another quart of oil, and the journey
continued.”

Other problems cropped up along the way. For starters, it turned
out the semi was only licensed for local traffic. “What we needed
was permission to enter, drive on and enjoy the highways of the
sovereign states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan,” Bob
says. Each state had its own laws, different from its neighbors.
The pair made phone calls and wired money, and found out where they
could pick up their permits for various states. Eventually, they
reached Stanley Forwood’s farm home near White Cloud, Mich.

After being wined and dined, they prepared to load the Port
Huron onto the lowboy. First, a neighbor had to dig out around the
engine to make the ground flat so the lowboy could be backed into
the area and the Port Huron could be pulled onto the trailer. Once
loaded it was chained down, red flags were mounted in the front and
back, and the oil-adding trip continued.

“We had decided,” Bob remarks, “that after experiencing the
Chicago traffic, which bordered on insanity, that we would take the
scenic route home through northern Michigan and Wisconsin.”

After stopping Friday night in Big Rapids, Mich., the pair
discovered that Ferris State College was having homecoming that
weekend. That meant for a less than-restful time: Motels in the
town of 14,000 were already full, and with their wide load (the
Port Huron’s driver wheels were hanging out on each side of the
lowboy), they could not travel in Michigan after dark or on
weekends. Instead, early Saturday morning they had to head six
miles away for Paris, Mich., with a police escort, as they were not
supposed to travel weekends. They found rooms in Paris and spent
the next two days getting to know everybody in the unincorporated
town on a first-name basis.

Next, they moved across Wisconsin on side roads at night,
braving a heavy rainstorm and winds of 40 mph that made driving
difficult. “No other traffic existed,” Bob says, “and due to the
late hours, we didn’t even see farm lights. It was like being all
alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a stormy night.” Worse,
the road was in terrible shape, causing the cab and the load to
vibrate and jerk. Slogging along at about 2 a.m. the pair heard a
terrifying crash behind them, and the cab staggered. Amid
trepidation and flashlights, they rushed out into the rain,
“Expecting,” Bob told, “to see the pathetic remains of a steam
engine and a lowboy scattered across a good portion of the state of
Wisconsin.” Finding nothing wrong, however, they figured the noise
they’d heard had been something to do with the road. The next
morning in the light of day they discovered what had happened: The
Port Huron’s wooden canopy had blown off during the storm, leaving
just the steel posts and a few pieces of wood connected to them,
although the rest of the engine itself was still complete and
secure.

Eventually, they crossed Minnesota and finally, more or less
intact, drove into Hawley, Minn. It had taken them seven days
instead of the three they’d planned, and they’d added 45 quarts of
oil to the semi during that time.

Later that day, the Port Huron was hauled to Fargo, N.D., for a
few repairs. Orrin and Mimer Anderson of Hawley made a new canopy
and the Port Huron was ready for display in the daily parades at
WMSTR in Rollag, Minn.

In 1998, Bob donated the Port Huron to the WMSTR. The 1915 Port
Huron steam traction engine was given a facelift in the late 1990s
by Loren Skundberg and his wife Billie of Pelican Rapids, Minn.,
and today is a beautiful example of a steam traction engines at its
best.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several
books. Contact him at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN
56369; (320) 253-5414; bvossler@juno.com

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