The love of a woman snared John Gallahue into a lifelong fascination with steam traction engines. "My wife Tara and I started dating in about 1979, and her father, Lloyd (Bones) Dehm Sr., was running the 1917 Reeves 16 HP steam traction engine at the Mt. Pleasant (Iowa) Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, and had been since the early 1960s. He ran it over the years and helped maintain it.
"Tara has been going to Mt. Pleasant about every year since she was alive. So, because we were dating, in about 1980 I went to Mt. Pleasant with her for a day. Of course, then I was more interested in my father-in-law's daughter than in steam," the 56-year-old laughs.
But that soon changed. "I started helping him and got attached to the idea of steam and the Reeves. So when I had the opportunity to buy it, I jumped at the chance and ended up with it."
The Reeves didn't require a lot of work to keep it going. "It had been re-flued not long before I got it and new babbitt bearings had been poured for the valve linkage rods. Other than that, it just needed cleaning up. I want to get it painted before I take it back to Mt. Pleasant in September," John says.
John is pretty sure that other than when it was manufactured by the Emerson-Brantingham Co. of Rockford, Ill., the 1917 Reeves 16 HP steam traction engine, serial no. 8017, has not been out of the state of Iowa. "So it's getting kind of homesick sitting here at my place," he says. There weren't many steam traction engines in the Piper City, Ill., area where he grew up and now lives, mostly because the area was swamp land until drainage ditches were dug.
"Steam engines couldn't cross the bridges built over the drainage ditches because they were too heavy and would break through. They did have steam engines around here, of course, but it seems like most people went right from horses to the gas tractors," John says. Most of the remaining steam engines were cut up for scrap during World War II.
But there are quite a few of the Reeves 16 HP engines around. "It's not a rare engine, but it's special to me," John says. He says his father-in-law is a dedicated steam man and has only missed one Mt. Pleasant show, the first one in 1960. "We tease him about that," John says. "We say everybody was trying to keep it a secret so he wouldn't show up. But teasing aside, he's the one who got me started in steam. One thing led to another and now I also have a 1915 Port Huron 19 HP Longfellow steam traction engine."
The 16 HP Reeves was made to burn wood or coal, but coal holds the fire longer. "But with what we do with it, putting it on a sawmill or a veneer mill at Iowa quite often, wood makes enough steam for something like that."
The 1917 Reeves doesn't have its factory jacket over the boiler any longer, which is a thin sheet of steel wrapped around the boiler that helped keep the heat in.
"The jackets usually had wood insulation, and most were taken off the steam engines several years ago so the boiler inspectors could examine the boilers," John says. My father-in-law remembers the jacket for the Reeves. It had cherry wood insulation between the boiler and the jacket, and brass bands. He claimed it even had a radius on the wood that fit the shape of the boiler. It would have been quite a talent to put that insulation and jacketing on. It was taken off at Mt. Pleasant for the inspectors. The next year when he went over to put it back on, it was gone." John is also familiar with the jackets, as his Port Huron steam engine still has one.
The major item that is different on a Reeves from other steam engines is the drive system, John says. "It does not have a clutch, but direct drive so there is no slippage at all." That made these Reeves engines great for plowing, and popular in plowing country. "A pin would lock the drive in so you wouldn't have anything slipping if you were going to plow. When you were using it on the belt, like threshing, you'd take the pin out so it could run the threshing machine or sawmill, or whatever for belt work."
It's hard to figure out why more steam traction engines didn't use this system, but it might have had to do with convenience. "Usually there's a lever right by the engineer to disengage the flywheel to use it on belt work," John says, "and to take the pin out can be done from the operator's platform on the left side of my Reeves, but it's a lot easier if you get off and disengage the pin."
John says he found out firsthand how hot it could be when working around steam traction engines at Mt. Pleasant when the air temperature was over 100 degrees in the shade. "It was really hot. But when you got away from the steam engine, it seemed kind of cool." He remembers hearing that from old steam engineers, too.
And people are always surprised how silent steam engines are, John says. "They say, 'It doesn't make much noise for how big it is.' People stop at my shop to see it and without any of the background noise from Mt. Pleasant, they can't believe how quiet the Reeves is and how smoothly it runs for how big it is."
This steam is quite a hobby, John says. "Basically steam is how the country was made, steam locomotives and steam traction engines broke the prairie, so it's kind of neat to keep that history and tradition going."
Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org