Restoration of a Minneapolis Traction Engine

Story of the steam engine restoration of the Minneapolis traction engine shown in the movie "The Friendly Persuasion"


| November/December 2000



Shown here in action at a show, this engine is one of several that have appeared in historical motion pictures.

Shown here in action at a show, this engine is one of several that have appeared in historical motion pictures.

The engine shown in the movie "The Friendly Persuasion" is once again in steam! This was truly a restoration! It's a 20 horsepower Minneapolis Traction Engine, serial #8376. In its working life, this engine ran a sawmill near Wausau, Wisconsin, and was on a farm before that. Its working life lasted well into the 1940s. It had been worked long and hard, but it had also been well cared for. In its retirement, it was moved to Oceanside, California. This was in 1955 by Mr. Jim Sullivan. Shortly after it arrived in California, a movie producer spotted this Minneapolis traction engine. The movie "The Friendly Persuasion" was released in 1956 and starred Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and a young Anthony Perkins. There are several good shots of the engine. The setting is a farm equipment exhibition. They sent the Minneapolis to the wardrobe department to disguise it some, but it is still easily spotted as the Minneapolis. This movie is still available, by the way.

Some time after the movie this engine finally fell into disrepair. It was eventually donated to Del Mar Park, where it sat for many years. This Minneapolis would have spent its last days there in the park rusting away except for Mr. Mike Ashbeck. Mike is one of the founding members of the museum in Vista, California. Mike purchased the Minneapolis with the idea of restoring it. This was about 1975. It was in pretty rough shape by this time, so Mike took the engine completely apart. He had some work done on the boiler but before he got much further he passed away. Mike's wife sold it "as is" and that meant apart!

It moved from place to place at least twice before I bought it. When I saw the engine it was located in a small town called Fiddle Town. Fiddle Town is up in the California Gold country, located in the foothills of the High Sierras east of Sacramento. It had now been apart for some 22 years and had not run in over 30 years. It was still apart when I bought it four years ago in Fiddle Town.

My fascination with steam started at the Mehmke Museum near Great Falls, Montana. The line of old steam engines there was an impressive sight to a young boy. This collection is still there and is still a very impressive collection. My family moved to California while I was still young.

About 10 years ago I got involved with the museum at Vista, California. The museum had two traction engines, and later a third was donated to us. They had all been running but for one reason or another were no longer in steam. The southern part of California was never big on steam traction engines. They are not much use in citrus tree groves or in the hilly country or the dry sandy desert! Many people who visit our shows never knew that they had ever built a steam-powered tractor. That, combined with the fact that certifying an engine in California is a big job, and they are very strict on our old boilers, makes our traction engines a unique and popular part of our show.

I had been looking forward to owning an engine for many years. I looked at several other engines before I looked at this one. It had been for sale for quite some time. It just did not show itself well. It was still apart, the platform was all bent up, there was no plumbing or water tanks, etc. Everyone else who looked at it walked away saying that it would never run again. I got interested in it for two reasons. One, for me, the price was affordable! Two, I found that it had an ASME boiler on it. I have always said that I wanted an engine that I could work. We did not have an engine at Vista that could be worked hard. California limits lap seams to 100 lbs. pressure. On top of that, two of the engines are a bit small for hard work and our Case 60 operates at 100 lbs. pressure and has contractor bunkers on it. Carrying any amount of fuel and water is a problem. The Minneapolis being a code boiler could get better pressure and the problems certifying it with the state all just vanish! I knew that it was missing parts but everything was there to make an engine that could run and the rest I would just deal with. Okay, I said, the first thing to do is to get an inspector out to see the boiler. The inspection was going to be expensive. Fiddle Town is quite a way off the beaten path and I would have to pay for the inspector's travel time as well as the time it took for the inspection. The inspector said he liked the boiler and gave it 100 lbs. He said that the 100 lb. limit was because a few of the staybolts were thin and that he would give the boiler the original pressure of 150 lbs. if they were replaced! There were about six stays that he was concerned with. Armed now with all the appropriate information, I bought the Minneapolis.

Gary Borden
7/15/2012 11:10:00 PM

Jim Sullivan is my uncle. The tractor was in every parade in Oceanside. It was put on a flat car train and taken up to Hollywood. They painted it green to look like a John Deer. They repainted it after the movie.