Baker Engine Restoration

Baker steam engine was forlornly waiting for rescue

| November/December 2000

12505 Mount Garfield Road Ravenna, Michigan 49451-9416

This is the story of Baker engine #974, a 1913 16 HP built in Swanton, Ohio. As near as I can determine, I believe she originally appeared as a "Standard" model. For several years, she sat forlornly awaiting her fate in a Grand Haven, Michigan, junkyard until rescued by my grandfather in the late 1950s. A deal was consummated with the owner, Mr. Joe Bisacky, and the engine was then moved to nearby Fruitport Township.

Lester Olsen, my father, recalled the dismal shape the old girl was in: the bunkers were missing, the rear axle was frozen, the left rear axle bracket was partially pulled out of the boiler, the front axle was bowed due to some traumatic event, and the right front axle bracket was cracked in two. These conditions were what inevitably led to its demise and subsequent placing in the junkyard. Dad even admitted that the restoration of 'Miss Baker' was just too big a task to undertake.

Undeterred by adversity, and thinking positively, Grandpa Olsen, a long-time admirer of steam engines and trains, believed he could resurrect this iron hulk into a fine running machine. Thus began the tedious restoration process. He removed both drivers and the still frozen rear axle shaft and tossed the axle into a raging bonfire, hoping to melt the babbitt. Later, he reattached the axle bracket to the boiler, polished the shaft and repoured the bearings. Next, he welded a couple of water tanks and mounted them to a platform he had fabricated. A few old leaky tubes were replaced in the boiler. Eventually a new jacket was added and the crank bearings were repoured. A new canopy soon made its appearance. Grease and rust were replaced with Rustoleum red, black and silver paint. As a final touch he ordered a new Powell chime whistle. The transformation was now complete. I want to note here that Grandpa Olsen was an experienced engineer, having custom threshed and sawn lumber with a Russell outfit purchased at the close of World War I.

Since my father and grandfather owned adjoining properties and were avid collectors of old machinery, they grew small quantities of various grains in order to have something to thresh. Even though I was quite young, I have fond memories of these activities, which took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember riding the McCormick binder and helping shock the bundles. I can clearly see the 16 HP Baker belted up to my dad's 22-inch McCormick separator and the jet black smoke racing skyward to mingle with the lazy white clouds. To one side I saw old Albert Johnson trying to keep up running the bagger, while my dad pitched bundles on a wagon from the other side. Grandpa was busy firing the Baker. My younger brother Jerry and I ran around the straw pile as it increased in size and shape. The grain flowed like a river out of control and rapidly filled up old burlap bags. I wondered how old Albert ever kept up. Passersby in automobiles would often stop and older fellas fondly recalled their threshing days. Some of them wanted to pitch bundles just one more time in their lives. Jim Popp, a teenager living a couple of miles away, pedaled his bicycle over to our place just about any time he heard a steam whistle shriek.

A personal tragedy occurred in 1963, when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly. My dad made arrangements with his sisters to purchase some items, including a model Y OilPull, a KT Twin City, and some gas engines. However, the Baker and a 20 HP Minneapolis would be sold outright. In fact, both of these engines were advertised in late 1963 in the Iron Men Album. The "Minnie" was purchased by Harry Wassiak of Holland, Michigan. Ironically, the Baker was picked up by its former owner, Joe Bisacky, the owner of the junk in Spring Lake. I believe he paid the paltry sum of $800.00 to reacquire the Baker in 1964. After my grandfather's death, we moved to a small 40-acre farm between Coopersville and Ravenna. There, we continued to thresh grain annually up through the early 1990s. Dad had several old gas tractors, including four OilPulls at one time, capable of running proper separator speed. He enjoyed giving them a good workout on the belt. Growing up on a small farm meant hard work, and we kids were not always thrilled to be threshing.