Baker steam engine was forlornly waiting for rescue
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.
Several years ago, my brother Jerry and I often wondered if we might get a chance to have a look at the old Baker again. Every so often we would stop by the junkyard to chat with Joe about it. He always told us that she was still parked in the large pole barn, and had not been fired for many years. As we grew older and earned better wages, we discussed the possibility of buying her back if we ever got a chance. In the early 1990s, buying engines was a constant topic. I had gone back to college to earn a teaching certificate and my brother was raising a family and trying to pay off his farm. At Pontiac in 1995, we met the Haleys and looked at Jim's Case he was putting together. We also met Troy Pawson, who said he was willing to part with a Peerless engine formerly owned by the late Herm Walcott. After driving that Peerless, my brother opted to buy it from Troy. I was very happy for my brother, but was beginning to wonder if I would ever own an engine myself.
Late in the winter of 1997, I received a telephone call from my brother, who was quite excited. He had recently initiated another discussion with Joe Bisacky concerning the status of the 16 HP Baker. Joe indicated that he might be willing to sit down and discuss a change of ownership of the engine. I called Joe to set up a time to inspect the Baker. Then, I called Troy Pawson to see if he could conduct an ultrasound test on the boiler. Bud and Thelma Hinebeck, who remember visiting my grandfather on several occasions, wanted to see the Baker again. Jim Oxender, along with my brother and his two boys, were also part of the entourage that went to view the engine. The ultrasound showed little or no deterioration of the boiler, and everyone was encouraged by this news. I was now ready to discuss a price with Joe. He replied that I should take a week or two and think it over and get back to him. After ten or twelve days, I couldn't stand it any longer and called him again. Joe said that only a member of my immediate family could buy the steamer, otherwise it wasn't for sale. Next, he quoted me a price well below market value, which I hastily accepted. I had some of the money available in savings, but I knew I was going to be short of funds. I went to my credit union and plopped down a picture of the Baker on the loan officer's desk. Naturally, she didn't know what it was, but was quite willing to write a loan after she had heard my story. Twenty-four hours later, I returned to pick up the check. Sherm Hecksel, a local tiling contractor, agreed to haul the engine. In April, the Baker was pulled onto the low boy trailer and brought to her new home.
Around the middle of May, I decided to fill the boiler and fire the engine. It wasn't very long before I had a small flood on my hands. Upon further inspection, it looked like two or three tubes were leaking steadily. At this point, I thought the prudent course of action was to retube the boiler. I was also troubled by a rather thin looking front flue sheet, which my grandfather had patched over thirty years earlier. I had been hoping to bring the Baker to the 'Baker Reunion' at Wauseon, Ohio, but would have to forego this because of the work I now needed to do.
Once again I telephoned Troy Pawson and he indicated that he would take on the job provided I rework the flue sheet. My brother Eric and friends Bill Lumsden and Doug Middleton helped cut the old tubes and chisel the remaining ferrules. A wet bottom boiler sure makes for some interesting positions in the firebox! Paul Nottingham and Bud Hinebeck applied their skills in reworking the flue sheet and fabricating a new smoke box bottom.
Troy, a farmer who's heavily into steam, informed me that he wouldn't be available until early August for the retubing task. When he showed up with Bruce Schultz, the threat of rain was imminent. We set up a few large tarps to shed as much water as possible. This time consuming project was finally completed near dusk. There was just enough time to fill the boiler and build a fire. Soon the pitted smokestack was belching grayish-black wood smoke upward and a slight hissing sound emitted from the bowels of the boiler. Though it seemed like an eternity, the pressure gauge slowly began to climb. At about thirty pounds, we decided to throttle steam into the cylinder. With a snort, the crankshaft slowly spun over as wet steam cascaded from the draincocks. Engaging the clutch, we rumbled down the driveway toward the barn as darkness descended upon us. What a thrill to hear the sounds of an old engine coming back to life after thirty-some years of inactivity.
I spent the remainder of the summer and fall polishing my engineering skills and generally checking the steamer over. The Baker has attracted the attention of my family, friends and neighbors. My lovely niece Miranda, who'll be three on July 1, really enjoys going for a ride. The local Boy Scouts also came over for a ride and some technical talk. On a humorous note, one panic-stricken neighbor rushed over to tell me that my old tractor was on fire.
During the summer of 1998, a friend brought over a copy of the latest Farmer's Advance and showed me an ad for a 33-56 Baker separator for sale. I thought that a Baker thresher would make a great addition to my collection and give my engine something to do. I picked up Bud Hinebeck and made a two-hour-plus trip to Schettenhelm's Farm Equipment at Milan. During our travels, Bud and I couldn't recall having seen that many Baker separators at the many steam shows we had attended. Upon our arrival, we were told that we also had a choice of a 28-inch Belle City if there were any interest. Both threshers were in excellent condition, but I decided that I wanted the Baker, partly due to the fact that Bud owns a 21 HP Baker. Bud and Vern Davenport had a couple of acres of oats to thresh, so Bud was kind of itching to belt up to the big Baker threshing machine. I contacted several people about doing the hauling, but everyone was too busy with shows or bringing back relics from the Oscar Cooke sale. Finally, Fred Walcott of Allendale agreed to transport the thresher to Sparta, but could not do so until the first weekend in October. I was concerned that the Michigan fall rains might move in by then, but it ended up being a picture perfect day. Bud and I unloaded the separator and pulled it about a mile to the bundle pile. Steve Hinebeck, Bud and Thelma's son visiting from Kentucky, had Bud's 21 Baker under a full head of steam. In a matter of minutes, straw was shooting out of the blower pipe and grain was discharging from the auger. This Uniflow had a nice bark as the feeder pulled the oats into the churning cylinder. Everyone involved or spectating had a grand time.
Last winter my Dad and I talked of the prospect of sowing some oats so that we might thresh on his farm again. Dad had sold his separator and binder to some men from an Amish community near Howard City nearly ten years ago. I had located an old McCormick open elevator grain binder and was in the process of refurbishing it last spring and summer. I also spent some time painting most of my Baker engine, as well as installing new pedestal bolts and straightening the front axle shaft. Around the third week of August, I fired up 'Miss Baker' and drove her three miles to my dad's farm. There, with the help of some friends, we belted up to the big Baker thresher and ran out the grain. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to thresh again in 2000.
In closing, I want to thank all my family members and good friends who have helped me with this undertaking in one way or another. Special thanks are in order for the Hinebeck family for their efforts; my welders, Paul Nottingham and Jim Posobiec; my brother Eric, David Kemler, Chip Gould, Joe Bisacky for selling me the 16 Baker; my late grandfather Olaf Olsen for getting me interested in steam while I was an infant; and my father, Lester, for taking me to so many steam shows as a tyke and for storing the big Baker 33-56 thresher.