Steam Engine Bug Bites Nine Year Old

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On parade in Lacombe.
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Threshing in Lacombe, Alberta, June 17 and 18, 1990.
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Val Haleck, Firewoman, with the quarter scale Case.
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7712 Jasper Ave Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5H 3R8

In 1902 my parents, Jacob and Anna Slemko, homesteaded on land
located five miles east and one and a half miles north of Smoky
Lake, Alberta. I, John Slemko, was born and raised on this
homestead.

In those days, threshing machines were very scarce. I remember
one year they purchased a small threshing machine, hand-fed type,
that ran with a small gasoline engine. They even threshed with this
machine from under one foot of snow. They threshed what was left of
the crops because prairie chickens by the thousands were feeding on
the stooks.

This 65 Horsepower 1916 J.I Case engine is owned by John Slemko
of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The engine came from Shelby, Montana,
and is in almost -brand-new condition. It carries 165 pounds p.s.i.
Wherever John goes he wins first place, including the Edmonton
Klondike Parade and the Calgary Stampede Parade. For more about
John’s love of steam engines

I remember that Dad would hitch up the horses to the sleigh and
take me and his 12-guage shotgun out to the field. Dad would then
line me up with the horses in between two rows of stooks, and I
would steer the horses in that direction. Then, from the stooks he
would begin to shoot prairie chickens, two or three per shot.
Later, we would come home with 15 to 20 prairie chickens in a box.
Mother cleaned and prepared these birds and everyone had chicken to
eat.

Other times, my dad went hunting and brought back a dozen
rabbits. It was my brothers’ and sisters’ job to skin and
pull the hide off the rabbits. I remember taking the slimy skinned
rabbit and chasing my sisters with it; sometimes they got smeared
and began to cry. We had a ball then. There was no such thing as a
shortage of meat.

Some years later, my uncles, Bill and Mike Slemko, bought a
steam threshing outfit. They would thresh at our place quite late
in the fall. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing very hard, so
they decided to thresh late in the night for fear of snow or a
storm arriving. I remember once, just as it was getting dark, a
straw pile caught fire. Uncle Mike took the belt off the steam
engine, drove the steam engine to the burning pile, and then used
the steam engine’s water hose to put the fire out. About two
hours later, the straw pile caught fire again, but someone quickly
spotted it, took his jacket off, and with his jacket put the fire
out. The burning straw pile was all due to Uncle Mike not having
enough, or not having a fine enough spark retarder to be held
in.

Threshing lasted until 11:00 or 11:30 P.M., so they would have
supper at midnight. Someone mentioned that they should have a guard
to guard the threshing machine overnight, and someone else
suggested, how about Johnny be the guard. I was eager to do it, so
Uncle Mike took two horse blankets and off we went to the field. He
would then place one blanket on the ground under the boiler firebox
and the other on my back. I don’t know if I slept, but it was
nice and warm under the boiler.

At about 5:30 in the morning, with frost on the ground, Uncle
Mike came back to fire-up the engine and bring the steam back up;
then he told me to go back to the house. I took both blankets and
when I arrived at the house my brothers and sisters were already
up. They tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t talk to them; I
only talked to Mother. I felt I was too good for my brothers and
sisters, as I was the overnight guard (a real 9-year-old hero!); I
felt I was better than they were. After a couple of days, I was on
talking terms again with the entire family.

When they finished threshing at our place, they moved to the
neighbor’s to thresh, and I had to go to school. But, when noon
hour came around at school, I got a bad headache. I went to the
teacher and told her, so she sent me home. I didn’t go home. I
went straight to the neighbor’s where Uncle Mike was threshing.
Of course, I didn’t have a headache. For the next day or two I
repeated this. Then I played hooky from school on my own. So, I
went to the neighbor’s and helped my uncle with the firing by
handing him the wood. I started each day with Uncle Mike on the
engine. As the years went by, I was with Uncle Mike helping him,
whether he wanted me or not, but he seemed to appreciate my
help.

At fifteen years of age, I was quite good at handling the steam
engine. It was a Nichols and Shepard, double cylinder and had a
broken clutch. We had to use a pin in the clutch wheel when we had
to move. My Uncle Mike had enough confidence in me, so he went to
Edmonton, Alberta which was a three to four day trip. He felt I was
quite confident and safe enough to handle the steam outfit. We
threshed at one farmer’s place, Mr. Pirnak, and threshed that
day until evening, leaving only two hours of threshing left to be
done for the next morning. So, the next morning we spent the two
hours to finish it off.

We hooked up the threshing machine to the steam engine and were
ready to move to another neighbor’s place, one mile north. We
decided to hook up a box of wood to take at the same time. We
started off from Mr. Pirnak’s, but about V4 mile north, there
was a steep hill. The road had a curve in it, because it was
circling a lake. This was a one-way road, heavily timbered with
poplar trees. When I went over the hill I had to have brakes, so I
used reverse, but nothing happened. I opened the throttle wide open
and got a shower of hot water on my back. I knew I was in trouble
because I heard a LOUD clang of steel hitting steel. This is where
the pin came out from the clutch wheel.

All I did was jump on the wood bunker, close the throttle and
take hold of the steering wheel. I wasn’t quite tall enough to
see ahead, so I stood on a tool box that was on the wood bunker, so
that I could get a better hold of the steering wheel. Before I came
to a stop, I was going 35 to 40 miles per hour bouncing on the
frozen ground with the threshing machine behind me and a wood box
behind the thresher. Believe me, you never heard so much noise in
all your life as there was then.

Finally, the machine safely came to a stop, so I got off. I was
really scared. My Uncle Bill was the water boy who was following
behind me; he came over to ask me what had happened. I told him,
‘I think the pin came out. I’m not sure as I didn’t
have time to check it yet.’ Uncle Bill and I back-tracked our
tracks to see how far away we were from those big poplar trees. We
missed some two foot poplar trees by about six inches. Then we got
another pin and went on to the neighbor’s and did their
threshing.

When Uncle Mike came home from Edmonton, on the fourth day, he
found out what had happened. He went right back to Smoky Lake and
phoned Nichol Brothers in Edmonton to send him a complete clutch.
Later, he repaired and put in the new clutch and we didn’t have
to use a pin after that.

The threshing outfit continued moving to other farmers,
averaging one day per farmer. This lasted for 30 to 40 days every
fall for 35 years as everyone for about a hundred mile radius knew
about and needed the Slemko threshing outfit for their crops.

Uncle Bill and Uncle Mike also owned and operated a sawmill, as
well, and sawed lumber during winter months. In order for me to be
close to the steam engine, I hired myself as the cook’s helper,
because working on the steam engine during the wintertime was too
cold for me. I spent three months doing this. I remember five teams
of sleighs would come in convoys to purchase Slemko lumber. People
arrived from as far away as Wostok, Alberta and would therefore
have to stay overnight at the lumber camp. Uncle Bill and Uncle
Mike operated the sawmill for 35 years or more and Slemko Lumber
was also known for about a hundred mile radius.

After my parents passed away in 1964, their house, barn, and
granary, all made of logs, were donated to our provincial
government’s Alberta Culture Department. They are located at
the Ukrainian Village just east of Edmonton, and are called the
Slemko Homestead. In 1985, I spoke to Mr. Fritz Pannekoek of
Alberta Culture and discussed with him my purchasing a steam
engine. I wanted him to put the steam engine on the Slemko
Homestead, because our family was always associated with the steam
engine.

Mr. Pannekoek was in hearty agreement that this would be very
nice, and so the verbal agreement was that they would use the
engine for anything they wanted, as long as the engine was put back
in the Slemko homestead with a roof over it.

So, I went looking for a steam engine. I traveled over 11,000
miles for six months from Prince George, British Columbia, east to
Brandon, Manitoba. Finally, in Shelby, Montana, U.S.A., I
purchased, from Mrs. German, a 65 horsepower Case steam engine
which was built in 1916 by J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company
Inc., in Racine, Wisconsin.

When I got back to Edmonton with the steam engine, I received a
letter in the mail the next day that they, Alberta Culture,
didn’t agree to the verbal agreement. They didn’t accept it
to the conditions agreed upon but they would accept it with NO
CONDITIONS. That was not acceptable to me at all. So I went on with
restoring this engine to what it is today.

This engine was in Kalispeal Creamery in Montana for a number of
years. One day the creamery burned but the part of the building
that the engine was in was not touched by the fire. The engine
remained on the site for two or three years before it was sold to
Ray German, north of Shelby, Montana. He was a restorer and a steam
engine operator. When he began to restore it, he was getting parts
from all over the United States.

When we got it, it was 95 percent restored, except for some
flues and plumbing that was done by us at Dupre Boilers and Welding
in Edmonton. After retubing it and doing the plumbing and flues, we
updated it from 150 pounds psi to 165 pounds psi. We had an
ultrasonic test performed on the boiler and it was found to be new
and in good condition so we were given the 165 psi.

My fireman/firewoman is Val Haleck. She is a really dependable
person. Nothing is enough; she insists everything is to be 101%.
The steam engine is really cared for. I am sending a picture of my
firewoman, Val.

My engine assistant is good old faithful Barry Collum, from
Minnedosa, Manitoba. He helped me restore a lot on my steam engine,
such as the dome, throttle, and the injector.

He travels with me and his wife, Margaret, every summer to every
place we go. He also owns a 65 horsepower Case steam engine.
Without Barry, I don’t think I could have done what I did.

Since I have owned this steam engine, we have traveled to many
different towns and cities all over Alberta where I have won first
prizes. The cities include the Calgary Stampede, two first prizes
and the Edmonton Klondike Day, first prize three years in a row.
The towns where I have won first prize trophies or ribbons are: St.
Paul, Fort Saskatchewan, Vegreville, Smoky Lake, Lacombe, Calmar,
Mayerthorpe Leslieville, Momville, Westlock, and Pioneer Acres at
Irricana, Alberta.

In past summers, we threshed wheat in Lacombe, Mayerthorpe, Hay
Lakes, the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Fort Edmonton Park, and
also in Edmonton for each of their Heritage and Antique Day’s
Shows. My wife, Margaret, Barry and myself are having a ball with
the steam engine. I had offers of $45,000, which I rejected for the
time being, as I’m not sure what to do.

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