Steam Engines: The Why and How

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Fred Reckelberg's 1923 Case.

E2762 County F Kewaunee, Wisconsin 54216

Most of our club members and many spectators have a good
understanding of the workings of the steam engine, but as time goes
by we seem to reach an increasing number of people who are
unfamiliar with them. This is understandable because few traction
engines were manufactured after 1924, and steam engine use was
largely replaced by that of the internal combustion engine by the
middle 1930’s. Because they were heavy and clumsy and moved
very slowly on the road, because they damaged road surfaces and
broke through bridges, and because they presented a constant fire
hazard, their obvious advantages of cheap fuel and grease power
were insufficient to warrant their continued use. The era of steam
engine use for grain threshing was a relatively short one since
some separators were driven by gas tractors as early as World War
I, but saw mills continued to be run by steam power until a much
later date. Slab wood and other mill waste made suitable fuel for
the big steamers, and the stationary nature of the mill operation
negated the need to move over surfaced roads. One man could serve
as both fireman and engineer and a source of water could be piped
directly to the engine tank. This left only the threat of fire as a
drawback to the continued use of steam, but this was overcome by
spark arresting smokestack caps or by conducting the exhaust into a
high stack or chimney. At the present time, a few steam engines
still power saw mills in northeastern Wisconsin, attesting to both
their longevity and economy. Some saw mill engines were installed
as stationary power plants, with masonry foundations and fireboxes,
thus eliminating the expense of clutch, differential (compensating
gear), and running gear, while others took the form of skid engines
with runners in place of wheels.

For those unfamiliar with steam engines, a quick summary of
their operation may be in order. Water is heated in an air-tight
boiler having fire-flues extending through the water to increase
heating surface and to enhance heat transfer. When the water boils,
steam is produced and is drawn off at the steam dome which
separates steam from water. The steam goes first through the
governor valve which controls the top speed of the engine, and then
through the throttle valve by which lower speeds can be selected.
Steam next goes through the slide valve which times the intake and
exhaust of steam into and out of the cylinder. Steam entering the
cylinder moves the piston back and forth and turns the pulley
through a crankshaft, while exhaust steam goes through a water
heater to heat incoming boiler water and then exits up the
smokestack to help induce draft for the fire.

Add to this a pump and/or injector to replenish boiler water, a
lubricating system to feed water-soluble oil into the steam, a
safety valve to prevent boiler explosion, a whistle to signal to
the crew, and running gear and steering mechanism and you have a
basic steam engine. Many other refinements appeared such as
insulation to limit heat loss from the boiler, two cylinders to
furnish more even power, use of compound cylinders to utilize more
of the pressure left in the exhaust steam, and automatic controls
to increase safety and lessen the need for constant attention.
Entry of steam into the cylinder can be limited to certain parts of
the piston travel, thus conserving steam when full power is not
needed but when full speed must be maintained. The reverse lever
will start and run the engines in either direction so reverse gears
are not necessary.

The initial reaction to a first experience with steam power is
one of amazement at the quietness of the operation; the second is a
surprise at the great amount of power produced by a single
cylinder. It should be pointed out that steam pushes the piston, at
full power, through the full length of each direction of every
stroke, not for just a part of every fourth stroke as in a gas
engine. At one hundred pounds boiler pressure, a steam engine with
a ten inch cylinder will have a constant force of about four tons
acting on the piston. This translates into more than eighty
horsepower which can be increased as needed by increasing the
boiler pressure. Little wonder that this excellent source of farm
power had such a profound impact upon the agricultural

Many, many engines were broken up in the scrap drives during
World War II but many, luckily, were saved. They have been restored
by very special group of engine enthusiasts who have given freely
of their time, talents, and resources to enable us to participate
in this impressive sample of bygone years. They deserve our
heartiest appreciation for saving this interesting part of our
agricultural past for us to see. Although the heyday of steam use
on the farm was a relatively brief one, it looms very large in the
memory of our older members. The impact felt by the advent of this
first large, portable source of farm power changed the whole future
of agriculture, permitting the use of power-operated machinery,
larger farm acreages and less manual labor. The opening of the
midwest to large-scale cereal grain production for world markets
was the direct result of steam plowing and threshing, and steam
train and steamboat transportation. Thus, increases in farm food
production during the first quarter to the present century can be
traced directly to the use of the steam engine. Probably no other
single invention had a greater share in developing the American
farm to its present number one position in world food

Fred Reckelberg’s 1923 65 HP Case steam traction engine,
Serial #35645, has a ten inch bore and an eleven inch stroke, and a
butt strap boiler. It has a canopy and contractor’s coal
bunkers, which were optional equipment when the engine was
originally ordered from the J.I. Case Company. Case engines were
the most popular sold in this area because of Wisconsin
manufacture, and because of an excellent repair parts service. Each
engine purchaser was provided with a catalog showing a code word
identifying each part. Railroad depots in those early days had
telegraph service, so when a repair part was needed, it was a
simple matter to telegraph the correct code word to the Case
Company in Racine. Often the part would be delivered by train the
next day! J.I. Case also had a very lenient easy-credit system,
delivering engines and threshing machines to farmers for minimum
down payments, with the next payment due after threshing season.
Poor credit risks often resulted in repossessed machines, some
being returned and resold as many as four or more times.

Fred’s engine is in excellent condition and is used to power
his Meadows portable sawmill to demonstrate lumber making from saw
logs each year at our show.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment