Werner Studer's One-of-a-Kind Engine is a Wonder of the Plains
Just off State Highway 166 in southeastern Kansas lies the small farming community of Cedar Vale, population 760. Years ago, the highway ran through the center of town, but time and progress pushed the road north and around Cedar Vale's direct influence, making it unlikely a traveler driving by would even notice the town.
Truth be told, the average urban traveler probably welcomes the highway's gentle bypass around the edge of the town, allowing him or her to continue traveling without pause. And yet, a simple excursion into Cedar Vale reveals a fascinating relic from the days of steam.
For the rural-minded, turning off 166 and driving into Cedar Vale on the old highway presents a familiar picture. Situated on gentle hills overlooking the Caney River, Cedar Vale's one-block-long main street houses the expected collection of small-town businesses, including an insurance office and a few shops selling knickknacks and antiques. But sandwiched between a few buildings in a haphazard park that doubles as a parking lot, an old steam tractor sits quietly, an antique Case separator its only companion.
An initial examination shows a nicely constructed steam traction engine furnished with a vertical boiler and a single-cylinder engine. A three-wheeled machine, the single front wheel is bolted to trusses that attach to a circular rack held by the frame. A pinion off the steering gear engages the rack for turning.
Power from the engine passes through a crankshaft equipped with a wooden-shoed clutch to engage traction drive, and a differential gear on the right side provides the differential action for the rear drivers. A 6-inch-wide, 32-inch-diameter, six-spoke flywheel is mounted on the left side of the crankshaft, and a smaller, solid flywheel is mounted on the right, just beyond the crankshaft gear that drives the differential idler gear. Looking closer, however, the tractor presents a few surprises.
Chief among them is an auxiliary belt, still intact, running from the crankshaft down to a belt drum attached to a truss on the frame. The drum is shafted, and a bevel gear on the other end drives a shaft running to the back of the machine. The shaft terminates at the remains of a hinged frame attached to the rear of the tractor, a universal joint fixed where it passes through the frame. It is, quite clearly, a power takeoff.
The second surprise is the countershaft that carries the differential idler gear: It's made of wood, most likely Bois D'Arc (or Osage orange as it's called in this part of the country), a wood favored by native Americans for its strength and flexibility in bows.
From the fine boiler riveting to the fabrication of the main frame and the drive train, everything about the machine, with perhaps the exception of the wooden countershaft, suggests a factory-built effort.
It turns out, however, this steam traction engine was a single effort, constructed by German immigrant Werner Studer about 1914.
According to life-long Cedar Vale resident Glen Smith, Werner Studer came to the U.S. about 1900. Settling on the East Coast, he returned to Germany a few years later to study blacksmithing. His studies completed, he came back to the U.S., married an opera singer in New York and then, for reasons unknown, moved to Cedar Vale.
Once settled on property outside of Cedar Vale, Studer went into the plant business, setting up a hothouse on his property and even constructing a tunnel from his farmhouse to the hothouse some 20 feet away. But Studer didn't turn his back on blacksmithing.
Smith says Studer was a 'master' blacksmith known for his excellent work, especially to the local farmers, who brought him broken teeth from their separators for repair. At some point, Studer was inspired to build his steam tractor, but it doesn't appear he ever intended it for plowing or threshing duties.
According to Smith, Studer spent $600 making his tractor, ordering the boiler parts and engine out of Ohio. While there are no markings on the boiler, the valve chest on the engine is clearly cast 'James Leffel & Co., Builders, Springfield, Ohio, USA.' Leffel & Co., known best for its manufacture of water-powered turbines, also manufactured boilers and steam engines. In fact, the company is still in business, and still in Springfield, Ohio.
Smith says Studer's primary use for the machine was as a mobile saw rig, and this explains the tractor's power takeoff. When built, the power takeoff ran a saw blade incorporated into the rear frame extension. The saw rig is the only major piece of the tractor that's missing, along with parts of the frame extension. The saw rig could be lowered and raised by a hand-cranked boom mounted on the back of the cab, and Smith says Studer traveled the surrounding area cutting hedgerows. Studer tried the engine out in the field pulling a two-bottom plow, but 'it was too slow for plowing, and it was too small to run a separator,' Smith says.
Word of his machine evidently made it back to Leffel & Co., Smith says, and the firm offered Studer a salary working for them in Ohio. 'It wasn't his cup of tea,' says Smith, and Studer stayed in Kansas.
For many years, residents of the area knew about Studer's tractor, but as time passed it faded from the collective memory. In 1957, a few years after Studer's death, Smith bought the old Studer farm, and the tractor was still there, sitting quietly off to the side in an old shop. Glen let it sit until about 25 years ago, when Studer's daughter, Lilly Studer Schrag, donated it to the town.
And there the tractor sits to this day, quietly looking out onto the old highway. Studer's daughter, if still alive, no longer lives in the area, and Smith, who counts among his prized possessions a vise and an anvil that once belonged to Studer, is among the surviving few who remember the German immigrant, Werner Studer, and his steam traction engine.
Special thanks to Fred Kohman, Perry, Okla., for alerting us to the Studer tractor and connecting us to Glen Smith.