Father and son’s collections have two Avery engines that should be identical — but aren’t. Learn what makes this mysterious Avery steam tractor unique.
In 2021, I had the pleasure to view the Virgil and Phyllis Litke collection near Marion, Kansas. Virgil and Phyllis were married 71 years and the collection was as much her hobby as it was his. As their children said, it was something that brought them closer together.
Virgil and Phyllis passed away in 2019, leaving a collection that took a lifetime to accumulate. In July 2021, the collection sold at auction with Aumann Vintage Power.
Virgil was one of the true pioneer collectors of the tractor and engine hobby. As a family man and a person of admirable faith, he greeted everyone with a smile and a tour of one of his buildings. It didn’t matter how many times you’d been there, you always saw something new and got to hear a new story. Collections like the Litkes’ are waning as these pioneer collectors leave their legacy for the next generation.
Thirty years trying to close the deal on an Avery steam tractor
The family collection contains dozens of antique tractors, engines and pieces of farm equipment. But for steam enthusiasts, there’s one engine that just can’t be overlooked. Those unfamiliar with Avery steam engines might pass it by, but this Avery 20hp return-flue engine is more than it seems.
Glenn Litke, son of Virgil and Phyllis, gave me the rundown on this deceiving steam engine. Glenn restored his own Avery 20hp return flue engine more than three decades ago. It took Virgil Litke just as long to buy a similar engine that he had his eye on.
“For 30 years, Dad worked on acquiring this engine,” Glenn says. “He knew there was an Avery farm close to Sterling, Kansas, about 70 miles straight west of here. You can still see a big metal sign that says Avery. There was a whole nest of Avery pieces there, mostly the gas tractors, but this one steam engine was there, and Dad tried to buy it.”
Kansas home to two Avery test sites
Robert Avery’s Avery Power Machine Co. became known for high quality threshing machines and its unique undermounted steam engines. Founded in the late 1870s in Galesburg, Illinois, the company later moved to Peoria, Illinois. Avery released its first line of steam tractors in 1891; in 1916 the company released its first line of gas tractors.
Avery had two testing and proving grounds and both were located in Kansas. The first was on the Mahoney Ranch near Bunker Hill. The Mahoneys had a big operation and ordered two of the largest Avery undermount steam traction engines before the first one was even built. That must have caught the eye of an Avery leader, who decided the company had the perfect place to test its new products.
The second testing site, known as “Averyville,” was near Sterling. This was the location of the Litkes’ Avery return-flue engine. Over the years, other tractors at the site were gathered up by collectors, but the owner would not sell the steam engine. “So, for 30 years,” Glenn recalls, “Dad kind of kept asking the guy, ‘Do you want to sell it?’ ‘No, I don’t want to sell it,’ the man invariably responded. Then somebody passed away and the estate and land sold. The man that bought the land was from out east and he came here to start farming in Kansas.”
Key differences discovered between Avery steam tractors
When that transpired, Virgil found he had a new person to negotiate with. This time, he was able to make a deal and brought the engine home. Having previously restored an Avery steam tractor, Glenn was very interested in the engine. The two men started looking it over more closely and found a few differences. “We start measuring and it’s the very same boiler, the very same flywheel, everything is identical to my 20hp, but everything underneath the boiler is beefed up, and the rear wheels are taller, wider and heavier,” Glenn says. “The axle and gearing are heavier. These wheels have a third row of lugs, whereas my Avery has two rows of lugs. The crank disc is just a few inches bigger. That’s the only difference on the engine itself.”
Father and son did their research, but soon discovered there was nothing to find. They couldn’t find any record of the Avery steam tractor. It was as if it never existed. Knowing the engine came off the Avery Farm, they began to think that might have had something to do with it.
Visiting a famed collector
Forrest Pence from Harvard, Nebraska, was another pioneer collector who started gathering up tractors in the 1950s. By the late 1960s, he owned more than 40 steam engines and dozens of early gas tractors. He had a wealth of knowledge, especially of the Avery company, that few possess today.
“I learned about Forrest Pence in the 1990s, I guess, and I’d already restored my Avery return-flue,” Glenn says. “I heard he had a bunch of steam engines, so I just jumped on my motorcycle and rode to Harvard, Nebraska (some 220 miles north).”
When Glenn arrived, Forrest wasn’t home and the place was all locked up. Glenn proceeded into town and headed to the grain elevator. There he met someone who knew Forrest and helped manage his farm.
“I talked to him for 15-20 minutes and he finally said, ‘I’ll just give you the key. You go out there and unlock the gate, just take your time,” Glenn says. “He knew I couldn’t haul much home on my motorcycle, so he put his trust in me right there on the spot. I never met the guy before, but that’s the Midwest for you.”
Glenn took his time, snapped photos and toured Forrest’s collection of steam engines and early gas tractors. When he finished, he returned the keys, thanked the man again and hopped on his motorcycle for his return trip to Kansas.
Dumbfounded by one-of-a-kind Avery steam tractor
Years later, Forrest Pence pulled into Virgil Litke’s driveway. “We got Forrest Pence in our yard and this Avery steam engine was parked up against the building,” Glenn says. “I’m going to guess Forrest was in his mid-80s. This was the first time I’d met him, so I didn’t know what to expect.” Forrest got out of his vehicle and immediately headed toward the Avery steam engine.
“That man was like a 4-year-old kid, just went berserk, saying, ‘I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! Avery never made an engine like this! That can’t be an Avery! I just don’t believe it!’
“We’re just standing there. We had never met this man before. We don’t know who he is, what’s going on and he was just beside himself,” Glenn says. “He kept walking around in circles, saying, ‘Avery never made an engine like that. Avery never made an engine like that. I don’t believe it.'”
Designed for unique conditions?
It took some time, but they got Forrest calmed down and Virgil explained how the steam engine came off the Avery Farm. The three men concluded that the changes had something to do with the sandy soil and different terrain in Sterling, Kansas.
“We have some friends that are big farmers outside of Sterling,” Glenn says. “In 2019, during the wheat harvest, they sent us a picture of their combine. They had the latest Case IH combine with a big 40-foot MacDon header. They had a rainy season, but it was dry enough to harvest, so the ground was dry on top. The combine was driving along and then it fell through the ground clear up to the header. The ladder was bent up, and there they were, stuck, but there’s no mud on the tread of the tires.”
In conversation with the farmer, Glenn learned that the soil near Sterling has “under flow.” “After a rainy spell, it dries off on top and you think you’re good to go,” Glenn explains. “And you might go fine and all of a sudden you just lose it.”
So, was Avery trying to solve the problem of “under flow”? It’s possible the company was attempting to do so by keeping the engine the same size while beefing up the rear wheels. But was it successful? With no known records, there’d be only one way to find out. Maybe the new owner will restore the engine and then take it back to the soil of Sterling, Kansas, for a test drive.
One thing is for sure: This steam engine is a unique piece of Avery company history. FC
Dan Boom garden grew up in the antique tractor and engine hobby. He currently works as a content producer for Classic Tractor Fever and Old Iron Adventures, plus a few other endeavors. Dan is married with two children who tolerate his eccentric hobby. Contact him at email@example.com.