DIETERICH, Ill. — When crop production expanded into the prairie virgin soils of western United States and Canada early in the 20th century, a horse-drawn plow wasn’t going to get the job done.

Turning the heavy soil with thick vegetation required a massive machine and a lot more than one horsepower for the chore. That’s when Case developed a steam engine that would answer the need for agriculture expansion.

The clock will be turned back to 1911 at the Half Century of Progress with a steam engine that once tilled the fields in Alberta, Canada, and will be among those that can be seen in action Aug. 22-25 at Rantoul.

Bill Jansen’s 1911 110-horsepower Case steam engine will return to the show at the Rantoul National Aviation Center. He and his son, Jesse, serve as coordinators of the steam engine portion of the show.

The steam engine that stands 12.5 feet tall, 13 feet wide and weighs in at about 48,000 pounds is a graceful beast that can pull a 14 bottom plow through the soil as easy as cutting butter with a hot knife.

Those attending the first show at Rantoul in 2005 may recall it was the lead engine among three that pulled a 60 bottom plow. Graham Sellers owned it at that time.

Bill Jansen had charge of organizing the daunting task after being persuaded to do so by Darius Harms, one of the founders of the Half Century of Progress.

Labor Of Love

Jansen has been interested in steam engines since he was old enough to grasp the concept.

“I’m 62 years old and when I was about 5 I’d go to shows with my dad and uncles. Grandpa Jansen owned a steam engine north of Effingham. That’s kind of how I got involved in it,” Jansen said.

“Now my wife and I have four sons and a daughter and it’s kind of a family hobby. Between my wife and I and the boys, I think we have eight or nine steam engines. That hobby is a labor of love. They are just so much work, but that’s what trips our trigger.”

He purchased the 1911 steam engine from Sellers around 2007.

“It can still do the work it did back when it was new in Alberta and pulled a 16 bottom plow. This one is really rare. They build around 990 of them and there’s about 29 still in existence and 12 that actually function at shows,” Jansen said.

“They were designed to break what they called the prairie virgin soil that was never turned over. Once that soil was turned over once, their job was really done, and they didn’t build them for very long.

“The biggest years they had were 1910 and 1911, when they made the most of them. They started in 1907, and they made a few. They didn’t make very many in 1912 and only a few in 1913.”

Field Demonstrations

The Jansens plan to bring their 14 bottom plow to the Half Century show for field demonstrations.

“For something this old it has an amazing amount of horsepower. Where the steam engines have so much over a tractor is they have so much torque. Torque translates to horsepower. It only runs about 2.8 miles per hour wide open in road gear, and it only has one gear in it. So, it’s relatively slow, but then you put the horsepower with the weight and the speed it will do a lot of work,” Bill Jansen said.

Jansen farms and has been an independent Asgrow and DeKalb seed dealer for 43 years.

The family typically attends four to six shows a year, depending on how the farming operation is going. They’ve also done threshing demonstrations at the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club’s annual Historic Farm Days in Penfield.

Bill Jansen believes it’s important to preserve historic agriculture machinery for present and future generations.

“That’s part of our passion with them is to show people how the farmers way before us made a living. It was a heck of a lot harder. It was a lot more physical than probably mental. Today, it’s more mental. We farm a fair amount of ground, and it’s just more mental stress it seems like with all of the stuff you’ve got going on,” he said.

“Ours is a big plow engine, but we have smaller engines that we thresh and saw with. There will be a smaller thresh machine and a smaller engine there at the show.”

Jansen always looks forward to the Half Century of Progress and has attended the biennial show since the first one in 2003, when it was part of the Farm Progress Show held at Henning. Two years later, it moved to its permanent headquarters at Rantoul.

“I’ve been going to shows since I was 5 and I’ve been to some pretty big shows, but there is nothing on earth like the Half Century of Progress when it comes to people and equipment. It’s just totally off the charts,” he said.

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.


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