July 15, 2024

Steam engines ‘real family affair’

DIETRICH, Ill. — Farm machinery used over a century ago continues to bind families together across generations.

Bill Jansen, of Dietrich, a member of the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club, has been a steam engine enthusiast since he was a youngster. That interest has now been passed down to his children and grandchildren.

Jansen and his wife, Phyllis, have four sons and a daughter who all know how to run a steam engine.

“When they were all younger, it was a real family affair,” Jansen said. “My oldest son has four girls and one boy, and they’re all interested in it. So, even though it’s hot and dirty, it’s a good family hobby.”

“Right now, there’s three generations, myself, my boys, and my oldest grandson is in it. My son’s oldest daughter has operated a steam engine and after we bought a small steam engine about a month ago his two youngest girls were all excited,” he said, citing the 30-horsepower Case.

“They said, ‘When we get a little bigger, maybe we can run that.’ It’s fun for grandpa to hear that.”

Early Interest

As with his children and grandchildren, Jansen was a youngster when he caught the steam engine bug, sparked by attending the American Thresherman Association’s annual gas and threshing show in Pinckneyville.

“The thresherman shows started in the late 1950s, early 1960s. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I started to go to the thresherman shows with my dad and uncles,” he said.

“My dad was the engineer for my Grandpa Jansen’s steam engine, so he kind of favored the steam engines while the other uncles favored gas tractors.”

Six decades later, Jansen has several of his own working steam engines. He bought his first steam engine in 1988.

“We have the biggest production Case steam engine that was built, a 1911 110-horsepower Case. It’s been at Half Century of Progress quite a few times. The wheels are 4-foot wide and 7-foot tall and it’s 13-foot wide and 12 1/2-foot tall. So, it’s a deal to haul down the road,” he said.

“That’s the oldest steam engine we have. It’ll do everything that it did back 113 years ago. All of our engines can do what they did back in the day. We keep them up, fix them, do whatever it takes, so we can show the younger people how our ancestors made a living with steam-powered tractors.

“My son has two of the next size Case and they’re 80 hp. My wife and I also own a 65 hp Case, and we own a 30 hp Case, which is the smallest steam engine Case built.

“We have some other makes and models. This year, Historic Farm Days is featuring Case, and I hope to have the 1923 65 hp Case there.”

Keep Running

Jansen’s collection isn’t just for show. They all operate as they did back in the day.

Most of the parts that wear out are custom fabricated, and the boilers must past a safety inspection before operating.

“Illinois has some strict boiler laws, so we have to keep them up,” Jansen said. “Two of our engines had new boilers put in, one was in 2015 and one was 2017.

“We did not buy steam engines to put in the shed. We buy them so we can show people what they did back in the day. It’s important for us to keep them up for that reason.

“There’s a lot of maintenance. Most steam engines were designed for 10 years of service. Even today, like at Half Century when we plow with our steam engine, when we get back we have to tighten things up and check this and check that. It’s just part of running a steam engine.

“This is a labor of love because it’s a lot of work.

Working Show

Jansen has been a member of the I&I Club since the early 1990s and enjoys the “working show” aspect of Historic Farm Days.

“They do a lot of stuff with the equipment to show people how it was actually used instead of just a static display like a car show or a museum piece. Spectators can see how things were done back in the early days of farming,” he said.

“Not every show is a working show. Some shows do more work than others. Penfield is a very good working show to come and see things work.

“The Half Century of Progress that’s every other year is the world’s biggest show that actually has so much work being done because there are so many acres to do it on.

“I have a lot of people come up to be and talk about steam engines and they enjoy actually seeing the equipment work.

“One thing about these antique shows, you’re not competing for money or anything. You meet a lot of good friends and that’s really the nice part about it because we have friends in a lot of states who are in the antique hobby.”

Crash Course

Jansen plans to offer something new at this year’s Historic Farm Days by hosting educational seminars.

“If people want to know how a steam engine works, I’m going to give them a crash course on how you clean them up in the morning, how you build your fire and why you build a fire with wood and not coal. Once we get up the steam, we use coal instead of wood,” he noted.

“A lot of people see them, but they don’t know a lot of the functionality of them because they’re a lot different than any tractor where you just turn the key or crank start it.

“We’re going to maybe try that for like an hour every morning before I have to go do something with the steam engine.”

Spark Show

One of his favorite parts of Historic Farm Days and a spectator favorite is the spark show after sunset.

“We’ll hook up to the pulling sled and put in either ground-up sawdust or ground-up corncobs and pull the sled. It’s like a giant Roman candle down the track,” Jansen said.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor