Old Prime Movers Keep on Chuggin’ at Chaffee County Fair

Article by Wallace Williams

Restoring old machinery – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

A steam whistle broke the silence of an early summer morning at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds, and the odor of wood smoke wafted down the valley.

The weather was too warm for a fire, and steam whistles have been obsolete around Salida since about 1956. The noise and smoke came from an Advanced Romley steam tractor, vintage 1920 or so.

About a dozen members of the Arkansas Valley Flywheelers — a club for people fond of old machinery — were learning how to operate the 10-ton beast, in essence a steam locomotive without the rails.

Bill Tunstall from Howard bought it from Bill Mauger in Pueblo, who bought it from a man in Berthoud, who originally restored it. The man from Berthoud came down to show the members how to run the tractor: Get in, turn the fire up, hit the throttle, and accelerate to a blistering top speed of 5 MPH.

But there’s quite a bit more to it.

If you haven’t tended the fire all night, you must fill the boiler and auxiliary water tanks, and start a new fire at least three hours before even thinking about using the tractor. Grease all the fittings.

Watch the steam pressure gauge to make sure the pressure does not go too high. The safety valve should relieve the pressure, though, but you might have wired it shut to get more speed. Load up on extra wood or coal or whatever burns without being too offensive; clean the heat-conducting tubes inside the boiler frequently to prevent corrosion.

And don’t kick the tires for proper air pressure as they are steel not rubber, and broken toes can be rather uncomfortable.

Then, it might move, but you’re watching all the time for stray sparks from the smokestack. Keep an eye out for the EPA and the DOT, as there are no pollution controls and no seat belts.

There are no spare parts, either, since many of these steam tractors were melted down for scrap steel in World War II. A machine shop and a boilermaker are about the only sources, unless there is a second steam tractor you bought for spare parts.

During the annual Chaffee County Fair (July 30 to August 3 this year), the steam tractor is but one of many attractions from the Flywheelers

A scale-model steam train, owned by Bill Tunstall, runs on an oval track, powered by compressed air. Adults sometimes have to be cajoled into boarding. Sometimes, the adults frown when they first get aboard, thinking this is kid’s stuff, but they always come away smiling. Although the ride is free, donations are greatly appreciated.

Just as interesting as the steam engines are the gasoline engines. Among the most common are the Maytag engines, made by the Maytag Washing Machine Company.

They were the do-everything engine in the early 1900’s. About the size of a lawnmower engine, they have a foot pedal for starting. In the morning, they can be hooked to a pump to draught water; in the afternoon the same engine can be connected to the clothes-washing machine; at night, the same engine can generate electricity. Their demise started with the Rural Electrification Act of 1935, which established low interest loans for power companies to electrify rural America.

Many Maytag engines are still in use. Parts are available from many sources, and they are easily transportable.

Less portable are the “hit-and-miss” engines, so called because they do not fire on every revolution. Sometimes they fire every third or fourth or fifth time, often blowing a smoke ring out of the exhaust. Until the RPM drops below a certain level, the engine coasts, not igniting the spark. When this happens or a load is applied to the engine, the centrifugal clutch springs contract, and the engine fires to get up to the proper RPM. The hit-and-miss design saves fuel.

These engines have their place in history because their centrifugal clutch was refined and is now used in most chain saws.

Sometimes you’ll find a Stirling or hot-air engine at the fair. This maverick design was the brainchild in 1816 of Robert Stirling, a Scottish minister. It ran on hot air or hydrogen. Expensive and plagued by leaky seals, the Stirling engine has yet to make an impact on the world market, although it was used extensively in North Vietnam to power radio generators.

Cummins, the diesel engine maker, has successfully tested the Stirling to generate electricity with a 40-foot parabolic solar dish as its fuel source. Unless electrical rates go up drastically, though, this experiment will probably remain on the shelf. It took 185 years to refine a simple principle for use in the space age.

At the east end of the fairgrounds sits a sawmill. The only refinement sawmills have seen over the years is the source of power: steam, then gas, diesel, and now high voltage electric motors. This sawmill is typical of many: a four-foot diameter blade mounted in the middle of a twenty- to forty-foot track. Replaceable teeth for the blade keep down time to a minimum.

The speed of the blade must be monitored closely; otherwise too slow a speed will be inefficient and give too rough a cut, and too high a speed will heat up the blade and cause distortion.

There is still a man who travels between Santa Fé and Fort Collins doing nothing but correcting heat warps in saw blades; his art is called “hammering the blade.”

After paying this guy a few times to hammer their blade, sawmill operators learn exactly what the top speed is for what they are cutting. The actual hammering is relatively inexpensive, but this man’s mileage charge can rival China’s contribution to both political parties.

A few yards away from the sawmill stands the corn sheller. Members of AVF scrounged it up somewhere and restored it with new belts and pulleys. Hook up a long leather belt from a tractor for power, shovel some corn onto the conveyer belt, and out comes shelled corn at the other end. The bread-slicing and bed-making attachments are optional and not recommended.

The Flywheelers Club was formed by John Troutman of Salida in 1991 to display antique engines and machinery. The official motto is: “Preserving the Past to Show the Future.”

There were about a dozen charter members in 1991, and now there are nearly fifty, half of them residing within 50 miles of Salida. Many members have restored some of the same equipment they used in their younger days.

The lure of restoring old equipment is akin to restoring old cars or airplanes and then displaying them at various shows around the state and nationwide. Often exhibitors will bring old parts and tools to swap or come looking for missing parts for their own equipment at these shows.

The Chaffee County Fair is the yearly culmination of the club’s work. For five days, antique engines are set up and run. The steam train hauls passengers. The steam tractor sometimes runs. People get fed two breakfasts, and sometimes a barbecue gets going in the evening depending on the available road kill. Exhibitors sell and swap equipment and stories.

Nobody has to be a member to exhibit machinery. All exhibitors get a souvenir brass plaque for their efforts. And everybody seems to have a good time, even if it doesn’t look quite that way when the steam tractor is acting up.

Wallace Williams lives in Nathrop and recently retired as editor of the Flywheelers’ newsletter.