Why are steam traction engines such an attraction to the people that own them and people who see them at antique farm equipment shows?
It might be the sheer size of the black monster and its huge steel wheels. Perhaps it's the black smoke that periodically spews from the tall smokestack.
Maybe it's the fire burning in the cavernous firebox and the sparks that fly when another chunk of wood is added.
For sure the shrill whistle that you've been waiting to hear - but when it blows still almost knocks you out of your shoes - makes an impression on everyone within hearing range.
These steam engines are long obsolete. In fact, most of the people who look at and admire them and the people who own and tend them probably never actually saw them doing the work they were intended for. It's a love for a memory of something that was never experienced.
A traction engine is a self-propelled steam engine used to move heavy loads on roads, plow ground or to provide power at a chosen location. They began being used on farms about 1850 and I counted 95 U.S. manufacturers on a list who made steam traction engines at one time or another.
Although they were big, heavy and cumbersome, steam engines could pull bigger loads and plow more land than horses. They also provided the belt power to run threshing machines, shredders and sawmills.
By the mid-1920s the traction steam engines used in agriculture were being bypassed by the internal combustion engine powering cars, trucks and tractors. Oh, they were still being used on stationary sawmills, big farms in the west, in threshing "rings" and road building, but they were fast fading into history except for some specialized uses.
One of these specialized uses was steaming tobacco beds in the south and in two small areas in Wisconsin where tobacco was grown. Steamers owned by diehard owners were located throughout several southern Wisconsin counties (Dane, Rock, Jefferson) and southwestern counties (Crawford, Vernon, LaCrosse) working with tobacco growers.
The steam engines, manned by an operator, usually in striped overalls, blue shirt and engineer's cap, made their way (very slowly) from farm to farm and always announced their arrival at the farm driveway with a long and loud "whistle toot."
The engine pulled alongside a strip of well-worked soil, the fire was stoked and steam built up in the boiler. A steel pan some five-feet wide, 16-feet (a rod) long and eight inches in depth was placed over a strip of newly worked soil and the live steam was forced via a big, stiff hose into the pan - the edges of which had been made air tight with packed soil.
The steam filled the pan and after about 20 minutes had killed the weed seeds and disease organisms and the soil was ready for the fragile tobacco seeds.
The sterilization process was repeated as the pan, which was on wheels, was moved end-to-end with the "tobacco bed" reaching the length capable of raising enough plants for transplanting into the farm field.
The bed might be 4-8 rods (pans) long with bigger growers laying out 2-3 beds side-by-side. The sterilized soil was then framed with 1x6-inch boards and covered with white cheesecloth to protect the growing plants.
The tobacco bed steaming process continued into the late 20th century, when it was replaced by chemical soil treatments and then by the importation of tobacco plants from Michigan.
A special group
Steam engine operators were a special group. They didn't mind a little black ash, grease and oil on their faces and clothing. They could wield a big monkey wrench and were very knowledgeable in keeping just the right amount of water in the boiler, wood or coal in the fire pan and steam at the right pressure.
Brothers Frank and Clarence Johnson farmed in the town of Cottage Grove, near Nora, and ran steam engines for many years. Frank never owned his own steamer, but Clarence owned two machines, one of which was a Rumley. The brothers threshed grain, shredded corn and steamed tobacco beds in the area.
Upon Clarence's death in 1947, his Rumley machine was "junked out," but the whistle was saved and today hangs on the wall at Derby and Patricia (Clarence's niece) Quam's Viking Prairie Farm home near Stoughton.
Frank Johnson, Jr., began running a steam engine at age 16, serving farmers from DeForest to Deerfield to Stoughton. In the final year of his life when his health had weakened, his brother Clarence "Gomer" Johnson continued to steam tobacco beds.
Gomer Johnson, his sister Patricia and her husband Derby Quam remember well the last two beds (probably in all of tobacco land) steamed. It was at the Quam farm and that of neighbor Richie Vedvick in 2003.
Two other well-known steamers in Dane County were Ed Severson, who at one time ran five rigs - how he did it with only one arm was a much discussed subject - and Francis Reiner, both in the Deerfield-Cambridge area.
Patrick Mullarkey, Oregon, bought Severson's tobacco steaming routes decades ago. One of Severson's steam engines is now "resting" in the John Mullarkey barn.
John, Patrick's brother, learned about steam engines by working for Reiner. Patrick, who died in March of this year, and John lived on adjoining farms and accumulated a big collection of steam engines, threshing machines and other antique farm and construction equipment.
John Mullarkey, a skilled auto mechanic, now retired, is active in maintaining and running steam engines as a member of the Rock River Thresheree at Edgerton and has steam engines at his farm and at the thresheree grounds.
It's easy to understand how one could get involved in collecting antique farm tractors. They can be hauled fairly easily. Many are still in use on farms today. Mechanic courses have been taught for generations. Parts can be relatively easy to find, and tractors can be stored in a regular garage.
But a steam traction engine - that's another story. The weight is measured in tons rather than pounds, parts are big and heavy, they may be over 100 years old and, if you don't know how to run a steam engine, they can blow up.
It's surprising how many old steam traction engines still live on in spite of being such low technology in an era of high tech, the two World Wars when many were sold as scrap metal, and how many have been stored for maybe decades along fence rows or in overgrown farmsteads.
Don't talk about such things to they folks (young and old) who fix, maintain, buy and exhibit their old engines and revel in the oohs and aahs of those who come to look, see and learn at the many shows held every year, everywhere.
Go to www.steam traction engines on your computer and you'll get hundreds of sites, photos and information. If you want to learn a lot, enroll in the Wisconsin Historical Steam Engine Association's Steam School, Sept. 28-30 at the Rock River Thresheree Grounds. Call Jeff Bloemers at 920-287-1149 for info.
Yes, the Onckens raised tobacco, and I remember the steamer owned by Helmer and Martin Nelson and the whistle as it came up the driveway to steam tobacco beds so long ago. And, strangely enough, Ronald Nelson, retired farmer and livestock trucker at Stoughton (and nephew of the Nelson brothers), says the remains of that old steamer (long since only a boiler mounted on a truck) still sit in a field rusting away, only a couple of miles from its original home.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.