The great big 1924 engine that could, and did
ALGOMA - The arguably coolest, definitely most interesting and most historic vehicle that sat on the lot this summer at Algoma Motors wasn't for sale, but it sure drew plenty of attention.
For two months out on the front corner of the Buick-GMC dealership's lot on State 54/Jefferson Street sat the 98-year-old mechanical monstrosity ‒ "Big Jim," a Model 2475 Minneapolis steam engine built in 1924 by the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co.. The behemoth measures 22 feet long, 12 feet tall and weighs about 32,000 pounds.
The Minneapolis is one of 12 antique steam engines made between 1890 and 1924 owned by 74-year-old Jim Rabas, who co-owns Algoma Motors with his brother, Jeff. Jim inherited the machines from his father, Jim Rabas, Sr., who died in 1989, and put the Minneapolis out on the lot this summer, mainly to get the attention of those visiting the dealership or passing by. Which it does, Jim said.
"(The reaction is,) 'What the heck is that?'" he said with a laugh. "People want to see it all the time."
The Rabas family has owned and operated the dealership for 85 years, since Jim, Sr., started it in 1937, but the Minneapolis actually has been part of the family longer — 95 years.
Jim Rabas said his father was looking for a steam-powered threshing machine so he could perform work for area farmers when he came across the Minneapolis in 1927, when he was 18 years old.
"It had broken through the Devils River bridge in Maribel," Rabas said. "It was sitting in the river with the threshing machine still attached."
The owner apparently didn't want to deal with trying to get the 16-ton engine and thresher out of the river, so Jim, Sr., paid $2,200 (about $35,000 to $37,000 in today's money) to buy it.
After dragging it out and fixing it up, Jim, Sr. and the engine hired themselves out to thresh on farms around Stangelville for $1 a day for the next 21 years.
Along the way, in 1939, the machine was modified for an unusual reason — it wasn't running on as many dirt roads as before, and its original steel wheels were damaging newly paved roads.
"In 1939, blacktopping country roads had become more prevalent," Rabas said. "So (my father) had to have three men run down the road in front of him to lay down planks on the road, so the steel wouldn't tear up the blacktop."
Eventually, instead of having men on plank duty, Rabas, Sr., placed the engine into a Sterling firetruck chassis, also from 1924, that used rubber tires.
Rabas said that while the engine is in a different chassis, both remain true to their original 1924 specifications, right down to the green paint of the engine and red of the chassis. The only notable change is the "Big Jim" painted on the front where it previously said "Minneapolis"; it's named after Rabas' father, who Rabas said was known as "Big Jim" throughout Kewaunee County.
Rabas said his father began building up his collection of steam engines in the aftermath of World War II. He noted they weren't easy for his father to find at the time because it was considered a patriotic duty during the war to turn them over to the government so they could be scrapped and have their metals recycled to make battleships and other war equipment. Still, Rabas, Sr., was able to come across steam engines that would have gone to the scrapyard without his buying them.
"He bought them when they were cheap," Rabas said. "He found them behind barns, so he would rescue them."
"Big Jim" the engine was used for threshing until 1948, Rabas said, but its work wasn't done. In the 1940s and '50s, he said it helped move 20 barns and 10 houses and also made power for area cheese factories. In 1953, Rabas, Sr., also helped form the Northeastern Wisconsin Steam Club for owners of steam engines and served as its president.
Also in the '50s, the Minneapolis found another way to test its power. It took part in steam rodeos, races for steam-powered farm machines that usually were part of county fairs and became popular in that time. Rabas said his father took part in the annual rodeos at the Kewaunee County Fair, where "Big Jim" often was matched in kind of a friendly rivalry against "Big Bertha," a Case steam engine then owned by Joe Krueger of Ellisville. Rabas, Sr., also twice brought his engine to compete in rodeos at the Wisconsin State Fair.
As for the power, the figures are found in the model number, 2475. That's 24 horsepower measured on the draw bar, meaning the amount available when towing a load, and 75 horses "at the belt," the maximum power at the belt pulley with no load on the engine. Rabas said "Big Jim" can hit about 19.5 mph, attaining mileage of 10 gpm — gallons of water per mile — and burning a face cord of wood (about a third of a full cord) to travel 30 miles. It also requires at least two people to operate it, preferably three for the safest and most efficient driving.
So what's "Big Jim" been doing since its threshing and rodeo days came to an end?
"Parades, parades, parades," Rabas said with a chuckle. "No other steam engine I know of has been in more parades than my dad's. We just go all over the place with it. It's the most popular steam engine in Northeast Wisconsin, if not all of Wisconsin."
Indeed, there's a decent chance that people who've been to a parade in Kewaunee or Door counties, or to a farm or vintage farm show such as the recent Ag Heritage Days at the Kewaunee County Fairgrounds, have seen the Minneapolis. Rabas often brings some of his other steam engines to these events and gives rides, but he said "Big Jim" is the star.
Unfortunately, it's unclear if "Big Jim" will belch its steam anymore. Rabas said there's a problem with the engine's boiler and it would be rather expensive to fix, so he's not sure if it'll run again. The machine did appear at last month's Shanty Days Parade in Algoma, but it was towed through it. Rabas says "Big Jim" is safely tucked inside its storage building, joining its 11 brother steam engines in nearby Rankin.
But "Big Jim" has aroused curiosity and stirred memories for many across Northeast Wisconsin, as Rabas said when he talked about an older man to who he gave a ride aboard the engine at a show.
"He was tearing up, and I asked him if he was all right. I didn't know if he's gotten a cinder in his eye from the engine or something," Rabas said. "He said he was sent off to World War II and his father said he'd save his steam engine for him. But his father sold it while he was gone. Hearing the puff of the engine firing up just brought back memories for him."