Nearly gone, but not forgotten: Steam-engine tractors live on
POWELL, Wyo. – Steam-engine tractors had a relatively short lifespan in terms of the length of time they were in use on American farms. But steam engines still live on in farm lore and in the hearts of many people who make their living off the land.
First developed in 1868, steam tractors were most popular from 1885 to 1912, and then faded in the 1920s when they were replaced by smaller, lighter and faster tractors with internal combustion engines.
Steam tractors first appeared on American farms in 1888, according to a history of tractors on Living History Farms’ website.
Though not routinely used in agricultural operations for the last century or so, steam engines still inspire awe – both as powerful machines and as significant players in agricultural history.
Because of the hefty investment required, most steam tractors were driven by custom operators who traveled the country and charged for their services. A new steam-engine tractor cost between $2,000 and $5,000, Keith Murray of Murraymere Farms said.
“Back in 1910, that was a lot of money,” Murray said.
Murray said steam-engine tractors were good for breaking up ground for the first time, but they were useless in plowed fields. That’s because they were so heavy that they bogged down in loose dirt.
“Most of the prairie was broken out with steam,” he said.
Murray owns a large collection of historic tractors, thanks to the efforts of his father, Bruce, who started the collection, and his son, Bryon, who restored many of them.
“My dad just kept looking for tractors, and then I got interested in it,” Keith Murray said.
Bryon restored 16 or 17 tractors in the 1970s while he was still in high school, earning the honor of an American Farmer Degree from FFA in recognition of his work, Keith Murray said.
In 1980, Keith Murray got his first steam tractor.
“It was in really bad shape,” he said. “It was broken and needed welding, and all the plumbing was gone. We had to figure out where to put all the pipes.”
They did that by looking at other steam engines and reading books, he said.
By contrast, a 1910 Avery steam tractor was in good, working condition when he bought it. Today, it’s one of only three working Avery steam tractors in the country, Murray said.
The tractor was one of several historic agricultural demonstrations featured at the University of Wyoming’s Powell Extension and Research Center in July.
After the event, the Tribune posted a video of the Avery steam tractor to its Facebook page. That 22-second clip, which shows the 42,000-pound Avery tractor plowing a grassy section of a field at the research center, has gotten more attention than any other video in the Tribune’s online history. It had been shared nearly 500 times on Facebook and had been viewed 18,400 times.
Video viewers likely are entranced as much by the sound of the tractor (similar to that of a steam engine train) as they are by the look of the big, powerful, black, red and green machine.
Another of Murray’s three steam tractors, a 1904 Kelly-Springfield Steam Roller, was a hit with attendees at the sixth annual Homesteader Days Sept. 10 at Homesteader Museum.
The steam roller served multiple purposes at the event. In addition to being a focal point of Homesteader Days, the tractor provided piped steam to cook unshucked ears of corn – much to the enjoyment of the people who lined up to eat them – and helped run a long belt to power a hay press that compacted hay for bales.
Lance Streets of Pryor, Mont., operated the steam tractors for both events, with the help of his wife, Jolene.
Lance Streets said his father owns a steam tractor, and he grew up around them. Three or four years ago, Streets attended a three-day steam school in Rollag, Minn., where he learned “all the ins and outs about them, how to run them, and how to manage them without blowing them up.”
Now, he’s working toward steam-engine certification in Montana, an effort that includes logging the hours when he operates steam tractors.
“Wyoming doesn’t require you to be certified … so, whoever I run steam engines for, I can get time against my certification,” he said. “I’m going to cash that in one of these days.”
Streets, who called Powell his second home, said he’s been around historic farm machinery all his life and has always been interested in steam tractors.
“My dad knew Keith. We’d always come down here and run (steam tractors) at the fair here. … They’re neat. A steam engine is really crude nowadays; how they could make them work and make them work so well for them” amazes him, Streets said.
Jolene Streets said she thinks the people who are interested in steam tractors and other antique farm equipment “have the appreciation for what I think a lot of us consider the simpler way of life.
“Sure, we’ve got all this stuff with all these bells and whistles and auto-drive and satellite driven and all that, but really, is that simpler?
“These people had a genuine respect for the land, for the machinery.”
Jolene Streets credits Keith Murray and his steam tractors for introducing her to her husband in 2014.
“I was working for Murrays at Murraymere Farms, and they were bringing their 1913 Buffalo Pitt Steam Engine in, and Lance came down to run it. I was just like a kid in a candy store.
“If it wouldn’t have been for Mr. Murray, I would have never met my husband, and I would have never got to see a steam engine,” she said.
Miss “V” the Gypsy Cowbelle, who performed at Homesteader Days, said she believes old-fashioned ways of doing things and old farm machines, such as steam tractors, have a universal appeal.
“My theory is, in a world that is moving faster and faster, everybody has an innate desire to go a little more slowly,” she said. “I think it’s something we crave.”