Steam engines vs. oil pull tractors

Farm Forum

As the searing heat has dissipated, the impact on crops is unfortunate. So much potential in fields has been trimmed by lack of moisture. We traveled to Detroit Lakes, Minn., for Labor Day weekend and saw field after field that was burned up, both soybeans and corn crops. In some spots, farmers were cutting cornstalks for feed but not many ears were showing.

Another reminder of heat came when attending the Fred and Ina Bruns Auction on Thursday. (See photos and story on Page 110-111F.)

The family was sad to see Fred’s tractor loaded up and leave the farm but were glad it stayed in South Dakota. It is one of the few that have stayed that many years in one family. When Dale and I first were married, we visited Fred and Ina Bruns on their farm between Frederick and Hecla. Fred’s collection of antique machinery fascinated Dale. For me, I knew the machines were big, but it was more interesting for me to talk with Ina. I missed out on some great stories from Fred.

I remember watching the Hecla Centennial Parade back in 1986. As the huge green Rumely Oil Pull went down the street, a huge smile on Fred Bruns’s face coupled with steady concentration. He was master of the machine and he was proud of what the tractor represented — the strength and endurance of farmers from his era.

This week, Dale explained to me the differences between the steam engines and oil pulls. The steam engine converts raw heat into mechanical work. In the boiler there is a firebox where coal is shoveled. The coal is kept burning at a very high temperature and used to heat the boiler to boil water, producing a high pressure steam. The high-pressure steam expands and exits the boiler via steam pipes into the steam reservoir, the steam is then controlled by a slide valve to move into a cylinder to push the piston. The pressure of the steam energy pushing the piston turns the drive wheel in a circle, creating motion for the engine. A lot of fuel goes into the steamers and water is in constant demand. Imagine the heat around those machines! Dale said he was told those steamers could blow up if there wasn’t enough water available.

Part of the preparation started early in the day. A full head of steam was needed before the crew could begin work each day.

The farm boys of those days were controlling the prairie with these massive beasts. With the oil pull machines, the internal combustion engine is used, meaning that fuel replaces the open fire. There is no longer a need to haul water for steam and fuel to feed the fire. The steel tire tractors are powered by kerosene-burning engines. Tough men were needed to handle the complexities of getting the engine started and powering through the tasks of plowing or threshing crops.

Dale said there was a whole complex set of whistle combinations that would indicate the need for more water, more wagons or other instructions for the crew. Many of those stories were shared at the auction last week. As pieces of antique equipment left the Bruns farm, new stories and pieces of history were shared, as well.

Dale said he remembers the last threshing crew working at his grandparent‘s farm in the 1940s. At the end of the last season, the engine was pulled into the trees. That piece of antique equipment suffered a disheartening fate as it was dismantled and sold for scrap. Not many pieces of iron are as fortunate to be treasured as the pieces of ageless iron from the Bruns farm.