A metal leviathan, this steam tractor was built close to a hundred years ago. Today it resides at Pioneer Acres Museum in Irricana Alberta where on occasion it’s fired-up, transforming it into a fire-breathing, steam hissing, smoke belching monster put to work entertaining visitors to the venue. At rest on our visit, we take some time to look over this fascinating piece of ancient metal.
Built by the JI Case company in the US, it’s a 65hp model. Staff at the museum that day were not completely sure what year it’s from but suspect the mid-1910s. Looking at Case builder’s records, that appears about right although it could date from at as late as the 1920s. Of course, a serial number would clear that right up, but it appears to be missing that plate. They were normally located on the boiler near the front.
The Case firm was not the only maker of steam tractors in North America, but they seemed to be the most prolific. From the mid-1870s to the mid-1920s they produced several tens of thousands of them in various models. While no hard and fast numbers are available for other makers, it seems Case had few rivals in regards to total output.
Case Steam Tractors could be had in many sizes. The 65hp model would be about mid-point of what was being made by the firm around the time of World War One and until the end of production.
Looking very much like a steam locomotive in many ways, it was operationally very similar. Fuel (coal, sometimes wood or even straw), would be burned in a boiler, making steam, which drove a reciprocating cylinder acting on a flywheel, transferring power to the giant drive wheels via a transmission of sorts. These machines were heavy and slow but incredibly powerful, being able to pull large plow units with relative ease. A take-off pulley allowed the machine, via a belt, to power a thresher or other machinery, like say a portable sawmill.
Steering was via a simple worm gear acting on chains connected to the front axle. A roof, it seems, was optional on smaller models. Seen on the front of the boiler (the smoke box door), is Case’s trademark eagle logo. He’s “Old Abe”, long ago a mascot for a military regiment.
While I understand the tractor could be run by one competent person, two would be much easier. There was a lot to worry about – keeping it fuelled, watching boiler pressure, steering, controlling the plow, etc. Being fairly simple machines, albeit heavy ones, maintenance and repairs were not a big issue as long as one had a lift and perhaps some blacksmith skills. Or friends and neighbours with same.
With steam tractors it was a case of bigger is better. Coming on the scene with force in the late 1910s and more popular with each passing year were tractors powered by internal combustion engines, reversing the trend. They were small and fast, of course relatively speaking, cheap to run and easy to work on. By the latter half of 1920s, the day of the stream tractor, for the most part, was over. Many were soon retired to the “back forty”, where old machinery goes to die, or scrapped altogether. Some survived to eventually find themselves on display at museums. Like this one!
Some of these steam tractors were purpose built for road rolling and were made with with smooth wheels. That they were so heavy made them perfect for the job. Some also were used as “traction engines”, essentially for lugging or hauling wagons, or as a mobile power source (via the power take-off).
JI Case was a well known maker of farm machinery of all types and was founded in the 1840s. Today they’re machines are labelled Case-IH (for International Harvester), reflecting a merger between the two firms that took place in the 1980s.
Seen outside on the grounds was a second Case Steam Tractor. With the rain coming down, we only snapped a quick photo. It appears slightly lager. Next time we’ll check the serial number (it still has the maker’s plate) so we can see when it was built.
Pioneer Acres is for vintage machinery buffs one of the best places in the southern half of the province. They have a large number of halls, and and many outside displays and exhibits, showcasing all manner of farm equipment, trucks, stationary engines and the like. If stuff like that is your bag, it should be on your to-do list.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2016.
Location: Irricana, AB.
Article references: Pioneer Acres, CaseSteamTractor.com, FarmCollector.com
These Case Steam Tractors can be viewed when the museum is open.