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1924 Keck-gonnerman Steam Traction Engine

Fall 2009 | Volume 24 |  Issue 3

It took Butch Biesecker nine years to restore his 1924 Keck-Gonnerman steam traction engine with new valves, water flues, gearing, and a repaired firebox. Now the newly appointed 62-year-old president of the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, must perform regular, expensive, and time- consuming maintenance on the 12-ton machine. But that’s pan of the charm, he says: “Your best friends are a wrench and a towel. But I enjoy tinkering with engines. They’re hot, dirty, and fun.”

In the 1850s steam engines began appearing on prosperous, mainly midwestern farms as stationary machines powering the new Pitt Brothers thresher, which not only threshed grain but cleaned grain kernels. While far better than hand-threshing techniques, the Pitt system proved cumbersome because workers still needed to bring hundreds of bushels of grain to their barns on horse-drawn wagons. The self-propelled steam traction engine of the 1910s and 1920s enabled threshing crews to drag their threshers behind them. In the field, farmers hooked up the traction engine to the thresher by “setting” one end of a long canvas belt over the steam engine’s flywheel, and the other over the thresher’s belt pulley. As the steam powered the piston stroke, a crankshaft turned the engine’s flywheel while drawing the belt, which rotated the thresher’s cast-iron cylinder. Steel spikes separated the grain heads from the stalks and loosened the kernels from their shells. The kernels fell through slots onto a conveyer belt running into a hopper. Productivity more than tripled.

But this equipment remained prohibitively expensive: the Keck-Gonnerman cost $4,800 in 1924, more than four times a farmer’s average yearly income, and it burned two tons of coal a day. To buy one, farmers of modest means pooled their resources in “threshing rings.”

Because few Keck-Gonnerman engines survive today, Biesecker could not cannibalize parts for his restoration project. Instead he made most of them himself, including the main drive pinion that turns the engine gears and the firebox grates. To create the latter, Biesecker studied old copies of the agricultural magazine Farm Album , poring over advertisements for Keck-Gonnerman tractors until he found the drawings he needed. Then he carved and sanded down a wood replica of the grate, which he brought to the Amish-run Cattail Foundry in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, whose foundrymen created a cast and poured a new grate of molten iron.

Biesecker takes his Keck to conventions across the Middle Atlantic region for tractor pulls, threshing demonstrations, and weekly cookouts where he uses the boiler to steam corn. “You’ll never get rich doing this,” admits Biesecker, probably thinking of the $35,000 boiler replacement he’s planning in the near future. “But all these steam engines are just neat.”

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