Full steam forward while looking back

Last fall, Ole Carlberg sat atop a 32-120 Reeves steam tractor as it headed up a two hour parade in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Delighting a crowd of thousands, the Canadian Special tractor was more than just a ride in a parade for Carlberg.

His grandfather had bought the steam tractor about 1910, and the Saskatchewan farmer hadn’t seen it since 1946 when his father sent it off on its own 67-year adventure. “It just disappeared into the horizon,” said Carlberg.

Steam power ran the big, bottom plows that turned over the prairie sod and broke it up so that horses and lighter field tools could cultivate and plant. Burning up to a tonne of coal per day, big steam tractors also ran threshing machines for harvest labour gangs and were the power of choice for the largest pioneering farms. The rolling pressure vessels were the high technology tools for agricultural industry at the turn of the 20th century.

Clyde Hall of Fillmore, Sask., who restores steam tractors built before 1920, said the big plows could do in a day what would take all summer for a man with horses.

“These were revolutionary tools,” said Hall, who had known Ole’s father, Albin Carlberg. Cheaper, lighter and faster distillate, gas and diesel tractors and pull-type combines were developed after the First World War, and the farm machinery industry boomed. The hulking, coal powered units and their licensed boiler operators were idled by the early 1930s.

“The last time we worked with it I was about eight. We did some fall cultivating,” said the 82-year-old from Osage, Sask. In 1947, it was shipped to the Western Development Museum in North Battleford, Sask.

“We fired it up on the farm. Dad put the pressure to it, after it had sat on the farm for about eight or 10 years. It held, just like the day we parked it,” he said.

It weighs a heck of lot (about 45,000 pounds) and had sunk into the dirt and been blown in with the dust of the ’30s. He rocked it out of those holes where it had sat. We drove it into Osage and loaded it, the threshing machine and the pair of (Cockshutt) 12 bottom plows onto rail cars bound for North Battleford.… It was in pretty good condition. Except, when Dad was rocking it out of those holes in the ground, the four little bolts that had been holding the cast smoke stack on had corroded.”

The heavy iron stack snapped off the top of the tractor and broke as it hit one of the steel front wheels. “Snapped the cast iron stack, so he took it to a real good welder (Dutchy Lakeman) in Fillmore and he (brazed) all the pieces back together. We put it back on. Then it was loaded on the rail and it disappeared,” he said.

Carlberg contacted the museum years later, hoping to look in on the tractor, only to find the museum’s deal for the farm equipment involved selling the tractor to a lumber company. It had been shipped to northern Saskatchewan to power a forestry camp.

“Stuff doesn’t usually come back from that sort of an end. They would work them to death and leave them in the bush,” he said.

The tractor had had close calls in its past, including a run-in with a scrap iron buyer who tried to strike a deal in the field with Carlberg’s father. Meanwhile, the scrapper had left a man with a torch at the farmyard who was preparing to cut up the machine. “Dad told that buyer, ‘no’ and ‘hell no.’ ‘No sale.’ He wasn’t listening well. The air got pretty blue when he found out they had to stop the guy with the torch,” said Carlberg.

However, the tractor now seemed gone for good. Except it wasn’t. Two years ago, Hall was reading an American steam power enthusiasts’ publication and noticed a picture of a Reeves with a welded, cast iron stack. The tractor, a cross compound, 32 horsepower, 120 brake h.p. unit, was identical to Carlberg’s missing machine.

“Only one of them would have had that same repair to the stack,” he said. The Midwest Old Threshers Traction Steam Engines Heritage Museum in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, had likely bought the tractor from a former Case IH machinery service adviser who would travel to Canadian dealerships. It is thought he traded a centre-crank, Case steam tractor to the Western Development Museum in North Battleford for the Reeves and took it back to the United States. The details are sketchy about why the tractor was back in North Battleford, but it appears the original sale to the forestry camp involved returning it to North Battleford after it had served its lumbering purposes.

It now makes up one of three steam tractors in the Iowa museum’s interactive collection. Hall said he is told the tractor has Albin Carlberg’s initials carved into the end of the axle with a cold chisel, further proof that it is the same machine and one of only five to survive to this day.

Carlberg said that by 1915 his father had studied enough to qualify for a traction engineer’s certificate from the Saskatchewan government.

“Dad knew that machine well and was very fond of it,” he said. “He would never have wanted it scrapped. I think that was why it went back to the museum in North Battleford. My daughter and her fellow, Brian, went down to see it and sure enough, it was the one.”

The museum invited Carlberg, his wife, Shirley, and their family to join its annual three day fall reunion, which attracts hundreds of antique tractors and sees more than 55,000 through its gates during the event. Carlberg also donated his father’s steam engineer’s certificate issued on the tractor, which is considered “highly important to a museum. So there it remains, in a display case, with the tractor.

“Two young fellows from Mount Pleasant have now qualified for their boiler papers to work on and operate the tractor, so it is in good hands.”

The big Reeves, with Carlberg on the back, led the event’s Cavalcade of Power and was featured in the evening threshermen’s light show. “It’s in a great place, after we thought it was lost forever.”

To see an ad for the 1908 tractor, visit tinyurl.com/n2nzzck. Visit another Reeves tractor at ag-museum.mb.ca or the Yorkton Western Development museum at wdm.ca/yk.html. Interested in what it takes to operate a traction steam engine? Visit www.producer.com to download a copy of the Reeves operator’s manual.Reeves_Manual

Albin Carlberg's steam operator's certificate issued in 1915.


Ole Carlberg rides atop his grandfather's Reeves Canadian Special in Mount Pleasant, Iowa Thresherman's Cavalcade of Power parade.  |  Carlberg photo
Ole Carlberg rides atop his grandfather's Reeves Canadian Special in Mount Pleasant, Iowa Thresherman's Cavalcade of Power parade. | Carlberg photo
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