LOCKRIDGE, Iowa — Twenty-year-old Lockridge resident Jacob Nelson wasn’t like most high school students.
While his buddies were buying cars and trucks to celebrate their new-found freedom, Nelson was saving money for a 100-year-old steam engine. A steam engine costing more than the vehicles his friends were buying.
“When I bought that engine, all my buddies told me I was dumb for buying an engine. They said “why didn’t I buy a new car,” Nelson said. “Look at it this way, you go buy a new car, you drive it off the lot, there goes 15 percent. I bought a steam engine that didn’t run, and now it runs. It’s worth twice as much as it was. It’s almost an investment. They don’t make this stuff anymore.”
The Hawk Eye (http://bit.ly/2bK2L4y ) reports that considering Nelson has about $35,000 wrapped up in his 1917 50-horsepower Case steam engine, it has proven to be a wise investment.
“Some of the engines are worth a lot more because of their rarity. Case isn’t a very rare engine, though. Case is the only company mass producing a steam engine,” he said.
He didn’t buy the engine because of its value as a potential investment, though. Steam engines are Nelson’s passion, and as far as he knows, he’s been at every Midwest Old Threshers Reunion since he was born.
“It’s always fun to talk to people during Old Threshers and tell them how this stuff works,” he said with a grin. “We get a lot of people who don’t know what they’re looking at. They don’t realize you have to have wood and water to make steam.”
Nelson’s love for steam engines comes from his father, Rob, and he’s spent much of his life not only figuring out how the engines work but how to fix them.
As his father moved from exhibitor to regular Old Threshers volunteer, Nelson befriended the other steam engine operators and expanded his knowledge.
Before he knew it, Nelson was giving steam engine lectures during Old Threshers — an unusually young prodigy in a hobby stuffed with older men. His father is part owner of 65-horsepower steam engine, and Jacob received plenty of an experience making the engine run threshing machines and other farm equipment.
“I was always doing something. I used to give a speech in the powerhouse about how the engines worked. My speech was just about the basic parts, and how to make (the engine) turn over and stuff like that,” he said.
Nelson purchased his 1917 Case steam engine in February 2015, before his 19th birthday. He became a first-time exhibitor later that summer, having gotten the engine up to speed weeks before the 2015 Old Threshers Reunion began.
Since he works full time for father’s company, Nelson Rebar Inc., most of the work was done on the weekends.
“It just needed to be put together, and it didn’t need bearings and stuff like that. If I didn’t know where something went, I would just come out here (Threshers) and ask somebody,” he said. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
The steam engine exhibitors began pulling their engines out for display on Threshers grounds a couple of weeks ago, well in advance of the 2016 Old Threshers Reunion set to kick off with Wednesday’s Harvest Parade.
Nelson’s mobile Case engine (which looks like a cross between a tractor and a locomotive) weighs in at about 18,000 pounds and is capable of doing everything his father’s engine does.
“His engine is a little bigger than mine, but it doesn’t look it,” Nelson said.
A reformed dirt bike enthusiast, Nelson got deeper into the steam engines after suffering a serious biking injury. His doctor told him the dirt bikes were out, so Nelson buried himself deeper in the hobby while picking up a related one — a 1937 Allis Chalmers tractor.
“We actually bring (the tractor) out for Old Threshers, and we bale straw with it,” he said. “My brother comes out and helps with that.”
As old as Nelson’s tractor is, finding parts for it isn’t nearly as a difficult as finding parts for the 100-year-old steam engine.
“You can’t just go out to O’Reilly (Auto Parts),” he said. “You have to find a pattern maker, if it’s a cast iron piece, and then you have to go to a foundry to get it poured, and after that, you have to find a machinist. Then, you have to get all the other parts ready for the new piece. It’s a pretty long process to get one piece. I think I waited three months to get a piece for my engine.”
Nelson may be a rarity given his age, but he’s as passionate about steam engines as the more experienced steam engine operators. And as long as his curiosity holds out, he always will be.
“They don’t make this stuff anymore, and it’s neat to think about the tools they used to make it 100 years ago,” he said.
Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com
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