The story of the 1912 Case Steam Tractor named "George".
Case Steam Tractor has found a new home at
THE IDAHO FOREST GROUP
who intends to complete the restoration and use it on their steam
powered sawmill! Congratulations on your purchase, I look forward
to seeing it in operation sawing wood just as it did earlier this
only it could talk...
with any piece of equipment this old there is bound to be an account on
how it survived. Many times we remark, "If only this tractor
could talk, imagine the tales it could tell." Fortunately the
history of this steamer can be told, for in its life it has only had four
owners. For 45 years it was owned and cared for by George
Miller, and it is for him that this tractor is named. When George agreed to sell it to me I visited him, along
with my Father, to hear his story. My Dad wrote down this tale
and I'm fortunate to have it to share with you.
If you have ever
visited Absarokee, Montana, you may have noticed this steamer tucked back
into the corner of George's yard. George says that there was a
steady stream of visitors to the tractor over the years. Although he
planned to operate it again, the years just seemed to slip by. When his
health began to deteriorate at the age of 92, he felt it was time
to find a new home for his Case. After contacting museums and
other groups, he concluded that he wanted find a home where it would be
put back to running condition again. With this in mind I'm grateful he
decided to sell it to me. In early April 2003, almost exactly 2
years and hundreds of hours of restoration labor from the date we visited George
Miller we were finally able to fire the
engine again! Sadly George passed away in January 2010, but he had the
foresight to sell his engine to someone who wanted to make it operate.
Because of this, he was able to enjoy the sounds of his Case 75 running
under steam power
The Saga of J. I. Case Steam Tractor
Engine No. 26701.
J. I. Case Steam Tractor Number 26701 was built in 1912. It has a 75
hp, single cylinder, double acting steam engine.
It was shipped by rail to the J. I. Case dealer in Billings, Montana.
The dealer did not sell it immediately so he leased it for plowing and
threshing in the fall of 1912 season. It pulled a 12-bottom plow with the
plows spaced 14 inches apart, plowing a 16 foot wide swath.
In 1913, the tractor was bought by two brothers, Jake and
Howard Schwenneker. They drove it 85 miles from Billings to their farm near
Nye, Montana. Traveling at 2-1/2 mph, the trip took 3-1/2 weeks. They had
to reinforce the bridges that they crossed. Even then the tractor nearly
broke through one bridge, and the bent wheel and broken step the steamer
sustained from this near accident was still visible nearly 100 years
one year the
Schwenneker brothers used the tractor alternately for farming and to run their
In 1915, Jake bought a 15 hp J. I. Case steam tractor to use on the
farm. Howard took over the steam tractor to permanently power his sawmill.
The sawmill was called the Picket Pin Sawmill and was located at the foot of
Iron Mountain on Forest Service
land south of Nye. The trees were felled and bucked into 16-foot lengths.
The logs were hauled down the mountain using a steam powered donkey
engine, spar trees and high-wire logging.
The sawmill had a 24-inch diameter circular saw
and a 32-foot long
carriage. The logs
were turned by hand with cant hooks. The steam engine had two belt wheels.
The larger diameter flywheel drum drove the saw and the smaller diameter
outboard drum moved the carriage back and forth on 32-foot long rails. The
saw mill ran with a crew of three to five men.
The steam engine burned discarded cord wood from the sawmill operation
and was filled with water from a nearby spring. The wheels and bull
gears were removed but fortunately
kept nearby. The coal
and water bunkers were discarded because they got in the way of the wood
Howard Schwenneker and his two sons ran the saw mill from 1915 to 1938.
Howard died in December, 1942.
After Howardís death, the sawmill and its steam power plant was
purchased by Montana Polytechnical College (Rocky Mountain College). They
operated the saw mill to teach sawmill engineering. The U. S. Government
took over the sawmill and ran it from 1944 to 1946 to cut mine timbers
which were need for the nearby chromium mine. A teacher from Rocky
Mountain College bought the saw mill from the government at the end of the
war. He ran it for two years and then shut it down. When the teacher died,
the Marsfield family inherited the saw mill.
It is at this point
that many of these early steam tractors met an untimely end.
Fortunately for No. 26701, George Miller bought the saw mill and this Case
steam tractor from the family for $1000 in 1950.
George ran the saw mill and the associated logging operation from 1950
to 1958. There was a good supply of timber within high-wire logging
distance and the saw mill never moved from its 1915 location. The
Government closed the forest to logging in 1958 and ordered the saw mill
and the steam tractor off the land. The J. I. Case steam boiler was given
its annual inspection by Pat Whelan, the Montana Boiler Inspector, in
1958. It was in good operating condition when it was
shut down. This was
the last time the boiler made steam.
George reinstalled the wheels and running gear and used a Caterpillar
D-9 bulldozer to pull the Case tractor out of the woods to Herb Russelís
Ranch between Nye and Limestone. It sat out in the rain on the Limestone ranch from
1958 to 1978.
In 1978, George Miller had the Case tractor loaded on a flat bed truck
and hauled to his yard in Absarokee, Montana. It sat there in the open,
peeking out from behind Georges house for the next 23 years.
It was purchased by Joseph Berto in April 2001. Joseph had it loaded on
a low-boy trailer and hauled to his ranch in White City, Oregon, where he
began the two year refurbishment of it.
Based on interview with 92-year old George Miller and Frank Berto on
April 21, 2001.
And now for "The rest of the story".
Technical Details of J. I. Case Steam Tractor
Case Traction Engine ------------ 75 hp.
Empty Weight:------------ 24,000 pounds
Boiler Pressure: ---------- 140 psig
Boiler Barrel:-------------34 inches in diameter
Cylinder Diameter: ------ 11 inches.
Stroke: --------------------- 11 inches.
Overall Length ----------- 22 feet
Overall Height ---------- - 10 feet 2 1/2 inches
Overall Width ----------- - 9 feet 4 1/2 inches
Rear Wheel Diameter --- 5 feet 6 inches
Rear Wheel Width ------- 24 inches
Front Wheel Diameter ---- 44 inches
Front Wheel Width --- 12 inches
Fighting a Fire
for Old Friends
Absarokee, Mont., seems like a long way
away from Oregon, and without a specific reason to go there
I donít think anyone would happen upon this little town. In
the summer/fall of 2006 I was working as a pilot for
Erickson Aircrane, a large firefighting helicopter operator.
We flew all over the U.S. last year, from Texas to
Massachusetts to Oregon. Toward the end of the summer I was
based in Plains, Mont., as an initial attack helicopter.
This means that we are the first responder of observed smoke
and as such fly all over the state putting out fires.
when I was dispatched to Big Timber, Mont., I didnít really
look where the fire was, I just flew to it to begin work.
The fire was already large when we arrived, much too big for
a single helicopter to contain. And later that first day the
fire blew up and became a monster. It swept down toward a
town called ... Absarokee. So there I was working near a
town that I did not expect to ever see again.
This is where it got interesting and
personal for me. When we bought the Case steam engine and
wrote down George Millerís story, he had clear memories of
where the engine worked cutting timber its whole life. It
was parked on the Picket Pin Mountain, cutting timbers for
the nearby chromium mine. He also related where the engine
was moved and sat (the Limestone Ranch) after it was removed
from Picket Pin.
The Big Timber fire covered more than
150,000 acres. When I looked at the map during a morning
briefing, I noticed many familiar names and finally realized
where I had heard them before Ė at breakfast with George,
many years before. I was flying over the places that had
been only memories before, yet
I was getting to see where the engine had
been. It was fascinating connecting the past with the
The fire turned out to be very
Dorothy Miller and her family, with much of their grazing
land burned. I certainly didnít realize during the first couple of days of fighting this fire that there was this
connection, and I found it amazing. I was glad to be able to
do my part to reduce the toll on her
Ė Joseph Berto
Copyright © 2000/2016
June 14, 2016 T