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Full steam ahead

After thorough inspection, steam engine relic will continue educating community

As an out-of-state inspector scrutinized the old 1923 Minneapolis Steam Engine stored for display in the engine house of the Jasper County Historical Museum in Newton, the machine’s former owner Bryan Healy watched like a concerned parent in a doctor’s office awaiting a diagnosis or, perhaps even better, a clean bill of health.

Passed down by his grandfather when Healy was still a teenager, the massive steam engine, he said, receives a regular pressure vessel test every year, but the 24-horsepower agricultural tool was due for what Jasper County Historical Museum board member Denny Hammer called a “comprehensive inspection.” Healy and Hammer formed a small crew Tuesday to help.

“He’s going to ultrasound it,” Hammer said of Lawrence Swanz, owner of Swanz Boiler Design & Manufacturing. “He’ll tell us what we can run for pressure or whether we can run it at all. That’s what we’re hoping to find out.”

Indeed, the Minnesota-based boiler designer and restorer used ultrasound technology to read the thickness of the Minneapolis Steam Engine’s boiler and then determine the overall condition, integrity and the maximum allowable working pressure (MAWP) of the vessel. Filling it with water will also find any possible leakage or ruptures in the boiler.

Although the engine looks to be in substantially good condition given its ripe old age of 96, one can never be too careful. Still, a thorough inspection would let Healy and his team know if the steam engine was safe to operate and would make its annual appearance at the Fourth of July parade in Newton for the 23rd year in a row. Swanz commended the steam engine’s appearance.

“I was impressed that the boilerplate was in as good of shape as it was given that the stables had as much corrosion or deterioration to them,” Swanz said. “But when we did the calculation on the stables, even though they appear to look like they were distorted terribly, they actually calculated out quite well.”

As of Tuesday evening, the Minneapolis Steam Engine passed its exam, Healy confirmed with the Newton Daily News. A follow-up with Swanz substantiated the verdict, allowing the engine to be driven in the parade and commence operations at places like the Mid-Iowa Antique Power Association’s annual show beginning August in Marshalltown.

“The boiler,” Healy said, “is in sound condition to operate indefinitely under the current regime.”

Which is good news for museum visitors who venture out to the Engine House of the Jasper County Historical Museum. Healy is likely thrilled, too. No longer does he have to worry about this sentimental machine.

In Healy’s possession since he was 15 years old (the bill of sale, he said, is still in the Jasper County Courthouse), the Minneapolis Steam Engine was eventually sold to the Jasper County Historical Museum in 1997 after a “relentless and merciless pursuit” by longtime Maytag engineer Robert “Bob” Stanley.

“It’s relevant to the history of Jasper County,” Healy said, “It’s an appropriate acquisition for the Jasper County (Historical) Museum. There’s not very many of them.”

Hammer added, “Bob was very active out here. He was in charge of the boiler room up at Maytag, so he had a very good relationship with steam.”

Used for a variety of agricultural purposes and farm uses—like threshing, drawbar work or powering other stationary equipment with a flatbelt—back in the 1920s (and also in the late 1800s with previous models), the Minneapolis Steam Engine is a external combustion engine powered by a firebox that burns wood or coal as a fuel source.

“That is transferred by means of the firebox and pressure vessel into heating water, which creates steam, and the steam is then drawn off to be expanded through a cylinder and piston to turn a crank shaft,” Healy said before cutting his explanation down into something more manageable. “It’s a tractor. It’s a power unit.”

By the time Healy acquired the Minneapolis Steam Engine in 1968, the tractor’s working days were finished. However, his grandfather did use it with his neighbors to operate a saw mill on a property along the South Skunk River southwest of Newton. It was also used to run separators during harvest season.

“This was before electrification of the farms and before, basically, lightweight farm tractors like the Farmalls and the John Deeres, which quickly made these machines obsolete.” Healy said.

OK, so clearly Healy knows a thing or two about this Minneapolis Steam Engine, which had been in his possession, untouched, for nearly 23 years until he finally sold it to the museum. Healy describes it as the “god awfullest thing” he ever did at the time.

But he has had “more fun with it, more people have seen and it has brought more pleasure” to him now than it ever did collecting dust in the shed.

“It’s the only thing,” Healy stressed, “that I ever loved. It’s because I grew up with it and I’m a hopeless romantic. But since I lost that thing, it was the start of a beautiful relationship with the museum and with the community. And I’m very happy about it.”

Editor’s Note: “History Lesson” is a weekly series inspired by the Jasper County Historical Museum’s 40-year anniversary. Newton Daily News will publish a story every Friday (until the museum is closed) featuring the people who work to preserve and promote the region’s past endeavors, while also showcasing the historical and educational significance of artifacts and exhibits on display in the museum.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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