Lawn ornaments in city yards are common, but one on Debra Lane is unique. A 1916 steam engine, manufactured by J.I. Case Co., has decorated the lawn of Jim and Lona Connor for the last 13 years.
"When I bought it, my friends all thought I was goofy," says Jim, "but, when I fire it up, they are all here. When kids in the neighborhood hear the whistle, they all come running." In most cases, kids who stop by will eventually get a ride. The engine appears in parades in Monona and Waunakee and at a variety of other events. At three weddings, the engine has carried a wedding party from the church to the reception. Lona is a loyal supporter who makes the sandwiches, fills the cooler, and rides in parades. The grown Connor children, Shelly, Dale, and Brett, often help during the parades, bringing their own children.
The season begins each year when a state inspector does a safety inspection. These days Jim fires up the boiler about 10 times a year. Firing up the boiler takes at least two hours. After the firebox is filled with wood and lit, it takes an hour for the 250 gallons of water to boil. It takes another hour to build the 120 pounds of pressure needed to power the engine. The coal is added to the firebox and the engine is ready to roll. A half-pickup load of coal is needed each time the boiler is fired, adding up to about a ton of coal each year.
The original steel wheels of the engine have been removed and it has been installed on a 1939 GMC truck chassis so it can be driven on the road. Designed to travel at 3 mph, it can be pushed to a top speed of 15 mph. Although the train resembles a very large tractor, it was not intended to plough fields. Usually a working engine would stand still, while its flywheel drove a belt which powered a stationary machine such as a threshing machine, sawmill, or silo filler. The work history of this engine has been lost, although Jim knows that the last real work it did was in the 50's when it was used to sterilize the planting beds of a greenhouse in Sparta.
As a youth, Jim worked with farm equipment on his grandfather's farm near Waunakee. He currently works in the gas distribution department for MGE, but had his interest in steam energy sparked during the five years he worked with boilers in the electric plant. He became friends with people who run the Chilton thresheree and started helping them run their engines. He became a regular participant in the Logger's Congress. "Then this engine became available and the price was right," he says.
That is how a 1916 steam engine came to Madison. If you see it rolling down your street, be sure to wave.