Rural Missouri Magazine

The biggest thing in steam
Shelbina old threshers club gets its engine rolling

by Bob McEowen

Carl Smith operates the throttle in the cab of the NEMO steam club’s locomotive. Smith, president of the club for the past 20 years, spearheaded the restoration of the 1923 Alco 0-4-0 engine. Above: The locomotive runs along track laid by members of the Shelbina-based club. The locomotive, built in Schenectady, N.Y., was originally configured as a tank engine, but the external water tank was removed during restoration.

You could see the worry and disappointment in Carl Smith’s eyes as he stoked the firebox of a large boiler, his gaze practically begging the needle of a steam gauge to pass the 100-psi mark.

Carl’s concern was not due to the wet coal, or the still sleepy machine at his command. He was worried about the weather.

It was Friday morning, and the Shelby County Fairgrounds was a sea of mud as the Northeast Missouri Old Threshers club launched its 21st annual exposition of antique farm implements and steam-powered machinery. Exhibitors wearing knee-high rubber boots wandered the grounds, sloshing past tarp-covered vendor’s tables, and joined fretful discussions under food shack canopies.

In any normal year, the fall show is the highlight event for the NEMO Old Threshers club. This year’s show was especially important to the club and Carl, its president for the past 20 years. He had spent more than a year restoring a steam locomotive and another year gathering and laying track. Although the locomotive was on display during the 2007 show, this was the first time the club would be able to offer train rides, and the 69-year-old retired maintenance worker was looking forward to sharing his love of old machinery with area school children.

“We’ll have about a thousand kids come through here on Friday,” he had said just two weeks prior, in anticipation of the show, Sept. 11-14. “It makes my day to see those kids just bubble over with activity. They really love it.”

The Northeast Missouri Old Threshers club’s 1923 Alco locomotive steams past a church, recently relocated to the club’s show grounds. The train traveled along 700 feet of track during the club’s fall steam show. It is the farthest the train has traveled since the club purchased the locomotive in 2006 and began restoring it.

One by one, schools called to cancel their field trips because of the rain. Carl refused to be deterred. With a tug on a heavy steel handle, the whistle from an Alco 0-4-0 steam locomotive pierced the air. The loud blast carried across the fairgrounds in defiance of the weather. Rain or shine, this train was going to run.

Carl placed a gloved hand on a giant lever and pushed it forward. The engine came to life with a hiss, pistons pushing connecting rods. The locomotive’s four driving wheels slipped and then grabbed, launching the train in reverse. Leaning far out the side of the cab, Carl watched as the big machine gently rolled along the edge of the fairgrounds. In less than two minutes, the train came to a stop, having traversed the entire rail line. After a brief stop, and another series of whistles, the train chugged forward for a 700-foot return.

In the clatter-trap world of steam-powered machinery enthusiasts, bigger is better. And nothing — at least nothing that a small town club is likely to own — is bigger than a train.

“This would be the ultimate,” Carl says, with just a hint of pride that his club has something few others can boast. “There’s only one other old threshers club that I know of here in the Midwest that has anything like it.”

The NEMO Old Thresher’s already had a reputation for big projects. The club’s annual show is a non-stop demonstration of working equipment, from the press that squeezes sorghum to a massive steam-powered sawmill to an electrical generation plant salvaged from the city of La Plata. The addition of a working locomotive just takes the club’s activities to another level.

The locomotive runs along track laid by members of the Shelbina-based club. The locomotive, built in Schenectady, N.Y., was originally configured as a tank engine, but the external water tank was removed during restoration.

The project began in 2006 when club members learned of a 1923 Alco locomotive for sale near Sedalia. Six members traveled to see the train, a small switching engine once used to move boxcars around a rail yard in New York.

The previous owner purchased the engine at a bankruptcy sale and brought it back to Missouri with hopes of creating an amusement park. Carl learned that the locomotive the NEMO club now owns was the best of four offered at the New York sale.

“I would have hated to see the others,” he says. “This was a mess.”

A small tank engine with just four driving wheels — children would liken it to Percy, the diminutive 0-4-0 switch engine of the “Thomas the Tank” cartoons — the locomotive was in pieces. Its running gear sinking into the ground and elm sprouts growing through its chassis.

The club members decided to purchase the train, despite its deteriorated condition. They paid $12,000 for what was, essentially, 45,000 pounds of grimy scrap iron and hauled it to Carl’s shop near Emden. For the next 14 months, Carl, a member of Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative, spearheaded the reclamation.

With the help of club members and local volunteers, the machine gradually came back to life.

“We went to cleaning it and repairing it,” Carl says. “None of us thought it was going to get into this much work. It was quite a challenge.”

One volunteer sandblasted the major parts, removing layers of oil and tar. A local machinist, Albert Miles of Monroe City, refurbished the crucial driving arms and bearings.

First-graders from Holy Rosary School of Monroe City enjoy the view, and an escape from the rain, from the passenger car.

“He trued them up and made them round again. Got them perfect, absolutely perfect,” Carl recalls. “You can take a small pick-up and pull this thing down the track easily.”

It fell to Carl to make sense of the buckets and boxes of bolts, pipes, fittings and valves the club hauled back from Sedalia.

“They handed him that three truckloads of stuff and it’s all nuts and bolts,” recalls Carl’s wife of two years, Donna. “I say, ‘How do you know where to put all that?’ He says, ‘If it fits in the hole, that’s where it goes.’”

The restored locomotive made its maiden appearance at last year’s NEMO Old Threshers show. With just 90 feet of track at the time, the 25-foot-long engine could barely move. Instead, the locomotive belched smoke while Carl rang the bell and blew the whistle.

Following last year’s show, the club began to improve its railroad. They located surplus rail at a local industry and laid 600 feet of track in preparation for this year’s show. The new track sits just a few yards from the old Shelby County railroad line that once ran through Shelbina.

“It went from Shelbyville to Kellerville, Kellerville to Leonard and Leonard to Novelty and then come back,” recalls Charles Krieg, a member of NEMO Old Threshers from Shelbina. “We were building the sub-grade here and dug up two of the original railroad spikes. Right on north of us, there’s still a little fill there where it went across a creek,” he says.

A former highway construction inspector and a collector of John Deere tractors, Krieg, 70, joined a crew of club members tamping track and filling ballast around railroad ties.

Members of the Northeast Missouri Old Threshers club tamp track in preparation for their annual steam show.

"You’ve got to give back to the community,” he says, explaining his willingness to help.
Although the short stretch of track along the edge of the Old Threshers grounds and adjacent county fairgrounds is modest, it is just the beginning, club members say.

“When we get done here, we’ll have about a mile of track,” says Carl, who laid track for a railroad in Montana as a young man. “We fully intend to go around the whole 20 acres of the Old Threshers ground.”

In the past year, the club has added two more pieces of rolling stock. A tender car, purchased from an Illinois railroad museum, hauls coal and water. A converted boxcar offers fairgoers a place to sit and enjoy a ride on the train.

The passenger car was a hit with the people who attended the Old Threshers show in September. One group of first-graders from a nearby parochial school — one of the few groups to brave the rain — even enjoyed a train robbery performed by a gang of cowboy re-enactors.

The wheels of the Alco locomotive once again turn.

Aside from acquiring and installing more rail, Carl says future plans include finding a caboose, sheltering the engine and attracting new members to take an interest in the train. In the meantime, Carl continues to serve as chief engineer of the NEMO Old Threshers’ railroad. You could see the satisfaction in his face as he brought the old steam engine to life.

“It just really ran smooth,” Carl says recalling two full days at the helm of the locomotive. “It’s amazing that you can boil water and propel a locomotive down the track with power, great power.

“With a little bit of work, you can have all the fun you can stand,” he says.

The NEMO Old Threshers club seeks donations of railroad ties and rail. For more information, write to 6344 Shelby 468, Shelbina, MO 63468 or call Carl Smith at 660-676-0256.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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