Alexandria man has been making toys for several years

Joe Steinhagen’s toys come in all sizes, from a few inches long to 4 feet long to 20 feet or so, weighing from a couple of ounces to dozens of pounds to about 20,000 pounds. The Alexandria man built almost all of those, except for the biggest one of all.

The big one is the 63-year-old’s 10-ton 1913 60 HP Case steam engine, which he drives or has driven during the parade at the Rose City Threshing and Heritage Festival near Miltona, Minnesota, every year.

Joe Steinhagen, of Alexandria, poses with some of the small hand-held toys he made. This photo was taken a few years ago. Contributed photo

Owning that big beast, along with a family history of steam engines, and remembering his lack of toys as a kid, led him to building a miniature model of it. “My dad owned a steam engine,” he said, and my grandpa had eight steam engines at one time, so it’s in the family. These are the giant steam traction engines I’m talking about. I’ve seen pictures of my grandfather standing on the big back wheel of a steam engine.”

But the real urge came when he thought back to his lack of farm toys as a kid, and remembered his friend Scott’s boy, Tommy, who was 10, the perfect age to be playing with toys. “I thought I’d make him a steam engine as a toy,” he said.

So, he took an inch and a quarter wooden dowel and cut it to make the boiler, a smaller one for the piston, rounded an area from a 2 x 4 to make the firebox where coal or wood or straw were inserted to be burned, and cut the wheels and other parts for the toy out of a piece of plywood, using a hole saw, and paneling for the top of the cab.

“Of course, a steam engine needs a water tank, so I made him one of those, painted both of them, and gave them to Tommy.”

Joe decided to make this steam engine to give to the son of a friend of his so the boy could play with it, along with a water wagon. Contributed photo

The process took three days, with painting taking the longest, getting the black, red, and green colors right. Joe didn’t use any plans to make the toys, but gauged them by eye, and figured they turned out pretty good. The wheels are steel washers brought together and painted.   

Turned out pretty good too when he gave the toys to Tommy. “He was kind of overwhelmed. Finishing the toys and giving the toys to Tommy and seeing the smile on his face was probably my payday. His dad made a thresher for him, so he could hook it up to the steam engine. He had more fun playing with them than with farm tractors. It was a personal touch for him in the world of pretending.”

And who knows the effect it had on the boy, now 28, who farms 600 acres in the area? And attends the Rose City show every year.

More Toys

Not satisfied with those toys, Joe began making other hand-held-sized toys for himself, including a six-bottom plow he had pulled with his 1913 Case steam engine. “I took the dimensions off that plow and used copper tubing and steel to build it, and it turned out pretty good.”

He also built a toy sawmill, based after the real sawmill on the Rose City threshing grounds, using angle iron, and washers again. “But I didn’t put a sharp blade on it because it was a toy, using a regular washer instead.”

Medium-Sized Toys

Close-up of a 6-bottom plow made by Joe Steinhagen. Contributed photo

Not content to stop there, Joe built about one-fourth real size toys of–surprise, surprise– a steam engine, water tank and thresher. “A friend of mine calls the steam engine a ‘junkyard engine’ because of what it was made out of.”

That meant flat sheets of steel which he rolled for the boiler, wheels that he found after scouring the countryside until he found an old hay loader in the trees, and drive gear that came from a junk pile near Nome, North Dakota, where Joe worked many years ago.

Other pieces for the trio of about ¼ scale “toys” included angle iron that had been laying on the ground, now making the frame of the thresher, as well as other parts from a combine, swather, and manure spreader loader. I’m kind of cheap,” he laughed, “so I chose used stuff instead of going ahead and buying new.”

Once he was finished with them, he painted them the correct colors and had a woman at a nearby sign shop make the proper decals.

“For me it was wintertime work, and since I was retired, I started making these larger-size ones by working on them a little bit each day, first the steam engine, then the water wagon, and then the thresher. It took me about a month for each one, part time.”

Hand-held-sized toys Joe made, including the steam engine, water wagon, and thresher, in back, with a sawmill and 6-bottom plow, in the front row. Contributed photo

He said the most difficult part for him in all these projects was the painting. “I’m not a painting guy. I do it, but I don’t like it.”

He now displays the three larger toys down near his flower garden. “It’s kind of a mark of accomplishment for me. I’m proud of what I did in making them.”

That also includes his John Deere velocipede. “The wheels and seat are made of John Deere parts from their machines, so I painted it John Deere colors.”

Joe said he grew up on a farm until he was 12 years old, and that has had a strong influence in his life, as he is still involved with farm stuff, busy with the yearly Rose City Threshing and Heritage Festival.

Reactions to his work vary widely, Joe said. “Some people are impressed, and some people wonder why you would waste your time making them.”

“All you need is a hammer, nails, saw and drill. Half the fun of the deal is making them. If I can do it, anybody can,” Joe said.