Champlin lawyer grew up in steam family

Anne Wetter Zimmerman takes a break from driving the 1919 Baker 22-90 HP Uniflow steam traction engine at the Nowthen (Minnesota) Threshing Show. Photo by Bill Vossler

You might say that Anne Wetter Zimmerman of Champlin has a lifetime membership in the steam traction engine club, as she truly grew up with steam.

“I got involved because my father, Leander Wetter, owned the 1907 65 HP Baker steam traction engine before I was born. They’ve owned it my entire life,” the 36-year-old attorney said, “So I grew up around it.”

But that wasn’t enough for Anne. After the Wetter Farms purchased a 1919 23-90 Baker Uniflow steam traction engine a year ago, Anne jumped into action.

With her interest in steam, her father urged her to get her steam license. “My dad had given up his hobby license years and years ago, so I made a deal with him: I’d get mine if he also went and got his. So we went to some classes at the University of Rollag Steam School at Rollag, took the test together, and that’s why we are both engineers today.”

Backstory

Because of the Wetter Farms history with the 1907 65 HP Baker, when the 1919 machine came up for sale in 2013, they went out to an auction in Ohio and bought it.

“The Bakers are a very efficient steam engine, and also rarer than some of the others out here in Minnesota particularly,” she said. “Because we had the connection with the 1907 Baker already, and this is a size larger and a Uniflow, we saw it as making a difference with more power and different features, but with the efficiency the Baker is known for.”

The machine was in generally good condition.

“The boiler had been largely redone, and the firebox was redone about 2000, so most of the boiler and all of the firebox are fairly new, and had not been run since the repairs were done,” she said.

The 11.5 ton machine was trucked back to Minnesota, inspected by hydrotest, sealed up with new gaskets, and steamed up. “We tried to figure out what we had at that time.”

It required tightening some leaks, adjusting the steering, and some jimmying around with the throttle, which was always operating at full open. “After powering down, dad popped open the throttle and figured out the design, and saw that it had been stuck open, so there was no control at that point. We prevent problems with a lot of good maintenance and good engineering and handling.”

An angled view of the 1919 Baker 23-90 Uniflow steam traction engine, showing it is still in excellent condition. Photo by Bill Vossler

The 1919 Baker was rated for 180 pounds pressure in Ohio, but Minnesota has stricter standards, so when brought back, it was only allowed 80 pounds of pressure, though it was redone by adding a thicker sheet of metal at the front of the boiler.

Anne said operating a steam traction engine like the 1919 at a show requires the typical engineer things, like making sure the water level is adequate, enough wood to burn, having a good base of heat built up to keep heat constant in the firebox so it can maintain constant pressure. 

“But you also have to be aware of the human effect. People are not used to being around machines like these, so you have to be extra careful that people don’t touch them, and are generally out of the way. Generally people think that because older machines move slower they are not dangerous, but there is a greater risk in not knowing much about them. So you have to be aware of people’s safety because they don’t understand how dangerous they can be if not dealt with properly.”

Anne said because she’s a woman she gets different questions than men do. At least initially. “At first the questions are less technical, because they think my brothers are the engineers, and I’m just assisting on the engine. But when they start to realize that I’m also licensed, they ask more technical ones.”

Anne said the 1919 is a big beast of an engine. “I refer to her as a woman, because she’s very strong but efficient, and kind of makes me relate to her a little bit.”

The boiler in the 1919 holds roughly 300-350 gallons, and a reserve of wood. “When the engine is working hard, it will use the water and wood she has on reserve in roughly an hour,” she said.

1907 Baker

Anne said the 1907 Baker is a perfect trainer for people interested in running a steam traction engine.

Anne Wetter Zimmerman fills the contractor tank preparing to taking the 1919 Baker 22-90 Uniflow steam traction engine out for the tractor parade. Photo by Bill Vossler

“It’s the best training steam engine a person can ever have, because it’s very patient, and as an operator learns, it’s very forgiving, which is very helpful in not discouraging new engineers. The firebox is easy to control fire, steam and pressure, and the injectors are set up and easy to reach. The machine is a teaching machine as well as a workhorse. That was the first steam engine that I ever ran, and my reaction was that it was very simplistic in design because it had just a few operating levers, but very complicated in steering.”

It’s not like steering a car today, she said, but determining where the great piston on the side is–if it’s toward the front of its stroke, the engine will go forward; if it’s toward the rear of its stroke, it will go backwards. If it’s in the middle, it won’t move at all.

“Then you have to grab the big flywheel and turn it to move the piston and get it to operate again.”

Anne said she gets very basic questions when she’s operating one of the Wetter steam traction engines, like how they got involved, how long they’ve owned the engines, how they came to own them, what’s needed for maintenance, and so on.

“With maintenance, we explain the inspection the licensing requirements, and show them the license on back of the engine. They’ll also often ask why my brothers and I who are of a different generation than a lot of the antique owners, are involved with steam. The main reason I got involved in steam is because my family is involved in it, and enjoy it, and because I can enjoy it and share it with my family.”

She added that people are surprised to see a woman operating the machine as a licensed engineer who knows about engines, “But they’re even more surprised that I’m an attorney as well. Women are impressed and happy to see that it’s an equal gender hobby, and that all ages and gender can get involved so we don’t lose this little bit of history.”

View of the piston that drives the 1919 Baker 22-90 Uniflow steam traction engine. Photo by Bill Vossler

The most difficult part of the steam traction engine hobby is upkeep, but not in a way most people might think. “It’s not knowing, every time you have an inspection, whether you’re going to do no repairs, or major repairs. The inspections are not done until the summer, as the temperature needs to warm up enough so you can work with the engine. At that time, there are shows looming in the distance, and if there are major repairs that are needed, it becomes a crunch to get them done. If it’s something like welding, we can’t do it. We need a specialist. But as far as running the machine it is probably just making sure you monitor all the little components so you avoid big issues in the long run.”

That means listening to the engine, she said, and watching the gearing and making sure that nothing is loose because the machines don’t have modern equipment to detect if something is wrong. “So you have to pay attention, and catch things early so major breakdowns don’t occur.”

“What I like about steam is that it is a very powerful piece of our history, because it really was modern power but not in the most modern manufacturing. People believed they could create this kind of power for the technology that existed back then. It’s an awesome way to touch history, and to learn why we’re at the place we’re at now, in the most basic forms. I am amazed that far in the past somebody took wood and water and created something so powerful.”