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A steam-powered wedding gift

After 55 years, tractor and marriage still working

Lyle and Bonnie Osten with an Allis-Chalmers from Lyle’s tractor collection. When they were married, Lyle gave Bonnie a 1930 Minneapolis tractor as a wedding gift. Photo by Bill Vossler

When Lyle Osten thought about a wedding gift for his bride-to-be, Bonnie Bekkerus, he didn’t have to look any further than the Quonset building on his farm. Not a usual place to find a string of pearls or something else suitable for a gift during that era, but Lyle wasn’t your usual kind of guy.

Old Iron History

When he was 10, Lyle, who is now 75, attended his first steam show. He was forever hooked.

“My dad, Victor, took me to the first steam show in our area, and as soon as I got into it, I decided I wanted to buy a steam engine,” he said.

Instead, for pocketbook and practicality’s sake, he bought a Fordson tractor for $20, which together they got running. Undeterred, at 15, Lyle found a 1906 22 horse Minneapolis steam engine “that I wanted really bad,” Lyle said. “We found three older gentlemen that said if I was interested in steam, they would buy it for me, help me fix it up, and later I could buy it back from them.” Which he did, running it at Rollag’s Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion each year, and acquiring needed steam boiler licenses.

By this time, Bonnie had been attending the yearly WMSTR show with Lyle. “I knew old iron was something Lyle liked, so if I wanted to spend time with him I had to be there around the old iron,” she said.

Wedding Bells, Wedding Tractor

The couple, who now live in Callaway, Minn., met at a basketball game between their rival Minnesota schools, Lyle’s Pelican Rapids Vikings and Bonnie’s Barnesville Trojans, and after dating three years, they got engaged. He was 20, she 18, so Lyle looked over the possible gifts for Bonnie in the Quonset.

His choices included the 1920 Fordson tractor, 1906 Minneapolis steam engine, a 1930 Minneapolis 17-30 cross-motor tractor, 1929 two-door coupe Essex automobile, a 1929 Velie auto, early model Monitor pump jack engine, and 18-32 Case crossmotor and 28-50 Hart Parr tractors. Quite a line-up.

The Osten clan gathered around the Frick 15-28 a few years ago. With standing Lyle and Bonnie, attired in tractor-show clothes, are their children Andrew, Ilene, and Shelly. Photo courtesy of Lyle and Bonnie Osten

His eyes fell on the 1930 cross-motor Minneapolis tractor, because Bonnie had already been helping with some work on it. Lyle and his father had saved the tractor from an ignominious junkyard death of being cut up for scrap. Lyle said, “It was in excellent shape, and needed a paint job, so Bonnie and I cleaned the grease off, sanded it, and painted it up.”

“The 1930 Minneapolis cross-motor was the third tractor I’d ever bought,” Lyle said, “but the best one.” So the decision to give it to his best gal was an easy one.

“He decided he wanted a really special gift for me– a tractor,” said Bonnie. “Most girls in that era got pearls for a gift; I got a tractor. People would give you that look: ‘What are you going to do with a tractor?’ But that tractor is worth more than pearls. It’s an antique, so it increases in value every year. Lyle said ‘Now this is your tractor. You have to be able to start it and make sure the lubricator is dripping.’ It’s the best tractor we have for starting on the crank.”

Her first lesson in cranking was where to put her hand so it wouldn’t get smashed if the tractor backfired.

“I’d hang on to the fender to bring the crank across. You get all set, and on the second click it pops right over. I never smashed a finger.”

At the time, Bonnie said she thought it was pretty cool owning the Minneapolis, because she was practically the only woman involved in any way at the WMSTR.

She found that when someone talked about the wedding tractor at Rollag, they’d say, “‘You mean Lyle’s tractor?’ You know how it is, a tractor is thought to be the man’s, and I’d say ‘No. This tractor is mine.’”

Through this all, Bonnie has developed her own strong love of old iron.

“I grew up on a farm, so I knew what it was about. When it comes to restoring one of the old tractors we have, I’m out there scraping and painting, and that type of thing. I’m not so much into the mechanical part of it, but if Lyle asks for something from the tool chest, I know what he wants. I still drive tractor when we start doing field work, too.”

Each time the 17-30 needed work in the intervening years, it was Bonnie’s job. Scraping old chipped paint off takes a long time.

Bonnie and Lyle Osten riding their “wedding tractor,” a 1930 Minneapolis 17-30 crossmotor machine given by Lyle to Bonnie for a wedding gift. Photo courtesy of Lyle and Bonnie Osten.

“I like to see the end result as fast as I can, so I tackle the job, first second third, just do it.” She does all the paint trimming and highlighting by hand. Because they farm, they have a shop with tools and places to store the tractor while working on it. If they lived in town, storing, hauling, or the equipment could be a problem.

“It worked with our farming situation, because we used these things.”

Bonnie and Lyle are partners in other ways, too. When Lyle decided to upgrade his steam license to second class, Bonnie helped him study.

“I asked him study questions as we drove back and forth to the farm or show grounds.”

After Lyle passed the test, a WMSTR member said to Bonnie, “Why don’t you take the test? By helping Lyle, you’ve been studying as well.”

She did; she passed; and she became the first licensed lady engineer at Rollag, and probably first one in Minnesota. “With my third-class license, I’m eligible to run the hospital steam system in Detroit Lakes, Minn.,” she laughed.

In addition to the Minneapolis, among the 60 tractors they own, they have difficult-to-find ones, like the Frick and the Gray.

Lyle said his favorite of all the tractors is the Frick, and as a tractor line, the Allis-Chalmers.

“The first one I drove was a WC Allis-Chalmers, and we farmed with them all the time, so there’s a special place in my heart for them.”

Bonnie’s favorite? No surprise, the Minneapolis. “I still crank it myself,” the 74-year-old said, “and it still works really good. It’s one of the dependable ones, so it’s usually parked by the door (of one of the buildings that store tractors) at Rollag, and we use it to pull out the other tractors.”

In addition, Bonnie continues to drive the Minneapolis in the daily tractor parades, and this year it will be the 51st time in a row she has had that distinction. This “wedding tractor” is appreciated by thousands of show-goers each year.

For many years, Bonnie was practically the only woman who drove a tractor at Rollag. “When I drove my tractor in parade, I felt important: I was doing this and no other women were.” Now, of course, there are many ladies involved in all aspects of WMSTR. (Including their oldest daughter, Ilene who also has a steam license).”

Few activities for women were on the docket during the early years at Rollag, so when Bonnie became president of the Ladies’ Board, she wanted to get more women involved. “I felt if lots of gals were on the ladies’ board, if there was something for women to look at besides tractors, they’d be more apt to come.” So she was instrumental in building several buildings on Rollag’s Main Street and offering more demonstrations of interest to women.

Besides starting easily, another feature of the tractor which surprises people is its slow idle speed, Bonnie said. “You can idle it way down. Everybody thinks it’s going to stop, but it keeps going and going. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. It runs like a charm.”

Generating New Old-Iron Lovers

Four generations of Ostens are now involved with Rollag, and it’s become a getaway weekend for everybody. Bonnie said, “It’s just more fun if your family is with you, wherever you’re at.”

The Ostens’ “wedding tractor,” a 1930 Minneapolis 17-30 crossmotor machine all dolled up and ready to go. Photo courtesy of Lyle and Bonnie Osten.

The Ostens have passed down their love of old iron to their children and grandchildren. When grandson Noah Osten Dillon was 16 years old, he bought himself a 1917 28-90 HP Minneapolis steam engine. Bonnie said, “He got his steam license, and runs it in the show every year. It felt really good because our legacy is going to go on with some of them in the Osten family. It’s fun to have a few of them carry on.”

One young grandson was so enamored with Rollag that his mother doesn’t dare play Rollag videotapes on TV. “He couldn’t understand why we couldn’t go to Rollag right now,” Bonnie said.

Additionally, Andrew Osten’s kids love a one-third scale Case steam engine that runs. Bonnie said, “Our grandsons and their friends run the steam engine around the yard like nobody’s business.”

Lyle added that he asked them detailed questions about how much water and pressure the boiler holds, and they love to answer. “If it runs out of fire,” Lyle said, “they have to rebuild it to get the pressure back up. They go around the house pulling a wagon with kids in it.”

Their family participation makes Lyle and Bonnie feel good.

“We collect these toys and tractors, and we know there’s somebody to take over after we’re gone. Our grandsons will have something to remember grandpa and grandma with. It’s a heritage thing.”

Weathering the Years

On their wedding day, Jan. 27, 1962, a snowstorm churned up. That evening, the wind was whipping the Minnesota snow around the old country church by Pelican Rapids, and the temperature was nearing -20 below. Bonnie said, “Everybody milked cows in those days, so the wedding wasn’t until 8 in the evening. I’m sure all our aunts and uncles were thinking, ‘We have to do this.’ We were just about to call the wedding off, but it cleared up in the evening, so it was meant to be. It must have worked,” she laughed, “because we’re still together.”

She says being married to Lyle for 55 years has been an adventure every day. Like if a tractor breaks down, he’ll ask her to go along to the parts dealer.

“We never know what we might find, or what makes the day. Some of our best finds are by word of mouth, part of the adventure.”

Did Bonnie ever think about selling her wedding tractor, the 1930 Minneapolis cross-motor 17-30? “No,” she laughed. “I’ll never sell it. I couldn’t get enough money for it. How can you put a price on love?”

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