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Full steam ahead

Irish brothers bring big machines, international flavor to area shows

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Shane Skelton stands on his Marshall road locomotive, one of the powerful and interesting pieces of equipment in his collection, which he shares with his brother, Patrick. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Mention green equipment at pioneer power shows and most people think of John Deere farm machinery. But some pieces of vintage equipment displayed and demonstrated at the Pioneer Power Show in Le Sueur last month are nothing like your grandpa’s Poppin’ Johnny. In fact, these aren’t farm machines at all; they are heavy duty road equipment brought to Minnesota by a pair of Irish brothers, Shane and Patrick Skelton. The men have demonstrated their steam engines, including a Marshall road locomotive and a Garrett compound road roller, for a number of years.

The Skelton brothers began their collection of these English-manufactured machines while living in Dublin, Ireland. After immigrating to Minnesota, they had their machines brought over so they could continue what is clearly more than an ordinary hobby.

Shane was the first to move to Minnesota. He had no plans to bring any steam-powered equipment with him. In fact, he had no plans to leave Ireland until he received an invitation from a family member who had immigrated and asked Shane, “When are you coming over?” That was about the same time that Shane did not receive a raise he had requested from his employer, giving Shane more reason to consider the invitation.

“So, I came to America for Christmas 1993, literally on a whim,” he said, “traveling from London to Paris, to Boston, to Minneapolis. It was a circuitous route on the cheapest ticket. Patrick came in spring 1994.”

Although the brothers had been hair stylists in Dublin, they chose a different business direction in becoming real estate developers in the Twin Cities. This has enabled them to continue and to expand their hobby of restoring and operating steam traction engines.

Shane Skelton in front of some of his steam equipment. Contributed photo

With a hint of his Irish roots still in his voice, Shane explained their collection. “A steam traction engine is a machine designed in the mid-19th century,” he said. “It was the only way of utilizing steam and making it mobile. The boiler produces steam, and when that power is put on wheels, it can do an immense amount of work, producing muscle power from water and fuel. It’s a mobile power plant. It can be used for pulling a plow, pulling trees out of the ground, powering a threshing machine or a saw mill, or literally, powering any other device that is needed.”

He continued, “When I first came here, I attended several steam shows and threshing bees. When I opened my mouth, word got out that there was a foreigner with an accent who knew something about steam engines. I attended an auction in Montgomery about 1998, where there were well over 50 steam engines for sale, but I didn’t have much appreciation for American-made steam engines.”

Shane suggested to Patrick that they “move the brunt of the collection from Ireland to England,” which they did. Shane explained, “I was fascinated and bitten by the bug. The plan was to get these engines into safe working condition. Those services—the technology and know-how—still exist in England, so we spent money getting the equipment mechanically correct. We have the know-how, but not the time. We flew over several times a year and were very well received when we showed the equipment.”

Shane and Patrick eventually moved five steam engines to Minnesota, with the idea of finding the time to work on them here. With the help of two other brothers, they dismantled the engines in England and loaded them into 40-foot shipping containers. The shipment was brought by freighter to a port in Nova Scotia, Canada and arrived in Minnesota in two batches in 2003.

“We started a process of restoration,” Shane said, “repairing bearings and pistons, and replacing rods and rings. What didn’t we do?!? A man named Ken Peterson, now in his 80s, helped with the road roller’s restoration. He’s a great man when it comes to turning, drilling, milling and welding.”

Shane continued, “We then moved the engines to the Le Sueur Pioneer Power grounds and began showing them in 2009. That’s their home. My steamroller (the Garrett compound road roller) is stored at a friend’s house in the heart of Burnsville, at a cost of $1 a day.”

The 1921 Marshall (see photo) is a three-speed road locomotive used in Ireland for hauling up to 45 tons of lodestone. The machine ran from the quarry to wherever it was needed, capable of a speed of 15 miles per hour empty, but Shane said, “You don’t want to run it loaded down on a road at that speed.”

Marshall Portable Engine being towed by Marshall Road Locomotive, part of the Skelton Brothers collection. Contributed photo

The 1924 Garrett compound road roller (see photo) was built in Leiston, England by special order from the Leitrim County Council in the west of Ireland. Shane said, “It was assembled at quay side in Dublin Harbor, driven across the country by the driver, who fed fuel to the engine, and his mate, who steered.”

Since becoming involved with the Le Sueur Pioneer Power Show 12 years ago, Shane and Patrick Skelton have displayed nine different machines at the show. They have brought an international flavor to a gathering of machinery enthusiasts.

Since becoming involved with the Le Sueur Pioneer Power Show 12 years ago, Shane and Patrick Skelton have displayed several different engines at the show. Alongside the Marshall and Garrett engines are two other English-built engines—a Ruston Proctor engine built in 1877, awaiting its turn for complete restoration, and another Marshall engine that has had a case of wanderlust. This unusual engine was built in 1911 and shipped to Santiago, Chile, where it powered a sawmill until 1998, when it finally was taken out of service and replaced with electricity, which by then had reached the remote millsite. The Skelton brothers purchased the machine, had it shipped to England, then to Ireland, then back to England, and finally to Minnesota, where it is on display at Pioneer Power.

Other engines the Skeltons have on display are a 75-hp Case-built traction engine (built in 1915), two Nichols and Shepard plow engines and a Huber 25-hp engine once owned by a charismatic Irish priest from Jessenland, Minn. There’s no question that Shane and Patrick Skelton have brought an international flavor to a gathering of machinery enthusiasts.

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