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Steam engine may be family heirloom

Threshing trip sparked grandparents’ romance

Staff writer

When Glenn Litke of rural Hillsboro purchased an Avery Return Flue Steam Engine at an estate auction in Hutchinson in 1987, he wasn’t thinking that it might be the same one owned by his great-grandfather J.W. Buller in 1910.

His great-grandfather drove it 150 miles cross-country from Hillsboro to Osborne County (approximately 1½ miles per hour) to thresh wheat.

Glenn’s late father, Virgil, was with him at the auction, and when he saw that Glenn had purchased the engine, he looked at it more closely and realized that it might have been the very same one. The more he studied it, the more certain he became that it was.

With no serial number on the machine, he couldn’t positively identify it, but he pointed out several reasons why the 1900 steam engine likely was the same one.

Steam engines of this size were most often used to power a threshing machine in a stationary manner rather than as a plow engine. But this engine showed extreme wear on the gears and had banged up front steel wheels, indicating it had been driven many miles over rocky hills and dales and prairies. It also had a repaired fly wheel clutch, which, according to family history, had been done by Buller, an expert mechanic, after it broke in Osborne County.

There’s another reason that Glenn is thrilled to have that engine. It was on that trip that his grandfather, William W. Litke, and grandmother, Lizzie Buller, daughter of J.B. Buller, fell in love.

Both were teenagers. Lizzie was a cook, and William was a crew member who pitched bundles into the threshing machine.

“William liked her pies, and he discovered he also liked her,” Glenn said. “And that’s what brought them together.”

That union produced Glenn’s father.

Glenn’s sister, Brenda, still uses a porcelain pie plate used by his grandmother.

After purchasing the engine, Glenn, who was a music teacher at Tabor College, a farmer, and music minister at his church, spent the next two and a half years restoring it with help from experts in the field of steam engines, including locals Richard Wall and Bob Unruh.

He spent the first summer stripping the parts, including engine crank, wheels, and axles, and hauled the boiler to Valley Center in the fall for some tough repairs by Tom Terning.

After he brought it home and sandblasted it, he applied undercoating and paint. Then the reassembly began. Many parts were missing, but through correspondence and attending auctions and steam engine shows, he was able to find them or make them from scratch.

He exchanged the original Avery coupler with a coupler made by his great-grandfather’s business, Buller Manufacturing, which operated for many years in Hillsboro.

On July 4, 1990, the steam engine was ready for its first firing. Glenn invited his “engine buddies” to be present for the celebration.

Glenn was thrilled to see smoke coming from the stack. Everyone had to wait for the steam to build and, after working with the controls for a bit, the engine actually began to run and drive on its own power.

“That seven-ton hunk of iron that hadn’t blown its whistle for nearly 70 years and that no doubt narrowly escaped the fate of the cutting torch during two world wars was demonstrating its new life by chugging beautifully on its own power,” he said. “At age 37, I felt like a 7-year-old kid playing with his new electric train.”

The Avery’s first show appearance was at the 1990 Goessel Threshing Days. Glenn showed it again that fall at a Terning’s Labor Day show in Valley Center.

It still needed a few finishing touches. By February 1991, he had added a fringed wooden canopy, painted decals, and pin striping. The restoration was complete.

Glenn decided to write an article about the engine and the restoration process. He named it “My First Steam Engine,” and submitted it to The Iron-Men Album magazine. To his delight, the photo he had taken of the machine was on the front cover of the 1992 January-February issue, and the story was inside.

He owns another steam engine, but this one is his pride and joy, especially because it just might be a family heirloom going back four generations.

“I’ll never be able to prove this is my great-grandfather’s Avery, but until someone out there proves it isn’t, you can bet I’m going to treat it as though it was,” Glenn said. “I am 99.9 percent sure it is the same one because so few of this model were made, and I found it just 50 miles from home.”

“I believe that the Lord orchestrates our lives, especially if we are true to him. I see this engine as a gift from God. When I look at it, I smile and say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’”

Last modified Jan. 28, 2021

 

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