Posts Categorized: Things

From Steam to Gasoline: The Tractor!


By Benji Nichols | Image above courtesy Randy Leffingwell, LA Times

There are few inventions in history that have literally changed the landscape like the modern tractor. Steam locomotives were being primitively built as early as the late 1700s in Europe and then America, but it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that steam technology was applied to “Locomobiles” or traction engines (tractor for short!). These early replacements for draft horses were incredible inventions, but also proved to be slow, heavy, and cumbersome. This is where the story of the tractor takes an interesting turn on a little road in Northeast Iowa.

John Froelich was born November 24, 1849 in Giard, Iowa. The first of nine children born to German settlers Johannes Heinrich (Henry) Froelich and Kathryn Gutheil, his life work went far beyond the typical farm – he operated a grain elevator near Froelich, Iowa and ran a threshing operation in Langford, South Dakota. As the story goes, John Froelich was fascinated by steam-driven machinery and farm implements. And not only that: he also worked on them and understood their weaknesses. In 1890 Froelich purchased a gasoline internal combustion engine from the Van Duzen Engine Works in Cincinnati, Ohio, to run his grain elevator. While working with the engine at his elevator he began to tinker with the idea of using the gasoline engine to power a traction engine.

In 1892 Froelich mounted a single-cylinder Van Duzen engine on a Robinson chassis with a traction system of his own design and thus created the very first internal combustion-powered tractor that moved forward and backward, and could also power a threshing machine. Froelich’s sidekick and assistant, William Mann, helped him transport the machine by rail to their South Dakota operation and proceeded to use it to power their J.I. Case threshing machine through 72,000 bushels of grain in 52 days.

On the heels of this accomplishment, a group of investors backed Froelich and formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company in 1893. But unfortunately they only built four of Froelich’s tractors – two of which were returned by unsatisfied customers. In 1895 the company became the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and went to work building small stationary gas engines for such uses as pumping water and powering grain elevators. Froelich soon left the company and the Waterloo Company changed hands more than once in the early 1900s, but eventually began to produce the “Waterloo Boy” gas engine farm tractors, a design much like the one John Froelich brought to the company more than a decade before. By 1918, Waterloo Boy had produced three models of the tractor including the LA, R, and N models with over 8,000 tractors sold.

In 1918, The John Deere Company in Moline made a bid of $2.2 million dollars to acquire the Waterloo Boy Tractor Company, thus taking on the most successful modern tractor company of its time, and all of this built off of John Froelich’s original design for the gasoline internal combustion traction engine. John Froelich went on from his early tractor-building endeavor to create engines at the Novelty Iron Work in Dubuque, and then worked with his brother Gottlieb in manufacturing before moving to St. Paul. He was a life-long inventor, credited with such things as a washing machine, dish washer and dryer, a mechanical corn picker, and the first air conditioner that later became the Carrier Air Conditioning Company. In the late 1920 Froelich caught some more bad luck working in the investment world. The great crash of 1929 wiped out much of his livelihood and savings and he spent the final years of his life with his daughter, Jenetie, in St. Paul where he passed away in 1933. He was never recognized for his inventions until decades later. Froelich was inducted into the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991. To this day, his name sits on the sidelines in the history of the common farm tractor, but it was indeed his invention and tinkering with the old Van Duzen single cylinder engine that led to one of the world’s most important agricultural implements.

PHOTO COURTESY FROELICH FOUNDATION

Today the village of Froelich, Iowa sits perfectly captured and re-built as a still-shot from a century ago. A model of John Froelich’s tractor rests outside the refurbished general store. Once a year the village comes alive with action from all over the tri-state area for the annual “Fall-der-All.”

“Fall-der-All” is the annual celebration of the Froelich Tractor and attractions, including the Burlingame General Store Museum, Tractor Museum, one-room country school, blacksmith shop and more. It’s an opportunity for those that love vintage farm equipment to bring their collection in and show it off,” says Froelich foundation President Denny Eilers.

This year, the festival and fundraiser will take place September 26-26, with a variety of displays and activities suitable for the whole family.

The Froelich Foundation board-of-directors is an all-volunteer group that manages the museum, grounds, and historic preservation of Froelich.

“The town of Froelich is significant in agricultural history as it’s the birthplace of the modern farm tractor,” Eilers says. “The Froelich Tractor is the direct ancestor to today’s John Deere tractor division in Waterloo, Iowa, and around the world. There is a huge amount of history coming out of this small village, as historians credit the modern farm tractor as the key tool that helps American farmers create an abundant food supply for our country, plus produce enough to export to other countries. It’s a history we treasure, and the Froelich Foundation was started 21 years ago as a non-profit group of volunteers to preserve this history and pass it down to the next generation.”

You can find out more about the story of John Froelich, the village named after his family, and the annual Fall-der-All by visiting the Village of Froelich located on Highway 18 between Monona and McGregor, Iowa – open through September from 11 am to 5 pm daily except for Wednesdays, and weekends in October. More information and history at www.froelichtractor.com or by calling (563) 536-2841.

Benji Nichols has been fascinated with old tractors and single-piston-engines for as long as he can remember his Grandpa tinkering with them. He looks forward to the Froelich Fall-der-All and Hesper/Mabel Steam Engine days every fall and someday hopes to learn how to engineer steam tractors.

Butter-to-Art: An Interview with Butter Sculptress Sarah Pratt

By Benji Nichols 

With roots dating as far back as the 1400s, butter has been used in various ways to create art – Monks even made deities out of yak butter! Here in Iowa we’ve been making butter art since the early 1900s with the Iowa State Fair “Butter Cow.” The list of the artists who have worked in this medium at the State Fair is surprisingly short, but Inspire(d) was lucky enough to catch up with the latest heir to the title “Butter Sculptor.”

It is worth noting that the construction of a butter figure is even more complex than you would already suspect. More than 600 pounds of low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter are used to cover a frame constructed of wood, metal, wire, and steel mesh. Inside a 40-degree cooler, Sarah Pratt applies layer upon layer of butter until an almost full size figure comes to life. It’s also worth noting that the butter is not wasted – in fact, it is often used to create sculptures for up to ten years – so no sneaking a taste! The Midwest Dairy Association has sponsored the attraction since 1960, and we are delighted to have had the chance to ask Pratt a few questions.


Name: Sarah Pratt

Age: 32 (in 2009)

Profession: Teacher at Phoenix Elementary Early Childhood Center in West Des Moines

I: Where did you grow up?

SP: Toledo, Iowa

I: How did you get involved with Norma ‘Duffy’ Lyon (Butter Sculptor for decades prior) helping to create the butter sculptures? 

SP:I grew up knowing Duffy and went to school with her grandkids. But it was actually a trip to the State Fair to help a friend of mine, Kari Lyon, who also happens to be the great-niece of Norma. She was showing dairy cattle and I went along to experience life in the Dairy Barn. While Kari was in the show ring I was put to work in the butter cooler, cleaning buckets and softening butter. The next year Norma called me and invited me to help again. I continued to help and Duffy trained me over the next 15 or so years.

I: What’s your favorite butter sculpture or cow that you have created? 

SP: I enjoyed sculpting Harry Potter. There were so many fun things to incorporate from the stories. But the sculpture that I was and am the most passionate about is the piece I sculpted last year honoring Norman Borlaug. So many are unaware of his accomplishments and the difference he has made in the world! It was a privilege to share Mr. Borlaug’s story with Fairgoers.

I: What else will you be carving besides the cow for the 2009 Fair? 

SP: I will be sculpting a scene from the Apollo 11 mission.  “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”

I: How long does it take you to create the sculptures? 

SP: I work for about three weeks before the Fair begins.

I: Any comments about working with butter as a medium? Tricks of the trade?

SP: At the right temperature butter is very much like clay. The trick is to get the butter to that point and keep it there.

I: Anyone you’d like to acknowledge or thank?

SP: I want to thank Norma for all of her support! Without her confidence in my ability I would have never believed I could do it. And of course I need to thank my husband, Andy. He is a great sounding board for ideas and has spent many hours helping me plan and build the armatures.

The Iowa State Fair runs every summer in mid-August in Des Moines. And you can get in on the butter sculpting action! Submit your name for a chance to test your skills in the Butter Sculpting Competition at the fair. See you at the Fair!

Interview with Artist Kelly Ludeking

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Sculpture artist Kelly Ludeking loves metal. Pretty much all kinds of it. And while he originally started with bronze and aluminum, it was an iron pour that really pulled him in. For Kelly, pouring iron is about community. It’s about learning and teaching, and it was this aspect that really sealed his path and passion.

Born in Decorah, Iowa, Kelly attended the local high school, and like many small town teens, was involved in essentially every extracurricular activity that he had any interest in. Mostly art-related things: band, drama, painting, sculpture, etc.

“It kind of amazed me to look back and see how much art I dabbled in to find my niche,” he says.

That niche was eventually found at the Minnesota College of Art and Design where he was studying metal work. Kelly and some friends were invited to an iron pour – their first – and they watched as nearly a dozen people worked together as a team to feed a fire, melt iron, and pour it into molds to make each person’s individual art works.

“It was more of a production,” Kelly says. “It was such an incredible event.”

After, Kelly and friends went back to their college, inspired. They wanted to build their own furnace. And with help from the school, they did. Amazingly, they hosted their very own iron pour later that year. That furnace lived on at the Minnesota College of Art and Design for several years until it was donated to a sculpture park. It’s still used today, and in fact, was recently done so by Kelly.

You see, this is what Kelly does. He is an artist. He’s only just relocated with his wife to Madison, Wisconsin, from the Twin Cities, and he’s already got a gallery showing lined up. He is doing it. He travels around the Midwest and nation to be a guest artist, speaker, or participant in iron pours and events. He was invited to three pours this spring alone, and even spoke at the National Conference on Cast Iron Art in Birmingham, Alabama. The goal was to help students realize there is “casting after college.”

“The conference helps teach the next generation,” says Kelly. “We want them to know that once they leave college, they can continue to cast. Through businesses and institutions, they can make a living at it.”

There are a lot of inventive ways to cast post-graduation, he says. One is to set up your own event, like the sixth annual Down on the Farm Iron Pour Kelly hosted on his family’s farm this past July. The whole thing started on a whim – after organizing more than a decade of pours elsewhere, Kelly was living in Decorah helping his family and decided to bring an event here.

“I figured I could show my family what I do and not have to leave the farm,” he says. “And this way I have control of things. My dad’s very cool about it, we can build a bigger furnace and I know there will be enough room for everyone. And from the sounds of it, it’s going to be quite a bit larger than it’s been in the past. It’s looking like 50 artists are coming.”

People of all experience levels will stay in rural Decorah out at the Ron Ludeking farm and cast and teach and learn from each other. They come here from a variety of locales –Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin – for this “Down on the Farm” pour. Artists are beginning to look forward to the annual event, even recognizing the barn in the promo posters before they even know Kelly.

“I have a t-shirt with the barn on it and people say, ‘You’re that guy,’” Kelly says. “It’s growing. People are coming from all over to play at my farm. For some ‘weekend warrior’ kind of artists, this is their get-away. This is their time to make art.”

The entire four-day event is organized by Kelly’s company, Ironhead Sculptural Services, and is open to the public each day from noon until 7 pm. Visitors can come watch artists in the process of creating patterns and molds. Then on Saturday, June 27, at roughly 5 pm, Kelly and his crew of artists fired up the furnace and poured molten metal into the molds they’d been working on throughout the event.

After, DJ Efraim Santiago from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, fired up the tunes and mixed music for the annual iron pour party.

Kelly also taught classes at the farm June 24 through Decorah’s ArtHaus.

“I especially enjoy teaching kids, because they seem to be getting away from hands-on learning – tactile stuff. There’s so much virtual work,” he says. “Hands-on building is something so different from building on a computer. I think it’s just a good learning experience for them. And for the adults too.”
If things go as Kelly hopes, the entire Down on the Farm Iron Pour will really be one big learning process. Casting iron for fun and for an art didn’t start until the 60s, Kelly says, and a lot of the original “old dogs” are retiring from pouring and moving on.

“I want to learn as much as possible. It’s cool to be a part of something where the founders are actually still around,” Kelly says. “It hasn’t changed, why we do it. It’s the love of the metal. It’s really key to the process. If you can make iron beautiful and change the way people look at it – that it’s not machinery, it’s not something that’s cold and hard any more – if you can change somebody’s perception about it… that’s art. It’s pretty cool.”

Aryn Henning Nichols thinks molten metal is pretty darn neat. She hopes lots of people visit Kelly’s cool pour.

Down on the Farm Iron Pour: Stay tuned at www.krlmetals.com for details on this annual event
According to Kelly: “Completely open to ALL skill levels”
Ron Ludeking Farm, 1421 200th Street, Decorah
To get more information or to be involved, contact Kelly at:
651-280-5744
kelly@ironheadsculptural.com
www.kellyludeking.com