Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 21, 2013

Steam power comes to Hoosier Heritage Festival

Farmer's century-old tractor on display at fairgrounds.

By Mitchell Kirk
For MC Weekly

---- — In 1913, Earnest Zimmerman shoveled coal into his newly purchased J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. steam engine tractor, as he made his way up and down fields outside of Logansport, separating wheat in the thresher he towed.One hundred years later, his grandson, Gil Zimmerman of Logansport, continued to carry on his grandfather and father’s legacies by showing the refurbished and devotedly maintained tractor at the Hoosier Heritage Fest in Peru last weekend.Earnest Zimmerman had three steam-powered tractors, but the 1913 Case was the one he decided to have refurbished after using it for 20 years, wanting to eventually exhibit it. He took it into Logansport, which then was at the height of its time as a rail hub and had plenty of places that worked on steam engines.He never got around to showing it, however, before passing away in 1952.Six years after grandson Gil Zimmerman’s birth in 1935, his family moved onto his grandfather’s farmstead, where he still lives today.Gil Zimmerman said his father, Basil Zimmerman, wanted to show the tractor as well, but never got further than moving it out of the mud and into the barn. He passed away in 1964.“It was his wish to see it like this, to see it in shows,” Zimmerman said.Before it became the showpiece it is today, Zimmerman said he remembers playing on it as a kid and finding chickens nesting in the firebox.“I never once dreamed it would be up and running,” he said. “I can look at it and say it’s not a pile of junk anymore. I know my dad would be tickled to death by that, and I’m sure my grandpa would be too.”In 1983, Zimmerman began acting on the same desire his father and grandfather had to have the tractor exhibited in shows. He introduced himself to Frank Miller of Winamac, a man who knew his father and his way around a steam engine. Miller taught Zimmerman how the machine operated while the two began replacing necessary parts.Today, the cast-iron beast is painted in J.I. Case’s colors of red, green-black and includes the company’s logo — two eagles, each resting atop globes flanking a rustically painted bird's-eye image of Racine, Wis.“After a lot of years and some money, it goes like new,” he said.Zimmerman showed it at an exhibition the next spring in Winamac and continued over the next three decades in places like Lafayette, Tipton, Battleground and other cities across the Midwest. He showed it at an exhibition in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, for 20 years in a row.He looks back on when he first began showing it, fulfilling a dream of both his grandfather and father’s, with a sense of nostalgia.“I was so overwhelmed, I’m surprised I didn’t run over anyone,” he said with a laugh.It’s taken all of the 30 years for him to feel completely comfortable around it, he said. He knows each valve, tank, lever and gauge in the tractor, inside and out.“It’s probably the most outstanding achievement of my life,” he said.He said his father and grandfather would likely be surprised if they saw the path the tractor has taken.“My grandfather thought I’d probably never take an interest in these, or my father for that go,” he said.He’s experiencing a similar dilemma with his own descendants, explaining that he would like to pass the tractor down, but first wants to ensure they’re able to come to have the same familiarity with the machine that he has.“I’d like to see it go on,” he said.A lot of it has to do with the changing mentalities of emerging generations, he said. Long gone are the days of the threshing ring, when farmers of a community pulled together to help each other get things done. Never to return are the days when he would work for $2 to $3 a day, feel rich and then spend his free time with his friends jumping off a rope swing into the Eel River.“Farmers all helped each other,” he said. “Everybody worked together. Now, you don’t even know your neighbors. And we’ll never go back; those times are gone.”While those times may be gone, they were remembered Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Hoosier Heritage Fest at the Miami County Fairgrounds in Peru, where Zimmerman’s tractor was on display and performed wheat-threshing demonstrations.The event, hosted by Pioneer Power of North Central Indiana, included more than 200 tractors, buzz saw demonstrations, a tractor pull, quilt show, craft and flea market, children’s activities, live entertainment and other activities.