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Albert City Threshermen’s “Ladies of Steam”
August 10, 2018

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By KAREN SCHWALLER

kschwaller@evertek.net

ALBERT CITY - Two young women garnered the attention of people young and old at the 2017 Albert City Threshermen and Collector's Show.

Jen Roth of Sartell, Minnesota, and Nicole Wallace, of Frazee, Minnesota, paused to let a noisy steam engine pass by them in order to tell the story of their road to becoming "Ladies of Steam." They taught people that women can indeed "run with the big boys."

In this case, the "big boys" are steam engines.

Ladies of Steam began in 2015 over drinks and fun between the two at a girls' night out. There are no official membership papers or dues, and this is the only known group of its kind in the world.

The women said anyone can belong to Ladies of Steam. They only have to be a woman and enjoy steam engines.

"We were talking about women on steam engines, and how there are a lot more of us out there than we thought, so we wanted to create a platform to showcase the women who operate steam (machines)," said Roth, 32. "We just wanted to celebrate the women involved."

She and Wallace attended a steam school together in Minnesota - Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion - and received their licenses. Today, they help teach there.

Wallace, 29, teaches about horsepower and the more theoretical side of steam engines; what's happening inside the cylinder and valve linkage, among other topics.

Roth teaches in the hands-on portion, running their engine and teaching participants about levering and firing, and operating the boiler.

There is also a steam school in Forest City and others around the country.

Roth said they thought at first it would only include the women who operate steam engines locally at their home show, which is one of the largest steam shows in the world.

"We have a lot of women involved there," said Roth.

The duo started a social media page with photos, and within two weeks it went international.

Today more than 6,000 people from 60 different countries follow them on social media. They have an average weekly reach of 15,000 to 20,000 people.

"We have women submitting photos from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and South Africa," said Roth.

Wallace said the photos include women who are operating not only steam engines, but steam locomotives, steam boats, portable steam engines and some very early steam engines.

"The first year we started this we wondered how to incorporate more women into this without just sharing pictures on Facebook, so that's when we started our Women Teaching Women steam engine event," said Wallace.

Women teaching women and more

Women Teaching Women shows a variety of topics, including what the engine is, what it does and how it runs. It also gives them hands-on experience in operating the levers that run the engines.

"We want to give them a little taste of keeping history alive," said Roth. "We want to keep these machines going. We have generations that we want to get involved in keeping this part of history alive. Shows like this one (Albert City Threshermen and Collector's Show) are important to our vision."

The women agreed that they were impressed with not only the crowd at last year's Albert City show, but with the interest shown by women and men wanting to learn about - and how to operate - steam machines.

"This just gives women an opportunity that they wouldn't have otherwise, and I think when women see other women involved and doing this, they think (know) they can do it, too," said Wallace.

Steam school

The two attended, and now help out at, their local "steam school," where anyone can learn how to operate steam machines. They said their 2017 class was one-third women, the most women participants of the steam school's history.

"When we first started there was one or two women," said Roth.

Participants get their classroom hours in, followed by operating hours and state testing to become licensed as a "hobby engineer" to operate steam engines.

Steam engines were used in the late 1800s mostly for threshing and sawmill operations, and were used into the early 1900s when people were trying to break prairie sod. Wallace said they teach the history of the steam engine; from the late 1800s when the engines were carried to work sites by horses and then used to power threshing machines, to the history of engines becoming gradually larger.

While Roth and Wallace said women running steam engines is not new, they want to expand peoples' knowledge and awareness about women running steam engines.

"(When steam engines were being used), a lot of the time the women would be preparing meals, but if they needed help on the threshing machines, they would go up there and help," said Roth. "We want to keep that history alive."

Both of these women have full-time jobs. Roth is a psychologist at a veterans affairs hospital and Wallace has a degree in agricultural engineering. Wallace said with her degree, she was able to redesign the boiler for her engine.

They run their own engines and do their own maintenance, and also work on restoring steam machines throughout the year as well, calling their passion "a busy hobby."

They attend shows around a five-state area as time allows.

Ladies of Steam sells apparel to fund scholarships for other women to attend steam school at their home school.

The duo said women sometimes tell them at steam school how inspirational they are by empowering other women to become more knowledgeable about steam engines.

"I love when we have our event and we get someone up on the engine for the very first time in their life and they pull the throttle and turn the engine over. They're so excited," said Roth. "The hands go up and we see big smiles. It's really rewarding."

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