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2011-04-14

Frontier Times Museum - firin' up a piece of history

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

The gathered crowd watched with more than a little uneasiness as an alarming amount of smoke recently belched forth from behind the Frontier Times Museum.
"You know," one wag commented with tongue planted firmly in cheek, "the burn ban is still on. I wonder how long it will take the fire marshal to get here with his gun drawn."
Another participant noted that this was the most smoke he had seen without benefit of a brisket for quite some time.
Akin to the selection of a new pope, the billowing smoke celebrated the culmination of a four-year restoration project involving the museum's half-scale steam engine model. On Tuesday, March 29, chief restorer, Ben Nolte, and his able assistant Dale Haynes fired up the steam engine, bringing it back to life. The painstaking process included heating water inside the engine to a temperature high enough to create steam that, in turn, began the mechanical process of moving the engine's pistons.
According to the Frontier Times Museum, the half-scale model was built by hand and donated to the museum by Leon Karr of Rockport in 1985. Although Nolte could not speculate as to the engine's age, he asked that anyone with information about the now-working relic contact the museum at 830-796-3864.
As a certified Steam Traction Engineer in his native Minnesota, Nolte restores and operates steam engines. However, he and his wife, Carolyn, happily winter in the Texas Hill Country. In January 2010, Nolte approached museum administrators and volunteered to restore the dormant engine.
The process began by transporting the engine to Haynes' garage in Ingram for cleaning and replacing missing parts. "Everything was stuck, nothing moved or worked," Nolte reported.
The pair changed rotted and rusted pipes and re-threaded others. "I've been wanting to get it running for four years," Nolte said, adding that he first heard about the relic steam engine while enjoying a cold wet one at the 11th Street Cowboy Bar. "Someone told me, 'You'll never get that thing running.' Well, they should never have told me that."
Although it resembles a locomotive engine, the steam engine actually operates like a giant kettle sitting on top of a hot stove burner. The heat from the fire boils the water in the kettle and turns it into steam. However, rather than uselessly blowing off into the air, as does steam from a teakettle, the steam is captured and used to power the engine. In turn, the engine powers other equipment such as saws in a lumber mill. Nolte speculated that this one might have powered a shingle mill or cedar press.
He said a friend had paid $15,000 for one similar to that of the museum. Glancing fondly at his handiwork, Nolte said, "This one is worth all that and more."
According to Museum Director Rebecca Norton, the museum is planning an outdoor exhibit, which will feature the newly restored steam engine as the centerpiece. "With a grant from the Bandera Community Foundation and funds raised during Cow Chip Bingo, we'll complete an interactive area to teach children scientific principles," she said.
Norton added, "All of us at the museum are extremely grateful for Mr. Nolte's and Mr. Haynes' efforts and their many hours of diligent work."
For his part, Nolte would like nothing more than to be on hand and see the newly restored steam engine hauled up Main Street during Bandera's next parade - set for Memorial Day weekend. "Unfortunately, we're heading back up north on May 15," he said with just a tinge of regret.

Pictured: BCC Staff Photo by
Judith Pannebaker

No burn ban was broken, but smoke - and steam - a plenty belched forth recently from behind the Frontier Times Museum.