For Ron Neulieb letting off steam is both his work and play.
Ron and his wife Marjorie own and manage Control Systems Specialists in Alta. Their business revolves around temperature control, energy management, boiler maintenance and sales. His years of experience with boilers has not only allowed him to serve companies from Alta to as far away as Illinois, it has given him the knowledge needed to make his dreams for someday become a reality.
Ron purchased a 1913 Wood Brothers of Des Moines steam engine two years ago, and has since added a vintage saw mill that will make its debut at this year's Buena Vista County Fair. "I've always thought that someday it would be nice to own a steam engine," said Neulieb, "and once we had one, I thought it would be nice to add the saw mill."
The saw mill was acquired while attending a machinery sale in St. James, Minnesota this past fall. "We received a sale bill and noted that there was a saw mill listed, so we went to the sale," stated Neulieb. They were outbid at the sale, only to have a few spectators approach them with other opportunities to purchase a saw mill. After looking, they decided on a mill that included two blades that alone were valued at more than the purchase price. It was then placed on a flatbed trailer and brought to Neulieb's home, where he and friend, Doug Miller, inspected and reconditioned the antique piece of machinery. Neulieb is often accompanied on his excursions by Miller, also of Alta.
"You can't buy parts for the mill, we have to make the parts that we can't piece back together or fix," said Neulieb. Gene Huelman, a resident of Schaller, dropped by Neulieb's shop shortly after bringing the machine home and offered his expertise. Huelman then was put to work rebuilding some parts while others needed to be made by hand. Neulieb commented, "We used my small lathe to make some of the parts, others we had to weld together. We had to improvise a lot."
The men have taken their rolls in the safety of running the steam engine very seriously. "All boilers in buildings that allow public assembly have to be inspected regularly, but the state of Iowa is lacking any type of inspection on the boiler system on steam engines," stated Neulieb. "We have personally had our machinery inspected to certify our safety." He also noted that most of the surrounding states have rules and regulations that have to be followed to be able to operate a steam engine. By having the vehicles inspected and the operators certified it ensures that the machines are safe to run. Some of the safety precautions that the men faithfully follow include never leaving the engine unattended and carrying enough water to keep the device from overheating.
"Over years the boiler starts to deteriorate and as rust corrodes, the metal thins," said Neulieb. "Over time, it cannot withstand the extreme heat and pressure it was originally designed for, it becomes an unsafe vessel."
Neulieb and his early-1900's steamer have made the rounds to shows in Albert City, Hanover, Mason City and Storm Lake in his two-year ownership, with an additional commitment to a large show in Grand Meadows nearing this August. With a contagious excitement, he has looked forward to each show to both learn more about steam engines and become acquainted with owners of similar machines.
Neulieb and Miller have boosted their knowledge considerably with classes held in Kansas last year and are looking forward to a three-day excursion in Rollag, Minnesota this summer. The schools are geared for the 'steamers' who come to get more working knowledge of the large engines. Some time is spent in the classroom with most of the time used to give experience working under a licensed operator. "Working with the experienced operators helps us to feel more confident. It helps to know what you've been doing is correct," said Neulieb.
The saw mill that was added to his collection of antiques will become a permanent fixture on the east side of the Buena Vista County Fairgrounds as of this year. The men have worked diligently to build the concrete base before this year's scheduled fair.
"We are located just east of the horse arena, so we've had to schedule time to run the saw mill when horses aren't in the riding ring," he said. With the loud engine humming, as well as the whistle and hiss of the steam billowing, the men do not wish to spook the horses while spectators gather to view the antique machinery. In upcoming years Neulieb hopes to add a structure built with boards cut by the mill to shelter the antique on the grounds. "The mill is 60 ft. long with a 48 inch blade," commented Neulieb. "Powered by the steam engine, it is really something to see."