Fire up the tractor

Joe Tornabene, on left, and Ray Massey, work on the Keck-Gonnerman steam tractor in preparation for the 32nd Annual Flywheel Festival Sept. 27-28. Tournabene has operated the tractor for several years and with the help Massey Boiler Repair, Mississippi Flywheel Association and Houston Ole Timers performed needed maintenance on the 1923 engine. (Photo Floyd Ingram)

Joe Tornabene, on left, and Ray Massey, work on the Keck-Gonnerman steam tractor in preparation for the 32nd Annual Flywheel Festival Sept. 27-28. Tournabene has operated the tractor for several years and with the help Massey Boiler Repair, Mississippi Flywheel Association and Houston Ole Timers performed needed maintenance on the 1923 engine. (Photo Floyd Ingram)

HOUSTON – It’s older than just about everybody in Northeast Mississippi, but it will be rolling and going and tooting its whistle at the Flywheel Festival this fall.

The Ole Timers donated funds to the Mississippi Valley Flywheel Association last week to repair the 1923 Keck-Gonnerman steam engine at Joe Brigance Park and Massey Boiler Repair of Clinton was brought in to do the work.
“This old tractor has been a part of this community and the Flywheel Festival for years,” said Bobby Dodd, spokesman for the Ole Timers. “We do the pioneer exhibit at the festival each year and sell cracklin’s, hominy and lye soap. We use the proceeds to help the festival and this year it was the tractor.”
The old steam engine was acquired years ago and was permanently loaned to the City of Houston by the Mississippi Agricultural Museum in Jackson with the agreement it be publicly displayed and maintained. As with all machinery, parts have worn out.
“Some of the boiler tubes had a leak and we also had a plate wear-out and drip water in the fire box,” said Joseph Tornabene, who has operated and maintained the Keck for years. “It wasn’t unsafe, but we couldn’t build up enough pressure to make it roll. And we couldn’t blow the whistle.”
Tornabene said Massey Boiler Repair agreed to do the work at a reduced price.
“The initial estimate was for $1,500 and that was a fair price,” said Tornabene. “The Ole Timers and the Flywheel Association stepped up and we’re getting her fixed at a very reduced price.”
Tornabene said the Keck was designed to hold up to 150-pounds of steam. He said the Houston machine operates at about 30- to 40-pounds.
“These were incredibly strong and well-built machines and they could pull 20, 10-bottom plows across open fields,” said Tornabene. “Around here they drove them into the woods and used a belt and pulley to run sawmills, pump water and threshing machines.”
But Tornabene said the Keck’s working days are over and these are the machine’s golden years.
“When it gets all hot and pressured up it’s neat to see people come and just watch it and listen to it,” said Tornabene. “And then when you get a kid to come up and pull the whistle and their eyes light up and a smile breaks out on their face – that’s a big part of what this festival is all about.”
A donation box will be set up at the Keck this year to fund long-range maintenance and refurbishment of the tractor. Tax deductible donations can be made to the Mississippi Valley Flywheel Association or the Chickasaw Development Foundation.

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