Jessamine County brothers hold onto their favorite toy, built by their father 82 years ago

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 25, 2014 

NICHOLASVILLE — Most of us had a favorite toy when we were young, a treasured trinket that added something special to the games we played on long-ago summer afternoons.

Sadly, favorite toys usually get broken or lost as we grow up.

But the East brothers of Jessamine County have held on to their favorite toy — for 82 years.

It's especially significant to them because their father, Curtis East, built it in 1932. And it still works.

It's a miniature steam-powered tractor or, more properly, a scale-model steam traction engine, patterned after the giant machines that revolutionized farm work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The East boys' one-horsepower steam tractor is just over five feet long and about 46 inches tall. But it weighs in at almost 700 pounds, decked out in red, black and green paint, bristling with pipes and brass fittings, a stylish iron flywheel, and an ear-piercing steam whistle.

There's also a little seat for the driver's comfort while he steers the tractor down the road.

That seat originally was designed to hold Elwood East, the son for whom Curtis East specifically built the tractor.

Elwood was 5 when the tractor was completed. He's 87 now, still a certified public accountant.

He has a photograph of the little steam tractor taken in the 1930s. Elwood proudly stands beside it as a barefoot boy, wearing a sign around his neck that says "engineer." His father stands beside the engine he built.

"I watched him build it," Elwood said. "He worked on it sometimes all night. He had an old rolltop desk, and I would go to sleep on it while he worked."

Elwood even remembers the very first time they built up steam in the miniature engine.

"It was pretty exciting," he said.

Elwood and his brothers played with the little engine for years. Sometimes, they took it to East family reunions. It was displayed in Nicholasville and Lancaster, and used in parades in downtown Lexington, pulling small children in a wagon.

The tractor was so well designed that the University of Kentucky engineering department displayed it for years in the old Anderson Hall on the UK campus. The East Boys — Elwood, Tom, Sid and Rock — brought it back home in the late 1980s.

Today, it stays parked in a shed, only about 50 feet from the workshop on Old Danville Road where Curtis East built it. East had a second-grade education, but a natural ability for working with metal, his sons say.

"He could build anything," said Tom East, 80. "He built a turntable crane once, the first one there ever was around here. If he thought of something, he could build it."

Curtis East learned metal work making lathes for a tool company in Cincinnati. Later, he moved back to Nicholasville and started his own machine shop. It was a self-sufficient operation.

"He had a dynamo run by a diesel engine to make electricity and he made his own gases for cutting torches," Tom East said. "He built a water tower for water pressure. He was 40 or 50 years ahead of his time."

He also had crews operating three Case steam traction engines, threshing grain and doing other work on area farms.

According to East family tradition, he built the miniature stream engine because Elwood kept asking him for a new toy.

"He built it in six months," Tom East said. "He made every part on it except for the brass pieces."

Curtis East died in 1966.

The little steam engine he built can be fired with wood or coal. The East brothers say they haven't built up steam in the boiler since about 1988. But it does still run.

To prove it, they pump compressed air into the engine, which is enough to operate it for a minute or so.

"About all we've done is polish up the brass on it," Tom East said.

When their father's estate was settled, the steam engine had to be put up for auction, along with other items. Tom East arranged to buy it.

Today, the brothers say they have no definite plans for their longtime favorite toy. But they agree on one thing: "It's going to stay at home," Tom East said.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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