Wayne Fischer charging full steam ahead to preserve relics of a bygone era

Wayne Fischer’s voice is charged with enthusiasm and his eyes alive with the wonder of a small child as he eagerly recounts the history of the steam era.

“Basically, it’s the steam engine that built North America,” he says. “It was the steam engine that took man from the horse and buggy to the modern industrial age.”

Countless transportation, industrial and agricultural advancements can be traced back to James Watt’s invention of the improved steam engine in the 18th century, Fischer explains.

He’s likely relayed the same story hundreds of times for the less enlightened, but one would never know it. Ever since he purchased his first engine in 2000 – a 1912 75 horsepower Case – steam engines have become Fischer’s passion.

Over the last decade his steam collection has grown to include eight working traction engines, eight other “project” traction engines, five very large stationary engines and 15 smaller ones, two locomotives, one boat, road rollers, a rock crusher and various other working machinery.

“I got the disease,” he said with a laugh of his hobby.

In fact, his collection at the not-for-profit Ontario Steam Heritage Museum, located adjacent to his home on Gore Road in south Puslinch, has become one of the largest in North America.

“It’s the only place in Canada you can come year round and see machines running on steam,” he said. “This is a working and teaching museum.”

About 800 visitors annually tour the museum, where Fischer himself serves as host, curator, historian and operator. Before they arrive most guests are unaware the museum even exists, but they invariably leave impressed by the size and variety of working steam engines.

“It’s a lot more dramatic when they’re running,” he said, adding some museums feature  only static displays of finely polished engines.

He much prefers the grease and grime – not to mention the sounds and smells – of working machines, and doesn’t hesitate to take the steam engines out in the winter. At the very least, he’ll start them up inside the 20,000 square foot museum, thanks to the telescopic smoke stacks he had installed.

Fischer, now president of the Ontario Steam and Antique Preservers Association (OSAPA), still works full time and says he is very fortunate to be in the financial position to keep his collection growing. He and his brother John own Engineered Electrical Controls Ltd., a Cambridge electrical company founded by their late father, Walter.

Fischer is also quick to recognize the contributions of a about a half dozen volunteers, as well as his wife, Judi, herself the secretary of OSAPA. He says Judi is supportive and understanding of what some might call an obsession.

“She even has her own engine,” he says with a smile, pointing to a 1915 20 horsepower Sawyer-Massey traction engine. Such machines, as the name may imply, were the precursors to modern tractors, he explained.

The word tractor was coined in 1902. Before that, the machines that pulled plows were called traction engines, Fisher said. They were also the first piece of self propelled equipment that did not require tracks, he added.

Many antique car enthusiasts who visit the museum are surprised to discover the origin of the differential gear, clutch, coil suspension, power steering and other car features.

“The automobile industry capitalized on all the steam engine inventions that the patents had run out on,” he said. “Most people don’t realize all the technology in their cars originated with steam engines.”

Fischer takes his collection on the road several time a year, visiting various shows throughout southern Ontario, including OSAPA’s annual Labour Day weekend Steam Era show in Milton and Puslinch’s very own Threshing Bee.

He expressed regret that this year was the final year for the Puslinch event, and said the steam association would be strongly in favour if anyone wanted to “take up the torch” and organize future bees.

“It was a good show,” he said, noting he met at least one of the museum’s volunteers at the event several years ago.

Having lived in Puslinch for almost two decades, Fischer said the threshing bee was just another example of the fine sense of community that exists in the township.

He said he regularly receives wood from local farmers who realize how fast the steam engines and the museum’s furnaces can eat through fuel.

“I’d never move back to the city; I’m a rural person,” he declared with a smile.

Early steam shows en­thralled him as a boy, when he would dream of one day owning his own traction engine. It was only more recently he learned of the impressive history attached to the machines, some of which can measure 11 feet wide, 20 feet long, with rear wheels up to six feet in diameter, and weigh up to 17 tons with fuel and water.

“There’s so little of it being preserved and saved,” he said.

He lamented the lack of protection in North America for steam era relics, unlike in England, where the engines are protected by the National Trust.

In England, Fischer said, about 17 million people annually attend steam shows, but Canadian events are lucky to draw 15,000. And, he noted, in England there are about 2,500 working steam traction engines and over 1,000 steam locomotives, but in Canada those figures are 100 and 10 respectively.

And there’s no excuse for the discrepancy, he says.

Much of the steam powered infrastructure in Europe was either destroyed or dismantled and melted down for other uses during the Second World War, but steam engines have made a huge comeback overseas.

Fischer said a big reason for the resurgence is Europeans will travel to Canada or the United States, buy tons of cheap steam equipment and export it back to their native country.

“We’re losing our mechanical engineering technology,” he said solemnly.

So he has embraced wholeheartedly the OSAPA motto about steam engines: “The best of the past, preserved in the present, for the pleasure of the future.”

He tries to refurbish one traction engine per year, and in addition to year-round tours, his museum offers courses to help people become licenced to operate steam engines under the Boilers and Pressure Vessels Act, which is administered by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority  (TSSA).

Fischer plans on maintaining and building his collection for as long as he can. His daughter, Sherry Collings (one of seven children), as well as her sons Wyatt and Jared (two of his 10 grandchildren), also help out at the museum, and he is hopeful they will someday carry on his work.

“This is so important,” he said.

“So much of this history has been lost already.”

For more information or to book a tour of the Ontario Steam Heritage Museum call 519-740-7185.