'Ladies of Steam': If steam is king at Rollag, these engineers are the queens
"It's ladies first here," said engineer Jennifer Eden-Roth at a steam engine demonstration event held during the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion on Saturday afternoon at Rollag.
Hosted by the "Ladies of Steam," the event did, indeed, have a "girl power" theme, as the dozen or so licensed female engineers who gathered for the event helped to show women of all ages — some as young as five years of age — how to run a coal or wood-fired, steam traction engine for the first time.
Men and boys could also get a hands-on demonstration, but only after all the women in the audience — roughly three dozen in all — each had a chance to try out the four different engines that had been brought to the demonstration site.
"The two of us started up 'Ladies of Steam' about two years ago," says Frazee native Nicole Wallace.
"There are so many cool women who love steam, and we wanted to start up a Facebook page to celebrate them, and interact with them," added Eden-Roth, who hails from Sartell. "Within just a few weeks, we had gone international."
"Now we've got almost 6,000 followers, in 63 different countries," Wallace added, noting that the page averages about 15,000-16,000 views a week.
"But it's not a club," she added, noting that they don't hold regular meetings. "If you like steam and you're a lady, you're a 'Lady of Steam.'"
As a means of bringing more women into their group, however, one of the things the duo likes to do each year is to host an all-female, mini "steam school" during Rollag — and now they've expanded to do similar classes at other steam powered events in the area as well, including the James Valley Threshing Show in Andover, S.D.; the Albert City Thresherman Show in Albert City, Iowa; and others.
But of course, Rollag is their first love: Wallace says that her grandparents first brought her to WMSTR when she was just 11 months old.
"I loved it," she said. "I couldn't get enough."
Steam engines were a particular source of fascination, so she spent time learning how they worked, hanging out at "Miniatureland" on the WMSTR grounds, soaking up information from friends and family alike.
"Now I teach at the Steam School here," she said, referring to the event held every May at Rollag, which is open to both men and women.
"I think our group has had a big impact on the enrollment," Wallace added.
"This year, one-third of the class was women," Eden-Roth added. "When I first started, there were three or four (per class), now there's upwards of 20."
WMSTR itself is also partially responsible for the trend, she said, adding "This show is unique — a large percentage of the (steam engine) operators out here are women."
"And they do a good job of getting youth involved," Wallace added. "Our ultimate goal is to keep this part of history alive... we love steam, and we're very passionate about what we do."
Eden-Roth says her passion for steam is something that came naturally.
"It was a family affair," she added. "My dad and brother went to Steam School (at Rollag) in 2003, and I think my mom and I went in about 2004-2005."
She pointed to the 16-horsepower, 1916 Minneapolis engine that she used for Saturday's event and said, "This was the machine that we learned on... we ended up purchasing it. Now it's our family's machine, and we take it out every year, just for teaching (at the Steam School), and for Rollag."
As for Wallace, she is restoring another Minneapolis steam tractor that she hopes to exhibit at Rollag in a year or two.
"I haven't missed a year here... this is my 27th show," she said. (Wallace will turn 28 later this month.) "It's not just a hobby, it's a lifestyle."