It’s full steam ahead for antique road roller

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
John Yowler sits atop a 1921 Kelly Springfield steam-powered road roller. The South Charleston resident has spent the last four years repairing and reconstructing the machine for the Clark County Historical Society. Last month, the rehabbed roller made its debut at the Miami Valley Steam Threshers Show in Plain City and spent a week on display at the Clark County Fair.

(Posted Aug. 2, 2018)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

John Yowler flat out loves tinkering with old machinery.

“Anything that’s got rust on it, I’ll work on it,” said the South Charleston area resident.

Four and a half years ago, the Clark County Historical Society came to Yowler with a request. They had just acquired a rare, not to mention huge, piece of equipment: a 1921 steam-powered road roller made by the Kelly Springfield Co. of Springfield, the county seat. They were looking for someone to bring the big boy back to life.

“I’m a member of the historical society, and they knew I was into steam,” said Yowler, who has spent his lifetime as a mechanic and retired from Navistar.

Always up for a challenge and appreciative of the piece’s place in history, he didn’t hesitate to say “yes” to the project.

“These machines are what built the original two-lane roads we drive on today. There are very few of them left,” he said.

The historical society promptly hauled the seven-ton road roller to Yowler’s shop, and he got to work.

“It’s been my job to get it operational,” he said.

As one would imagine, parts for a nearly 100-year-old road roller are hard to come by. So, in many instances over the course of the rehabilitation, Yowler has made them himself.

He’s put his magic touch to not only the steam engine that drives the roller, but also the steam engine connected to the steering mechanism.

“It was the old way of power steering,” he explained.

Yowler’s handiwork has made it possible for the roller to go on the road again, so to speak. The rehabbed machine made its debut last month at the Miami Valley Steam Threshers Show in Plain City where, as a rare piece, it garnered a lot of attention.

“I’ve been going to the show for 30 years, and it’s the first time one has been there,” said Yowler.

Shortly after the threshers show, the roller spent a week at the Clark County Fair. South Charleston’s Heritage Days festival Sept. 21-23 could be one of its next stops.

The Clark County Historical Society is thrilled with the work Yowler has done and what it means for sharing a piece of the county’s history with the public in an active rather than static way.

“We want people to see it operating, so they can understand better how it functioned,” said Virginia Weygandt, director of collections.

When a local company offered to donate the roller to the historical society in 2013, Weygandt jumped at the opportunity, even though the machine was in rough shape. The reason for her excitement: the roller’s ties to the community.

Oliver S. Kelly was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mayor of Springfield and was instrumental in development of the building now occupied by the Historical Society’s Heritage Center.

Kelly made a fortune building housing for gold rushers in the 1850s, then moved to Springfield where in 1890 he bought a business that made steam traction engines to pull road rollers imported from England.

Later, he decided to make the rollers, too. After three years of research and development, The Kelly Springfield Road Roller Co. became one of the first companies in the United States to manufacture road rollers.

“At the same time, there was a company in Buffalo, N.Y., doing the same work,” said Weygandt.

The two companies joined forces, renamed the business Buffalo Springfield Road Roller Co., and moved operations to Springfield in 1919. For a while, they sold the machinery under their previous business names, hence the  “Kelly Springfield” moniker for the 1921 model Yowler worked on and the “Buckeye Springfield” moniker for the 1926 road roller the historical society has had in its collection since the 1970s.

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