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Complete with cowcatcher, this parade unit is real eye catcher in Montevideo, Minn.

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MONTEVIDEO -- Thomas the Train has nothing on the replica steam locomotive that will be making its inaugural run in Montevideo's Fiesta Day parade at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

"I've had people darn near drive up the curb when they see me giving rides in the parking lot,'' laughed Jim Ruether, president of the Milwaukee Road Heritage Center in Montevideo.

He's also the chief designer for what will soon be the Center's new icon, a road ready replica of a steam locomotive built on a 1995 Ford Ranger, extended cab pickup.

"Old No. 7'' comes complete with a cow catcher, steam whistle, boiler and all the fixtures to make it look like the real thing, including wheel rims that look like the steel wheels needed for running the tracks. It will pull a tender car built on a hayrack running gear.

If converting an 18-year-old pickup truck into a road-ready replica of a steam locomotive seems like a big challenge, Ruether will tell you there wasn't a lot of choice.

Until this year, the Heritage Center has been relying on a 1941 vintage, tow motor tractor to pull a tender car in the parade. Finding parts for the 1941 tractor was becoming darn near impossible, as was finding the experienced expertise to keep it running. One mechanic was recruited just before he moved to the nursing home.

And the expertise was needed, as the thing get breaking down. One year it burst into flames at the end of the parade route.

Ruether operates Ruether Brothers shop in Montevideo. He and his crew of four do repair and fabrication work, primarily on farm and agricultural equipment.

Ruether said he started this project on the computer, super-imposing images of steam locomotives over the Ford Ranger pickup truck.

In the shop, they stripped the pickup down and relocated the dash to its rear. They added 600 feet of wire and lengthened the steering shaft, brake pedal linkage and throttle cable.

From there it was off to Flinn's Salvage and Flinn's Iron and Metal. They scrounged up the materials and found the help needed to shear the steel into the shapes needed. Trailer body parts became bows for the boiler. An old chamber pot tipped upside down became the boiler top.

Some things just happened. Ruether and Heritage board member Deb Moe just starting laying out pieces of steel one day to craft the cowcatcher.

Ruether said they found lots of help from business and people in town, who donated materials and parts and their talents to make it all come together.

There were plenty of late nights at the shop, and Ruether admits some of his real work had to take a back seat at times. There were times he found himself in the office sketching out ideas for the locomotive as they came to him.

Yet overall, it was a lot of fun, and the best is still ahead. Ruether said all of those involved in the project are really looking forward to the parade and the chance to show off the hard work.

He's offered the opportunity drive the train in the parade to his uncle Mike, who also committed long hours to the project. He's responsible for the 2,500 rivets on the replica locomotive, for one thing.

But Ruether said his uncle has not yet decided if he will drive. One will drive and the other will sit as the engineer's fireman in the parade.

The Milwaukee Road Heritage Center is dedicated to preserving the history and telling the story of the Milwaukee line and Montevideo's role as a major train yard for it.

The Center is sponsoring a craft fair and open house tour of their model railroad layout and rail yard from 9 a.m. until the start of the parade on Sunday.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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