First Things

Warren G. Olin
October/November 1995
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Red Ball thinks back to all the time and sweat used to restore this Olin 16 HP horizontal gasoline engine housed in his Wellsville, New York, shop.
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Olin Family Historian, 5855 Lisle Road, Owego, New York 13827

My first real interest in the Olin family history began in 1984 when my mother gave me all the material that my deceased father had somehow gathered by 'hit and miss' from family members. She also included a letter of inquiry that had been forwarded to her. I knew absolutely nothing about the ins and outs of genealogy or the conventional rules of etiquette involved, but I had a large notebook full of information in my hands, and from it I prepared an answer to the query of what I proudly thought was right. A scathing letter came back, letting me know in certain terms that I did not know what I was writing about.

I had always figured myself as a knowledgeable person, having recently retired from middle management in a large corporation. Now I was experiencing a humility based on ignorance of the simple kind, my own family history. I accepted the challenge because I did not want to experience this feeling of inadequacy again. I began corresponding with the older members of the Olin family and found that my branch, the Joseph (2) Olin, had never been documented as had his two brothers. Mine appeared to be a lost branch since 1710.

Now I had a goal for my extra time in my retirement years, to research, collect, compile and possibly author a book of my long lost branch. But in doing so I found that I had to collect all Olin information and sift through it for what I needed.

About this time, 1986, I accepted the appointment of Historian for Tioga County, New York, which provided me with the opportunity to learn the use of research facilities and to generate other family genealogies or history as I prefer to call it. The historian position also gave me a legitimate excuse to visit 'old timers' around the country and develop short stories relating to their family's history or activities for the local papers.

While visiting the annual Steam and Gas Engine Show in Maine, New York, Jack Green, small gasoline engine buff, told me about the Olin gasoline engines and wondered if I was related to the originator. I had no idea if I was related or not. He suggested that I take in the Steam and Gas Show in Canandaigua, New York, where he thought someone would know of the Olin engine.

My brother Don had just acquired a small rubber-tired steam driven tractor and was easily talked into accompanying me to Canandaigua. Sure enough, I found a fellow who showed me pictures of the Olin vertical and horizontal engines in a book by C. H. Wendel. Another fellow provided me with the address of a small shop and museum for gasoline engines in Wellsville, New York, where Olin engines were displayed.

My wife Emilia and I made the trip . to Wellsville, where 'Red' Ball showed us his Olin horizontal, about 16 HP, restored gasoline engine that was in operating condition and another Olin vertical, about 6 HP, that he was just beginning to restore.

By now, my brother and I were beginning to feel the internal pressure that leads to being 'hooked' with a new project. Don was thinking that someone in the Olin family should own one of these engines just for the preservation within the family for future generations. This historian decided that it was necessary to research the background development of the Olin engines and relationship of the originator and manufacture.

In 1990, again under advisement, Don and I made a trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to visit Kinzers' Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association Museum. It is a super show place specializing in steam and gasoline driven machines, model and narrow gauge railroads, farm equipment, and automobiles, all basically pre-1920 and most in good to operating condition. Competition and demonstrations make it one of the more interesting museums in the country.

My interest grew as we walked into a building full of small and midsize gasoline engines. I had the feeling that the Olin engine was in here. We walked up and down a couple of the aisles. I stopped in front of an engine that was running and being fine-tuned by a young fellow, watched over by an old timer. I said to them that this engine looked like an Olin engine and he agreed that it was. Almost unbelievably we had walked right to it!

The old fellow's name was A. D. Mast. He described his Olin engine as a 20 HP horizontal hit and miss, single stroke, with a nameplate identifying it as an Olin engine manufactured at Buffalo, New York. After telling Mast that we were Olins (I doubt if that made any impression on him), and that we were interested in the history of the Olin engine, he gave us a copy of the latest Gas Engine Magazine and took us out to another building and introduced us to Nathan Lillibridge of Voluntown, Connecticut.

Lillibridge has an extra large size engine in operation at Kinzers and his own shop and museum up in Vermont where he also has both vertical and horizontal Olin engines. His best one is a 35 HP horizontal hit and miss single stroke Olin engine manufactured at Titusville, Pennsylvania.

He found it in a creek near Titusville, the site of the first oil wells in United States. It was used to power an octagon pumping setup. He showed us some photos while he described what this setup was like. They showed the three attached buildings as a complex: The largest held the big gasoline engine and the living quarters for the operator and his family, the middle one covered the long power transmission belt and walkway to the third building, which was the octagon power distribution center.

South Penn Oil Company had several of these complexes in northwest Pennsylvania during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Oil was pumped from a drilled well into large wooden storage tanks. The collection of oil was transported by either tank wagons, small tanks on rafts during high water, or by pipeline, all to the large river barges or rail tanks until underground pipelines were installed. At times the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers would be one long flotilla of oil barges flowing southward.

Back at the oil well, the living quarters were fairly good, if you liked sharing it with a monstrous, noisy and smelly engine. The rooms were papered and had hardwood floors with several colorful throw rugs. A hall down the center separated the kitchen and bedrooms from the living room, which contained the 35 HP gasoline engine mounted on a concrete base. The exhaust stack ran straight up through the roof. The power transmission belt went from the engine through a small trap door, through the covered walkway to the power distribution unit in the eight-sided building with a pointed roof. A large flat cam was constantly rotating, pushing iron rods back and forth through small windows in seven sides of the building. These rods continued as far as a quarter of a mile suspended on tripods or trees to wells, as many as 36 to a complex, where they were so connected to sucker rods that pumped the oil up out of the wells. If a well failed to produce or something broke down, it was a simple matter of disconnecting that rod from the cam action, leaving the rest to operate.

Lillibridge sold his 35 HP Olin engine to Barry E. Tuller, representing the Midwest Old Threshers Museum in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Tuller's correspondence with me said, 'This 35 HP Olin engine is a good running engine and usually is an easy starting engine. The valve mechanism is a unique design. The engine uses hit 'n miss governing. We have rigged a timer to provide electric ignition via a plug, as it is difficult to get consistent ignition with hot tube outside in the wind. When the engine is inside on its permanent base we will likely return to hot tube ignition, as this adds to the 'show'.'

The feeling of reality finally overtook my brother and me. Just the awareness of seeing and knowing that such machinery exists becomes much more impressive when it has your family name on it. We were ready to make our moves. I started a serious search by correspondence on the history of the Olin gasoline engine, primarily in ads in the GEM and western New York and Pennsylvania historical societies. Don had heard that Red Ball might be interested in selling one of his Olin engines so he dickered well over a year until finally I helped him load the smaller 6 HP engine onto his ? ton pickup. It rested in his barn while he scrounged up a few parts to finish the restoration and while he summoned his courage to start it up. His intention of making it operable and keeping it in the family for future Olin generations is to be commended.

Meanwhile, I have made some progress on the history. Fred C. Olin was born October 17, 1860 in Wyoming County, New York, the only child of Thomas and Emeline (Compton) Olin. His mother died just before his sixth birthday. Fred's father was the oldest son of Paris (5) Olin, whose line goes back through Ezra (4), John (3), John (2), John (1) Olin, the original Olin to arrive in America, ca. 1678.

George S. Nye, author of the book Biographical Sketches and Records of the Ezra Olin Family, had this to say about Fred C. Olin in 1892: 'Not being possessed of a strong constitution he was unable when young to perform hard labor, consequently, spent the greater part of his time in school. He attended Cornell University one year, his health failing, was obliged to cease attendance. He is possessed of an inventive mind, and in order to follow his natural inclination, he settled in Buffalo, where he was engaged for some time in a machine shop. He afterward located in Dunkirk, New York, where he presently resides, and is superintendent of the Martin Anti-Fire Car Heater Works. He married Alice B. Bartholomew, September 22, 1891, daughter of Abram Bartholomew, a prominent Buffalo attorney.'

It appears that Olin's inventive mind produced early results during his high school years at Perry Academy in the late 1870s. Although he never received recognition and failed to follow through, he exhibited a crude talking machine just before Thomas A. Edison perfected his.

While Olin worked his way up to become the superintendent of the Martin Anti-Fire Car Heater Works, he became obsessed with the new internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline that was to replace steam powered engines. Prior to the development of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was an annoying by-product of the petroleum industry.

Olin began drawing plans for his own engines, submitting dozens of patents a year. He was determined to manufacture his own engines despite the competition. He convinced his father-in-law to help finance his project and named himself as the President and Treasurer of the Olin Gas Engine Manufacturing Company of Buffalo, New York. Olin established a licensing agreement with J. W. Ruger Manufacturing Company of Buffalo and Titusville Iron Company of Titusville, Pennsylvania, allowing them to build the different Olin vertical and horizontal gasoline engines. Later, the Titusville Iron Company boasted that the Olin gas engine was the first successful gas engine placed on the market for use in the oil fields, maintaining a reputation for economy, reliability and durability.

Between the years 1892 and 1928, the Olin Gas Engine Manufacturing Company, 10-16 Lock Street, Buffalo, employed a minimum of twenty people, utilizing 15,000 square feet. By 1911, Titusville Iron Company was turning out scores of Olin engines monthly while J. W. Ruger Manufacturing Company began phasing out of the heavy engine production. The Olin Gas Engine Manufacturing Company decided to diversify its operation by soliciting general high class machine work and perforating of metals.

Meanwhile, Fred C. Olin's inventive capabilities assumed another direction. Henry Ford's market share of automobiles was booming by sales of his Model 'T.' Thousands of small time farmers could not justify the cost of the automobile just for pleasure purposes. About 1910, Olin created a special conversion kit that could convert any car, particularly the Model 'T,' into a tractor capable of pulling a plow, harrow, etc. Known as the 'Olin Auto Tractor Attachment,' it consisted of two standard size iron wheels for the front and two large 54 inch iron cleared rims or wheels for the rear. Speed was reduced roughly by 10 to 1 with drawbar pull of 800 pounds. (This brings back memories of the doodle-bug that became popular during World War Two.)

Patent No. 1,366,413 was granted to Olin in 1921 for a unique tractor design that resembled a competitor's tractor called 'Bates Steel Mule.'

Fred C. Olin died July 17, 1934, at age 73. His dream company was dissolved and the manufacturing site sold just before his death. He may have had other noteworthy inventions or products to his credit.

Now, back to my brother, Donald E. Olin of Harpursville, New York, and his 6 HP Olin gasoline engine that was made in Buffalo. Don had finally found the necessary parts and paraphernalia necessary for a start up. So, on a sunny Sunday afternoon Don and his son Mike, my son-in-law Fred Underwood Jr., and I rolled the engine to a level spot outside the barn where we combined our limited knowledge of a 'one lunger engine' to insure a safe and correct start up. The reservoir was filled with water, crankcase filled with oil, governor assembly and shaft oiled, ignition system hooked up from battery, to magneto, to spark plug (spark was good), and finally attaching the propane gas tank that fed through the pressure gauge, through the regulator to the carburetor.

We were ready to fire it up! Fred was our youngest and strongest; consequently, he was elected to turn the flywheel, which proved to require more than a couple of turns. At first we were only able to get one or two pops before realizing that the governor ball assembly was not freely sliding on the shaft. After sanding the paint from the shaft, freeing the governor and tightening the return springs, the engine still refused to start. Fred tapped the carburetor with a wrench, apparently breaking the diaphragm loose, allowing for gas flow because the engine suddenly came to life. With minor adjustments to the timing and gas flow, Fred was able to get that everlasting slow idle of a 'pop' dying out to the next 'pop.' A beautiful sound to our ears from our own family invention!

Our local annual Olin reunion was scheduled for July 10 at the 4H Youth Building in Owego, New York. Mike loaded the 6 HP Olin engine into his pick-up and took it to the reunion where Don was able to demonstrate it, running for several hours on a half tank, 10 pounds, of LP gas. Several photos were taken to add into the Olin reunion photo records. Don plans to have this engine mounted onto a flatbed trailer with a belted hook-up to a pre-1900 White Planer.

Don is proud to have been able to preserve a part of the Olin family history for future generations. I am proud to have been in a position to research the history of the inventor, Fred C. Olin, and some of his other accomplishments. Our local Olin reunion is only one of seven held annually across the United States and Canada.

Author's note: My thanks go to all those mentioned in this story for their input. Special thanks to Lee Russ of Chemung County, New York. If readers feel that they may have some information or photographs relating to Olin engines or other of Olin's inventions, please write or call Warren G. Olin, 5855 Lisle Rd., Owego, NY 13827 or phone (607) 687-3077.


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