Briarpatch Beauty

Old-Engine Buddies Journey to Bring a 22-1/2 HP Bessemer Oil Field Engine Back to Life

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One summer evening in August 2001 I was sitting on the front porch of my home in Lincolnton, N.C., with my dear friend and fellow engine buddy Denver Bailey reliving some great memories of past engine shows and dreaming of some future engine endeavors. Our conversation gradually shifted to the oil field engines that I saw at the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association's Portland, Ind., show, and I mentioned to Denver that I'd like to own one some day.

Denver, who I had known since the 1960s and who got me interested in the gas engine hobby, was exceptionally knowledgeable about stationary engines. In fact, he owned a 10 HP Fairbanks-Morse engine that ran so good that you could set a nickel on the water hopper and not hear it rattle. He was planning to visit relatives at his home in Huntington, W.Va., in a few weeks, and told me he'd see if he could locate an oil field engine for me while he was there. Denver made some inquiries back home and learned that his cousin, Bill Scarberry, and Bill's wife, Jean, were selling a 22-1/2 HP Bessemer oil field engine. I made a phone call and became the proud owner of a Bessemer engine. Now, all I had to do was bring it home.

How in the world would Denver and I ever bring this 5,400-pound engine home? Luckily, two more engine buddies and long-time friends in my area, J.R. Staton and W.C. Helms, solved that problem for us. They were ready and willing to make the long journey with Denver and me in the Dodge Ram 3500 pulling an 18-foot trailer. So, in early October 2001, the four of us engine hunters left on our safari to West Virginia.

I was having some heart problems, and the morning we left to get the old Bessemer wasn't one of my better days. I wasn't sure if my irregular heartbeat was the result of the trip excitement, or it was due to medical discomfort. Denver wasn't any better. I could tell he almost wasn't able to go with us, but he wanted to get the engine so badly that he kept going. The six-hour journey seemed like an eternity.

Clayton's engine buddies inspect an old International Famous: W.C. Helms (from left), Denver Bailey and J. R. Staton. J. R. bought the engine from the same collector that sold Clayton the Bessemer.

Clayton finally got the engine out of the weeds and hauled it back to North Carolina. The flywheels have been attached, but the majority of the restoration is still to come.

First impressions

We finally arrived at Bill's house at high noon and got our first glance at the old Bessemer. The engine was situated on about 4 acres of land and was completely entwined in the briars, weeds and everything else because it had been sitting out for a very long time. We noticed a few rats scurrying here and there, and it was evident that neither the briars nor the rats were going to give up their home without a fight. What's more, the flywheels, although still connected to each other, weren't on the engine and were sitting in another briar patch. After we got a good look at the cylinder we loaded it on the trailer with J.R.'s winch, and as we did, I saw a rat scurry straight out of the exhaust and back into the brush where the old Bessemer sat for so long.

Once the cylinder was in the truck, we turned our attention to the flywheels. J.R. backed the trailer up to the 68-inch, 1,000-pound flywheels, hooked up the winch and started pulling to unearth them from 6 inches of soil and roots. Those stubborn flywheels were so stuck in the ground that the truck and trailer began to drag backward as the winch pulled. J.R. wasn't too worried and engaged the hand brake, but those old flywheels wouldn't budge. He finally put timbers behind the trailer wheels, and that gave us the traction we needed to pull the flywheels out of the ground. The briar roots released their grip, and the flywheels came rolling onto the trailer.

While W.C. and I tied down the flywheels, J.R. must have figured he'd done enough and went over to talk to Bill. Turns out that Bill owned a pretty good selection of engines, trucks and even a 1957 Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar. J.R. talked him into selling him a 6 HP International Famous stationary engine. After the deal was struck, we loaded J.R.'s new engine into the truck and then set our course back home to North Carolina. It was already late in the day by the time we pulled out of Denver's cousin's place. By the time we arrived back at J.R.'s home in Maiden, N.C., it was well after dark, so we all agreed to leave the unloading until the next morning.

How the flywheels got removed from the Bessemer is anyone's guess. The 1,000-pound flywheels were stubborn and didn't want to move from the 6 inches of dirt and roots that surrounded them.

Repair and Restore

Unfortunately, the Bessemer didn't have a name-plate, so the model, year and serial number were anyone's guess. Cast on the flywheel was the number 28902, which I take to be the serial number, but I'm not positive. In the next few weeks, I fabricated and welded some metal skids to act as the Bessemer's new base. Luckily, J.R. owns a nice forklift, so we hoisted up the cylinder and bed, and set them on the frame. Next, we connected the flywheels and crankshaft to the cylinder. As soon as we bolted everything down, we loosened the connecting rod cap about an eighth of an inch. With J.R. on one side of the connecting rod and W.C. on the other side, they bounced the flywheels side to side until, slowly but surely, the engine loosened up. Once that was done, we noticed the Bessemer was missing its mixing valve. That would take a little bit of searching to find. After many inquiries and phone calls, we located a valve from a collector we contacted on the Internet. Several months later we moved the Bessemer to W.C.'s new shop for the actual restoration.

Before the restoration, however, we needed some new parts. I found a new hot tube, burner and chimney at the 2002 Portland show. At W.C.'s shop, the first order of business was pouring new babbit bearings. Luckily, the first pour was a winner, and the bearings worked great. We tried starting it, but the 10-inch piston would only hit once and die. We figured the compression was low, so we rigged up an 8 HP Briggs & Stratton gear head with a go-kart tire on it to jumpstart the Bessemer. With the tire rolling the Bessemer's flywheel, the oil field engine still wouldn't hit. We abandoned that idea and tried to start it by hand - the old-fashioned way - again. The third time must've been a charm - the compression came up, and the Bessemer began to run.

Once the Bessemer was running, we noticed it kept blowing strange material out of its exhaust. It was parts of rats' nests! While the engine continued to run and spit out the former homes of its inhabitants, the engine started pulling hard, so we stopped it. As we were investigating, we noticed that when the piston was all the way back, it was very tight in the cylinder. Thinking it to be a bearing problem, I put a 1/32-inch shim under the main bearing and tried running the engine again. It still spit out nests! We got it started again, and it began to make knocking sounds and to run tight again. Frustrated, I decided to tear the nest-spitting Bessemer down to investigate.

Oh Rats!

After I opened the cylinder up, I discovered some good and bad news. The bad news was that rats were making their nests on the backside of the piston. What's worse, as the piston moved, it soaked oil into the rats' nests, which stuck the nests to the backside of the cylinder. The good news, however, was that the cylinder was in better shape than I had imagined. There was very little pitting, and as I ran my fingernail along the cylinder, it didn't have enough wear to 'chack' my fingernail. After that big mess was cleaned up, the piston ring stuck. That required me to make a new gasket, and then I reassembled the cylinder knowing that it finally looked good, inside and out. The engine now has good compression and runs like a dream. I put a new coat of green paint on it, and that finished the restoration.

Before the restoration was over, however, we lost our dear friend Denver. He suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. My gas engine mentor and buddy, who had helped me find the Bessemer, passed away before we could ever get it running. Denver was a great help to me, and he will be greatly missed.

Denver may be gone, but he introduced me to the exciting world of oil field gas engines. Through my restoration, I not only learned that fixing up an old oil field Bessemer is fun and a great learning experience, but sharing good times with my buddies is also an important part to this gas engine hobby. Together, we talk about what engines we wish for, drive to new and exciting places to find them, and spend long hours together in the shop returning them to working condition. This restored Bessemer oil field engine will always stand as a reminder of Denver and the great things he taught me about gas engines.

In the Beginning

Edwin J. Fithian and John Carruthers incorporated the Bessemer Gas Engine Co. in 1899 after successfully producing a two-cycle gas cylinder and friction clutch, which the men sold in tandem. The cylinder and clutch became wildly popular among oil companies because, for $125, an oil producer could remove a steam engine's cylinder and replace it with a 10  HP gas cylinder/clutch combination without replacing the entire setup.

From this successful beginning, Bessemer manufactured a two-cycle, 5 HP natural gas engine and steadily enlarged its engine line in the coming years, it expanded its operations in Grove City, Pa., and manufactured oil field engines until the company was eventually purchased by Cooper Industries, a holding company that continued to manufacture engines under the Bessemer-Cooper name.

Today, many different sizes and styles of Bessemer oil field engines exist, and they're appreciated among collectors for durability and efficient design.

The restored Bessemer oil field engine was plucked out of a patch of overgrown weeds and dirt, and was home to much of the area's rat population. After a good restoration, the engine runs as well as it did in the oil field.

Bessemer Oil Field Engine at a Glance:

HP: 22-1/2

RPM: 180

Cylinder: 10-inch bore, 15-inch stroke

Bearings: 4-inch main, 4-1/2-inch rod

Engine weight: 5,400 pounds

Flywheels: 68 inches, 1,000 pounds each

Contact Clayton Ballard at: 1008 Reepsville Road, Lincolnton, NC 28092.