Engine Club Becomes Family Tradition

The Jack Branch Engine Club began, and became family tradition, 45 years ago with one man and the purchase of a Fairbanks-Morse Model Z.

Part of Wise family engine collection

A lineup of Wise family engines at the Jack Branch Engine Club’s annual Crank-Up in October 2013. From left to right: Jim Wise’s 7 HP Witte sideshaft (serial no. 12321), Jeremy Wise’s 4-1/2 HP Le Napoleon (serial no. 6039), Jim’s 2-1/2 HP Christensen (serial no. 9799) and Jim’s 6 HP Jacobson (serial no. 1536). Jeremy bought the Le Napoleon engine from cousin Bob Gill a few years ago. It was built by Simplicity and sold through Eug. Julien & Cie. Ltee, Quebec, Canada.

Photo by Charles Wise

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The 3 HP Z was originally used to pump water at Bothwell Lodge, a stone, castle-like mansion that was home to Sedalia, Mo., lawyer, politician and philanthropist John H. Bothwell. Junior grew up in the shadow of the mansion, and even helped work on the Fairbanks-Morse Model Z and the home’s Delco-Light plant as a young man. When one of the caretakers of Bothwell Lodge offered to sell Junior the engine, he jumped at the chance. A year later, in 1969, the mansion was given to the state of Missouri and is currently a state historic site that offers tours of the historic home.

Once the engine was home, Junior got the engine running on the floor of his garage. Though his wife, Ruth, and his four daughters didn’t think much of his new “toy,” his nephews Jim Wise and Bob Gill did. Bob remembers the night his uncle Junior started the engine for him: “It was a very cold evening and the engine was in his garage without any doors and a gravel floor and no heat,” he says. “About that time Aunt Ruth came out to drive to church, a big woman, she put her hands on her hips and said, ‘Well I never, two grown men sitting out here on the ground in freezing weather listening to a damn ol’ engine run.’”

After seeing his uncle’s engine, Bob took his new interest in gas engines back home to Paducah, Ky. His first engine was a 6 HP throttle-governed IHC Famous, which he purchased in Tennessee. “Fubb” Holder, a co-worker of Bob’s then brother-in-law Robert Drake, knew of the engine and took them to see it. The owner originally shot Bob a price of $15 for the engine, until Fubb interjected, “Hell, it’s worth more than that!”

“I had $90 and needed a tank of gas to get back to Paducah,” Bob says. “I stammered around and finally offered him $40.” Though it probably seemed like a lot of money to the young collector at the time, it is now a highly prized engine.

Within a couple of years, Bob’s longtime friend Gene George also started collecting engines. The two had known each other since third grade, and both worked at the Union Carbide Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Paducah. In 1975, Gene heard about a 10 HP M International Harvester near Boaz, Ky., from a co-worker.

“It was in a falling down mill building,” Bob remembers, “engine in one room, the grist mill in the other, but the roof had collapsed on the grist mill and it was not worth fooling with.” They purchased the engine for $200 and restored it later that year. Bob and Gene located a 30-inch Meadows grist mill a few years later, and put their 10 HP M International to work. They decided they needed to make some money to finance their engine-buying hobby, so they ground and sold cornmeal at engine shows and craft fairs. Eventually the two came to the conclusion that they were missing the shows trying to make money, so they quit.

The scheme did have its advantages as they were able to purchase a 3-1/2 HP John Lauson Mfg. Co. engine and a 2 HP Fairbanks-Morse Model H near Columbus, Ky., with the money they raised. At $200 for each engine and $10 for a few spare parts, Bob and Gene paid the owner all the money they had — $410 in one dollar bills, payment from 410 bags of corn meal at $1 per bag! “He was glad to see us go,” Bob recollects. “We took the engines to the shop and put gas in them and started both. What a buy!”

Besides his friend Gene, Bob also collects with his son Rob, who remembers being dragged to shows as a kid in the late ‘70s. “I didn’t have much choice in the matter,” Rob says, but now he’s glad his dad did. The trio has amassed a nice collection and dedicated a lot of time to the hobby.

The Gills have even made a series of YouTube videos documenting engines in their collection and at shows they attend. One such video, titled the “High Cam Debate,” caught Bob and Gene having a “friendly discussion” about the problem with a small Fuller & Johnson engine that belonged to a friend of theirs. This video has generated a lot of notoriety for Bob and Gene, as well as a lot of laughs from their friends (viewer discretion is advised).

The Gills are very interested in Waterloo Boy and Waterloo contract engines; they currently own 19 of them from 1-1/2 HP to 12 HP. One of Bob’s favorite engines is his early 4 HP tank-cooled Waterloo, which was a basket case when he got it and took many hours of restoration. The engine was missing its tag and had a replacement crankshaft and flywheels, so the true serial number is unknown. One of the engine’s more interesting features is a weighted igniter trip that uses the weighted end to pull the trip back into place instead of a spring used on later models. When Bob purchased the engine the trip was missing (along with a few other parts), but with a lot of research and work he was able to make a suitable pattern and have the trip cast.

Other engines in the collection of Bob and Rob Gill and Gene George include a group of John Lauson engines from 1 HP to 10 HP, several International Harvester engines including a Mogul Jr. and Titan Jr., a set of John Deeres from 1-1/2 to 6 HP, a 12 HP and 22 HP Fairbanks-Morse Model N, and many more. They have also recently finished working on a 1927 2-cylinder 16 HP Cummins diesel engine and generator outfit out of a sternwheel towboat that Bob’s former brother-in-law Robert Drake found.

Back in Missouri, another of Junior’s nephews, Jim Wise, joined him in collecting engines around the Sedalia area in the late 1960s. Jim doesn’t remember what his first engine was, but it was probably a 1-1/4 HP VJ Monitor, as Jim often points out “every farm had one around home.” While he doesn’t know what happened to his first engine, one of his earliest purchases was a 6 HP Sta-Rite. After running a local classified ad in 1969, he received a response from an old man named Fritz Schroeder. Fritz ran a sawmill most of his life, originally using an 8 HP Nelson Bros. Jumbo, which he offered to sell. After buying the Jumbo, Jim noticed the Sta-Rite’s odd-shaped water hopper under a work bench. The engine had been payment on a bill decades earlier, and Schroeder wouldn’t take any less than the $15 he was owed for the job. Jim would buy six engines from Fritz in all, but the Sta-Rite was by far his favorite.

Another of Jim’s prized engines is his 2-1/2 HP Christensen Type FF sideshaft. Jim had his first chance to buy the engine in 1970. He worked for the local International Harvester dealer at the time and asked farmers about engines when they visited the dealership. One farmer told him about the Christensen and agreed to trade him the engine for a set of used wheel weights, then worth about $45.

When he went to look at the engine, the farmer’s son had decided the engine was worth $75. “I didn’t know a sideshaft from a common engine at the time and was used to giving $15 for Monitors,” Jim says, so he passed on the opportunity. Another local collector bought the engine, and Jim had to buy that collector’s entire collection of 27 engines in 1985 to get the Christensen. After selling off most of the collection, Jim ended up having nothing in the Christensen in the end.

In 2008, Jim stumbled onto another Christensen near Sedalia, this time a 4 HP Type FF in a junk pile at a local auction. “It was just me and the junk man,” Jim says. He bought the engine for $35. While that might sound like a good deal, the engine was missing the valve cage, carburetor, rocker arm, governor, rod cap and bearing caps. Jim’s son Charles made contact with Matt Montague in Washington and Mark Churchill in Iowa through SmokStak, who supplied some of the parts to cast. With those castings, and a little luck on eBay, Jim now has all of the parts and need only find the time to finish the project (along with plenty of others). The Wises were even able to get an original parts book for their Christensen engines from friend and fellow collector Gary Bahre in Sparta, Ill.

In another instance, a near miss by Bob Gill turned out to be his cousin Jim Wise’s good fortune. The college in Paducah purchased a nearby orchard in about 1969, and Bob and his brother Joe were hired to do dirt work around the property. One day Bob took a break to use the facilities, but no facilities being close by, he started to step inside an old cellar for cover when a woman from the college drove up and he was forced to go back to work. Had he gone into the cellar, he may have found the 6 HP Jacobson sideshaft that was hiding, long forgotten, inside. Another local collector named Lewis Sled ended up with the engine later that year for $30. Though Bob tried, he was never successful in talking Lewis out of the engine.

A few years later, while visiting his cousins in Paducah, Jim paid Lewis a visit and inquired about the engine. At first Lewis was reluctant to sell. Finally, in 1978, Lewis mentioned that he was looking for an engine to pull a grist mill. The Jacobson had a broken piston skirt, and he didn’t think it could be repaired. Jim had just purchased a 7-8 HP Fairbanks-Morse ZC engine, which Lewis thought would be perfect for his needs and agreed to an even trade. Upon returning home, Jim’s father, Charlie, suggested he waste no time in returning to Kentucky to finish the trade before Lewis changed his mind. Jim completed the trade the following weekend. Charlie, having worked as a welder for the railroad, repaired the piston, and the engine is still in Jim’s collection.

Jim Wise and Junior Henderson weren’t the only ones in Sedalia to become interested in gas engines. Jim’s father, Charlie, took an interest in the hobby, having grown up farming around steam and early gas engines. His work at the railroad repair shops in Sedalia made him partial to Fairmont engines. Jim’s best friend, Leon Wells, also started collecting in the early 1970s after purchasing his first engine, a 1-1/4 HP VJ Monitor.

Junior Henderson, Jim and Charlie Wise, and Leon Wells started calling themselves the Jack Branch Engine Club, named after a small creek branch that runs behind the Henderson and Wise family farms. They attended shows together around Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky in the 1970s and 1980s. Junior enjoyed the hobby so much that he even skipped his youngest daughter’s high school graduation to attend the Central Hawkeye Swap Meet, Waukee, Iowa, with his nephew Jim. Junior commented at the time that he didn’t lose anything at the graduation, and Jim remembers, “Aunt Ruth wouldn’t talk to me for months.”

More recently, Jim’s son Charles and nephew Jeremy Wise have also become interested in gas engines. Like their cousin Rob Gill, Charles and Jeremy also grew up around the engine world and have learned to appreciate the hobby. Though Charlie Wise, Junior Henderson and Leon Wells have passed, Jim, Charles and Jeremy Wise keep the Jack Branch Engine Club alive. Charles even has Junior’s first 3 HP Fairbanks-Morse Z.

Despite a 360-mile distance between the Wises in Sedalia and the Gills in Paducah, they try to stay connected with text messages, emails and phone calls between the one or two trips they make each year to visit each other. Both also host “crank-ups,” or private shows, at their homes after the regular show season, which often turn into miniature family reunions.

The gas engine hobby has given these relatives a reason to stay connected despite the geographic distance. Bob Gill recently remarked, “We may have gotten into it even if Uncle Junior hadn’t bought that engine, but seeing it run that night really lit a fire in me.” That fire has been shared through the family tree and shows no sign of stopping.

Whoever said “The family that plays together stays together” must have had this family in mind, and they have the gas engine hobby to thank for that.

See the “high-cam” debate video and more of the Jack Branch Club’s videos at Gas Engine Magazine.

Contact Charles Wise at (660) 221-6133 • cwise@murlin.com