Metamorphosis: From Steel Yard to Show Grounds

Inspired by a Model Froelich, Idaho Man Builds His Own

1892 Froelich

Head-on view of D.J. Baisch's 1892 Froelich replica.

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This project came about quite by accident, and was prompted when I received a model of the famous 1892 Froelich tractor (generally considered the first gasoline-powered tractor in the U.S.) a number of years ago as a present from my family.

I am disabled (the result of a bad head injury and a couple of other accidents), and I only have one good arm, one good eye and little or no short-term memory. For me, restoring old machinery is good - if sometimes frustrating - therapy.

An old cut of John Froelich's original tractor. Compare this with the photos at left and below and it's clear how faithful D.J.'s replica is to the original. Froelich's success with this tractor led to the creation of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., Waterloo, Iowa.


A few years after receiving the Froelich model, I purchased an early 1900s Fairbanks-Morse 6 HP Type T vertical engine, and while restoring it an idea hit me. I looked at the Froelich model, then at the vertical FM. I went back and forth between the two a couple of times and said to myself 'I can do this!' The project was born.

The project, in case you haven't guessed, was to build a replica of the 1892 Froelich tractor. The FM engine was a perfect choice, as it looks very similar to the 16 HP (some sources say 20 HP) vertical hit-and-miss Van Duzen originally used by John Froelich in 1892.

After a lot of measuring and scaling I decided I could recreate the Froelich at a 12:1 scale. By allowing for the difference in the width of the FM engine and the model engine, and by fudging a little here and a little there, I knew I could make it look right. The first thing I decided to hunt down were the gears I would need.

Rounding Up Parts

I'm a machinist and welder by trade, and I used to run a machine shop where I dealt with all the equipment dealers around my home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I checked with all of them, but didn't have much luck. I was just about to give up when I stopped at the local John Deere dealer and, lo and behold, in a dumpster out back was a complete set of gears almost identical to the ones used on the Froelich, including a small Siamese gear for speed reduction.

With gears in hand I did a lot more measuring, and I discovered the spur gears presented a unique problem because of their size. The gears are hardened steel, and the bores in the gears are about 3 inches. They weren't going to fit the drive shaft I wanted to use, so I machined bushings for each one, sizing them down to fit the drive shaft. With a 50-ton press (and a little Loctite added for extra security) I pressed them into the gears and then keyed them to the shafts.

I continued on with more measuring and more figuring, and I soon realized it would be easier to just make a tractor than to scale one up. At one point my wife said, 'Are you nuts? You've got tractors to restore, why go to all this work?' I just told her, 'Because I want to,' and kept on going.

Before I went clear off the deep end, I thought I had better look for wheels. With some searching around, I found four that would work from Buck Charles, a good friend in Ellensburg, Wash. Some trading, a quick trip to Washington and the wheels were mine. The fronts appear to be from a 10-18 Avery, and the rears are from a Hart-Parr 30.

The wheels required some major surgery to the spokes, and all four had to be bored and bushed, but they turned out fine. That part of the project was really lucky, because there aren't a lot of wheels out there that would fit this unit. The ones I used are almost perfect to scale and, more importantly, they fit the gears I had found. After some more measuring I made my first trip to the steel yard. You might notice how much I kept measuring things: I hate doing things over.

The metamorphosis went fairly well from this point. Well, pretty well for a guy with one arm, one eye and a broken head. More cutting, fitting and welding - plus many trips to the steelyard and the ranch store - was followed by even more cutting, fitting and welding. I work alone most of the time, and at this stage I was really thankful for having a forklift and an overhead hoist. Things continued going well - until I realized I had to make pulleys for the engine. This meant removing one flywheel so I could make a small pulley to drive the water pump, and it meant bushing and machining the proper size pulleys for both sides of the engine. If that wasn't enough, while I was in the middle of this part of the project I discovered a 10-inch crack in the FM's cylinder, which I quickly repaired.

Getting it Together

The next big problem was positioning the complete set of gears to the frame so they would all fit together and mesh with the gear teeth on the wheels. This meant I had to find some old-style bearing mounts (which was no easy task), melt out the old babbitt and, once positioned, pour new babbitt and machine them to hold the gears. I had to notch the frame in one place a little bit, but all the gears fit perfectly. At this same time I cut, machined and welded together all the parts for the front end, plus I made and installed the front axle swivel and holder. Once this was done I installed the rear axle and wheels.

I still needed a gear and worm steering setup, but I couldn't find one to scale. I decided to run some 'wanted' ads, which lead to a setup I bought. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too small, so I took apart an old pump jack that I already had to see what it was like. It was my lucky day, for there was my perfect scale gear and worm. Some more measuring, cutting, fitting and welding, and the front end, steering gear and wheels were on. I made and installed the water tank and the tractor's wooden platforms, and I plumbed in the water pipes and installed the belts. Things were looking good!

Then, for some reason, I started looking at the box the model came in, and . . . a-a-a-a-r-r-r-g-h! Right on the end of the box I read: '1892 Froelich tractor, first gasoline tractor capable of running in forward and reverse.' Well, I hadn't designed in a reverse, because the model doesn't actually work, and I simply didn't know I needed reverse. (The model also didn't show a clutch/belt tightener and brake, but I KNEW I needed those, and I designed something I thought fit with the tractor.)

So now I had to take the gears off, change one shaft, machine a sliding mechanism and make it go both directions. I couldn't fudge this part, because not having a reverse would have totally negated the reason for making the tractor. After a bit of trial and error I got everything together again, and it goes both ways.

That done, I fitted up the rest of the tractor, started and ran it, and then took it completely apart for detailing (grinding welds smooth, etc.), final priming and painting. Once that was done I put it all back together, just as you see it here.

It isn't 100 percent accurate, but it's still nice. All told it took me about 2,200 to 2,500 hours to finish, but I think I spent half that time looking for pieces I laid down and couldn't find, and rounding up parts that I could use for this unit.

I've been collecting tools, implements and then engines and tractors for years. Because of my advancing age and my health issues, I conceived of this project as a possible 'last hurrah,' a chance to actually make something instead of rebuilding something. It might seem like a crazy thing to have built, but the end product makes it all worthwhile, and I enjoyed the whole process.

Contact engine enthusiast D.J. Baisch at: 6230 E. 81 N., Idaho Falls, ID 83401, or e-mail: