A Family's Inspiration

Collector bit by the bug at age 10

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'Above: A circa 1908 1-1/2 HP Sta-Rite engine, instrumental in Vern’s interest in engines, belonged to his grandfather. '

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Vern Ellingson of Wood Lake, Minn., was bitten by the gas engine fix-em-up bug earlier than many collectors. "When I was very small, my grandfather moved to town and we moved onto his farm near Hanley Falls, Minn.," Vern says. "He left an old 1-1/2 HP Sta-Rite engine lying in the shed. It didn't run or anything, but I was always fascinated by it. It was sitting on an old belt pulley, so at times I would just go in and look at it."

When his grandfather came to visit, Vern asked what it was. An old engine, he said, an old pump engine. "To him, everything small was a pump engine. So my first recollection of a pump engine was a double-flywheel engine, like that Sta-Rite with the donut flywheels," Vern says.

When he was 10, Vern decided to make that engine run. "I wanted to un-stick the rust, but I didn't know anything about anything," he says. "If a hammer didn't do it, that was about it. So I did some damage to it. Eventually it was thrown out."

Forty years later, Vern retrieved the parts with an eye to restoring it. "At the time I didn't know about getting parts, so the Sta-Rite stayed on the back burner for 15 years," he says. Then he found a duplicate and decided to restore the engine he'd attacked as a child. "I borrowed parts, had them cast and today it runs great," he says. "I've got a picture (below left) with me standing by my grandfather's engine and it means quite a bit to me."

Without a tag it's difficult to know, but Vern thinks it's a 1908. According to some reference works, that was the year they changed from the donut flywheel. "I've heard of maybe half a dozen around the country," he says, "but it's hard to know how many exist. I do know that when I show it to people from Wisconsin, where it was built, they want to buy it."

Vern began collecting in 1979 after meeting older guys who had a bunch of gas engines, especially the open-crank, hit-and-miss engines. "They've intrigued me," he says. "I like the concept, old and crude." So the first engine Vern ever bought was a 1-1/2 HP John Deere.

He and his brother-in-law, Rick Barber, bought a pair of these small Deere engines and made one runner out of the two. "It was Rick's grandfather's engine, so it fell on him to keep it, and I bought another one, a 1925 1-1/2 HP John Deere, serial no. 242491 on a brass tag," Vern says. He says very few, perhaps one out of 75, have the brass tag. He also has two other John Deere engines, a 1-1/2 and a 3 HP.

His next engine was a circa 1917 5 HP Ottawa, serial no. F11940, a regular double-flywheel hit-and-miss kerosene engine with the kerosene carburetor on the side and a preheat manifold exhaust that goes up through the carburetor.

"It's not the log-saw type," Vern says, "but it was used to saw wood in the Cheyenne River Valley in Wyoming, and a friend who ranches out there gave it to me. He said, 'If you restore it you can have it.' You don't see a lot of Ottawas like this one, with the heavy double-wheel flywheel."

Two different engines include his Canadians, a Manitoba and a Call of the West. He helped a very good friend in South Dakota restore a big Minneapolis 35-70 gas tractor. Not long afterward, the 44-year-old friend died of cancer, a mere month after he was diagnosed.

"When I went to the funeral, his wife, son and daughter said his last request on his old stuff was to give me the pair of Canadian engines, because he figured I would take care of them and get them running," Vern says.

Which is what he did. "He had picked them up in Canada from someone who got them out of a salvage yard 25-30 years ago," Vern recalls. "They were in pretty rough condition."

The 1919 14 HP Manitoba, serial no. 2038, was stuck and had a little wobble in one flywheel. "I had no idea about the wobble," Vern says. "I got it unstuck, turned it over and you could see the wobble. I'm just guessing, but it probably got dropped somewhere, maybe in an old salvage yard, or maybe it was just rolled off a truck."

He tried to pull the bend out with a chain, but could never get it all out and he didn't want to remove the flywheel for fear of breaking something. "So I just left a bit of an old character mark there," he says. Vern did find an igniter, Webster bracket and magneto to put the entire machine back into original condition.

He knows of one other 14 HP Manitoba, as well as a 10 HP in Minnesota and a couple of 7 HPs. "There was a piece on a 17 HP Manitoba in Gas Engine Magazine probably 25 years ago," he adds.

The Call of the West, a 1917 9 HP engine carrying serial no. 15619, was put together from two engines. "A parts engine came with it," Vern says. "It had originally been used on a small threshing machine in Canada." He has gotten some reprinted literature about the Call of the West and Manitoba from a Canadian friend.

One sidelight of the Call of the West is its resemblance to a Waterloo Boy gas engine, Vern says, with just a few small changes. "From a distance it looks like a Waterloo Boy, and nobody will probably ever find out if there was some infringement years ago. Who knows?" he says.

Other engines in his collection include six Gade engines. "They're of six different sizes and they're my favorite engine, or real close, because they're heavy-looking and air-cooled without a fan," Vern says. "They're different and they run nice. There are enough around to be interesting, but not so many that they're real common. They have their exhaust work at the end of a piston stroke, instead of up through the valve, so the exhaust valve is actually a breathing valve, breathing in air for cooling. They're called a ported exhaust."

A 3 HP Gade proved to be a trial to acquire. The Ottawa engine friend in Wyoming said there was a gas engine at his relative's ranch in the western panhandle of Nebraska, west of the Sand Hills. "We were on vacation and drove over to see the engine," Vern recalls. "I tried to buy the Gade, but of course it wasn't for sale." Four years of going back and forth finally convinced the owner to give it up. "It had been his dad's, and not only did he not want to part with it, it looked like he didn't part with anything. The area was plumb full of stuff," he says.

Vern had first seen Gade engines at the Butterfield, Minn., show during the late 1970s and was immediately struck by them. "I like them," he says, "and to be able to find the ones I have was just, wow! Unreal." The Gades and some of Vern's other engines get warm receptions from spectators at different shows. "People say, 'Wow, where did you get them?' Or, 'They're just different.' I know a couple of collectors that have a lot more Gades, but up here in Minnesota there are not many at all. There are some small ones, but not heavyweights," Vern says.

He also has a 1916 Appleton engine, serial no. 5527, which he bought because at the time he didn't have a 6 HP engine. He figures he's the fourth owner.

"It originally came from a farm near Raymond, Minn., and I knew both people who owned it after the original owner," he says. "It was one of those deals where you go to a swap meet and realize, 'Oh, that's for sale.' It was big so it looked like a good one to get. I'm partial to big engines."

While cleaning it, he found red paint and though somebody said they thought all Appletons were green, red is how he painted it.

Vern also enjoys his 1913 5 HP Stickney engine, serial no. 20284. "I bought that one restored from a friend who was finding them and fixing them up," he says. "It's a good showing engine and I'd wanted to have one." He notes the exhaust valve on the Stickney is on the block and the intake is in the head, with the igniter outside the combustion chamber, not inside the engine. The exhaust valve comes from the back all the way through the water hopper to the front of the block. "Those are the basic differences between Stickneys and a lot of other engines," Vern says. He adds that the Stickney engine collectors know each other, and have fun getting together and showing Stickneys as a group.

Vern's circa 1915 8 HP Associated engine, serial no. 1022Y, was used on a ranch outside Gillette, Wyo. A friend saw it and bought it for him, which shows how the hobby often works. Another engine Vern owns with Rick Barber is a Kootz-Stroman oil field engine, made in Parkersburg, W.Va. Vern remarks that the younger kids are fascinated by the hit-and-miss engines, watching them coast along and then hit. "It's fun to watch their reactions," he says. "Some just look, too, and I don't know what they're thinking, because they're used to a lawn mower or a dirt bike."

The oddest place Vern ever got an engine was from an open water pit in an eastern Wyoming oil field. It took two days to chase down the owner, and when Vern said he was interested in a 1938 1-1/2 HP Fairbanks-Morse, the guy laughed. "He said if I could get the engine out of that pit, I could have it," Vern laughs. "I knew a friend's son worked for an oil company, so he borrowed a boom truck and we got it out of there. But it was really a challenge." At home he had to get it unstuck, replace the valves and ream out the guides to fit a modified John Deere 70 tractor valve, making it a good fit. He fixed the magneto and it was good to go. The FM does not have a serial number or tag.

He has one hot tube engine, a circa 1910-1915 4 HP air-cooled Myrick. "I had seen them mentioned in Gas Engine Magazine over the years," Vern says. "It doesn't have grease cups, but wicking where you pack cotton waste or wicking into a pocket and pump oil into that." Other engines include 1-1/2 and 4 HP Fuller & Johnsons, 1-3/4 and 2 HP Root & VanDervoorts, a 1 HP Mogul, a 1-1/2 HP Stover and a 1-3/4 HP Galloway. He's also made a pair of half-size engines that run.

Vern has noticed that many smaller shows don't have a lot of engines. "The bigger ones do, but most young people are getting into tractors, and engines just aren't as popular at some smaller shows," he says. "It probably has to do with transportation and loading. The reaction when you bring engines, though, is really nice. People are really inquisitive about them."

He tells spectators that these engines are the forbearers of the engines in cars, tractors and four-wheelers. "This is where they started," he says. "They're pretty impressed. These show how far we've come in a hundred years. If you don't know where you've been, you can't know where you're going."

Vern collects because he's always liked old stuff. "Sometimes I really can't explain it. It started with my dad's first tractor, a 1931 John Deere A, and as the U.S. Bicentennial came around, a show was hosted in Hanley Falls, where anybody could bring old stuff. I just wanted to get into engines, too, because they were old and different. I've always been interested in history, so anything old just kind of intrigues me," he says. "Other than the pieces themselves, the people you meet, the fellow collectors and the people that come to see them, give you a good feeling. It's just as much fun knowing the people as owning or having the engines."

Contact Vernon Ellingson at: 5290 180th Ave., Wood Lake, MN 56297-1450; (507) 485-3161.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; bvossler@juno.com