A former elevator-leg runner stays with friends


The Foos was put on trucks to make it easier to take to shows.

Photo courtesy Mari Jo Johnson.

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When the offer came for Paul Johnson, Brookings, S.D., to buy a rare Foos Type S 15 HP gas engine, he wasn't quite ready. "Jim Johannsen's wife was at a point in her life where she wanted to move to an apartment, and was selling her house so she didn't have room to keep everything." Paul says. "Plus, nobody in the family was a real gas engine person, so they came to me and said they were ready to sell the Foos." More than that, they said they wanted Paul to buy the engine.

Friendship history

Paul, 49, grew up on a farm and saw the Foos engine as a teenager at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron, where he became friends with Jim. "Jim and his friend Dick Geyer from DeSmet, S.D., used to display engines at the fair every year, and when I was in 4-H, the display area was close enough to the engines that I would go over and visit these gentlemen." Paul says. "Even though I was just a kid, they were interested in me and talked to me, and in fact let me come behind and start the engines and stuff like that. That's where I really became interested in the gas engines. Near as I can remember, the first time would have been 1974 (Paul was 16). At the time, I didn't realize what rare engines I was around. Dick had the only 20 HP Stickney known and the only one running, and the large 15 HP Foos was rare, too. Though I've been interested in this business for over 20 years now, you just don't run across that many Foos engines. I don't know if you go to Ohio if they're more common or not. I sure haven't seen a lot of them."

Though Paul liked the Foos, his first gas engine was a 1911 10 HP Stickney. "I had helped Dick with his 20-horse at the state fair, and really thought Stickneys were neat engines," he says. He ran across one for sale in Gas Engine Magazine in 1989, and drove to Austin, Texas, to get it. "It was all in pieces, but 95 percent of the parts were there, and none of the major parts were broken," Paul says. However, many parts were in bad shape. "Anything on the engine that wasn't steel or hardened cast was pitted away," he says. "When I hauled it home, the spokes in the wheels were in such bad shape that I had to turn the wheels because I was afraid they would literally collapse. The axles were plated steel and just about rusted through." All of these kept Paul from getting the machine up and running until last year. "I found a set of truck wheels from a Stickney and that's when I really went to work and redid it," he says.

Since then, Paul has added other engines to his collection, including 3 and 10 HP Stickneys, 1-1/2 and 3 HP John Deeres, a 1-1/4 HP Handy Andy Galloway, 4 HP Root & VanDervoort, as well as a 4 HP Foos Jr., a couple of Waterloo Boys and a Chore Boy. "You can have just as much fun playing with a plain gas engine as with a fairly valuable one," he says.

Paul says he has always been interested in old stuff, and it means more when some of that old stuff belonged to friends, so after both Jim and Dick died, he told Jim's family if they were ever interested in selling the Foos, he would sure like a shot at it. "I'd always liked that engine because of its massiveness and that with its throttling governor it ran quietly without a muffler. It had always intrigued me, so I was excited about getting the engine and the opportunity to have it," he says.

When the opportunity came last summer, though Paul hadn't been thinking of buying any new engines, he was pleased and humbled that they would offer this rare engine to him. "Actually, I had been the last person to run the Foos after Jim died. The family brought the engine to the Huron Area Antique Power Show one year and asked if I would run it, so Jim's son-in-law and I ran it."

When Paul went to pick up the engine the family wanted to hear the engine run one last time before they sold it, so Paul put in some gas and fired it up. "It's not difficult to run," he says. "If you have the spark and everything working, you can basically prime the engine and get it going." It hadn't been run in about 10 years, so Paul, going by memory, primed the pump and on the first compression the engine hit, but it hadn't been primed quite enough so it didn't keep running. "I primed it a little bit more and it took right off."

Paul is unsure of the year of the engine. Originally he was told it was a 1912, but whenever Jim displayed it, he called it a 1909. "I know that it had to be made before 1914 because it has the igniter with the battery and coil, and they went to a magneto later on," Paul says.

Right now the engine is stored at the Hanley Falls, Minn., museum show grounds for the Pioneer Power show. "To me, Hanley Falls is one of the nicest places to show your engine in this part of the country," Paul says. "You've got nice shade under big cottonwoods, real friendly people to work with who are accommodating and will find you a place to store your engine. It's a fun place to show engines."

Paul says reactions from people about the engine vary. "They're usually surprised at how quiet it runs, because a lot of the larger engines have a pretty good bark to them," he says. "A lot of them are hit-and-miss, so it's different for spectators to see that the Foos doesn't sit there and coast." He adds that for people who don't know too much about the engine, it's a chance to educate them about what the engine did, where it came from, and the like. "They always want to know how you start it and when you show them the size of the cylinder and things like that, they're amazed."

He isn't sure why the engine runs so quietly. "It does have a wipe ignition, where the igniter is constantly rotating. That system was known to be real good for not carboning up and causing problems," Paul says.

Though the engine is quiet, it takes a warm-up period at a show to get the needle set just right. "If you're off at all it will make a lot more bark, but when it's running right it takes so little gas it really doesn't make a very loud compression," Paul says. "I don't know if the engine is also good at dissipating noise, or maybe the valve setup off to the side might also help to minimize the noise."

The engine also has a different look in the front, as the valves are mounted on either the side of the engine and run by camshafts and rods from underneath the engine. "So it isn't really an L-head or a flat-head, but different," Paul says. "Valves really sit crossways to the cylinder. It doesn't make any problems for working on it. With this one all you have to do is unbolt the valve assembly on each side and work on it that way."

Engine history

Paul has the entire history of the machine, from its arrival in an elevator in Hitchcock, S.D., in the teens, until now. "It was installed in the basement of that building to run the leg in the elevator, and probably a feed mill," he says. The leg is a belt with cups on it that scoop grain from the pit and take it to the top of the elevator. Today that's done with electric motors, but in the days before electricity it was done by gas engines, like the Foos. Paul says the engine never had a cooling system outside of a water pump. "There was a cistern by the building and the water pump circulated water from the cistern to cool the engine."

Hitchcock got electricity in the late 1940s, but the engine remained in the elevator until the 1950s as a backup when electricity would go out.

After that, in 1964, Jim and his dad, Julius, of Huron, bought the engine. "That family owned it until I bought it in 2006," Paul says.

The Johannsens overhauled the engine after they bought it, and though it had been on skids in the basement of the elevator, they built trucks for it to make it mobile, and put a Ford Model T radiator on it to cool it. "As far as we know, the paint on the engine is original," Paul says.

Some of the engine's unique features include how it is lubricated: "With most older engines, the crank and the main bearings were all greased, where with the Foos everything was oiled. The wipe mechanism takes the oil to feed the rod bearing and then drips oil also on the main bearings. You want to put about three drops per minute on most pieces running at any speed. The oilers have an adjustment so you can set how fast the oil drips. Most of them are 3 or 4 ounces in size and as they drip you have to refill them." There is a trough on the base of the engine that was made to catch the run-off oil and feed it back into the engine, but anytime the engine is out in the open or in a place that isn't clean, the whole idea doesn't work out very well.


Location: Springfield, Ohio
Model: Type S
Year: pre-1914
Horsepower: 15
Serial number: 40682
Weight: 4,500 pounds
Bore: 8-inch
Stroke: 15-inch
Flywheel width: 3 inches
Flywheel diameter: 55 inches
Governing: throttle-governed, flyball weights
Ignition: igniter, battery and coil
Unique feature: Wipe ignition: The igniter constantly rotates; the wipe mechanism takes the oil to feed the rod bearing and then drips oil on the main bearings.

"Because everything is lubricated by oil," Paul says, "the Foos is a very messy engine and I have to clean it after every show. It must have been terrible in the elevator with the chaff and dust in there."

Not so hard

That said, he adds that many people think engines are a lot of work and hard to move around, though in reality, after setting up a few things they are pretty easy to handle. "Once you get gas engines figured out, they are very easy to start, and there's nothing that spectators enjoy more than to see one of these massive pieces of iron start and run," Paul says. "Some people have gotten away from gas engines because they think they're hard to deal with, but I sure hope in the future more young people will consider gas engines."

Paul says he isn't really looking for any other engines right now. "I like odd engines and odd types of engines, so I'm not one to have several engines of the same kind just to say I do. It has to be something that appeals to me. I don't have any upright engines, so at some point I might look for an upright."

Paul says he would urge anybody, especially if they are new to the hobby, not to be scared to go to people who are collectors, and ask questions and be inquisitive. "Most all of us want to tell our stories," he says. "We get a kick out of telling our story, so younger people need to ask questions, especially since now as people get older, there are very few left anymore who actually ran these engines. We need to keep the stories and understanding of the gas engines going. It's a fun hobby and I enjoy it, and I hope some day my son, who enjoys it now, too, will take over for me. That's how the hobby will keep going."

Contact Paul Johnson at: 1105 Forest St., Brookings, SD 57006-3227; (605) 692-7671.

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;