Up to Chance: Surprising Gas Engine Discoveries

Collector and friend flip coins to decide who gets their gas engine finds.

1012 Bluffton engine restored

It took 25 years for Lee Anderson to get all the parts to get this 1912 1-1/2 HP Bluffton engine fixed and running.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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If it wasn’t for everything else that Lee Anderson does for the gas engine community, he could easily be remembered as the guy who flipped coins with his buddy to determine who would own engines they both wanted.

Lee, of Frazee, Minn., started collecting gas engines when he was 13 years old, spurring an interest in mechanical things. In 1957, a neighbor gave him a 1926 Briggs & Stratton Model FH that had been hooked up to a DeLaval milk machine pump. “It didn’t run, so I asked my dad what was wrong with it,” Lee says. “He said the engine got hot and the rings got stuck. I said, ‘What are the rings?’ He said they were there on the piston. I said, ‘What’s a piston?’ He said, ‘When you take it apart, you’ll figure it out.’”

So Lee took it apart and got the engine running. He’s been interested in engines ever since.

United the first

As time passed into the 1970s, Lee didn’t have a lot of money to spend on engines. At his rental farm he found an old engine in the woods and paid the farm owner $10 for it. That engine turned out to be one of Lee’s best buys: a 1915 2-1/2 HP United water-cooled hit-and-miss engine, complete except for the ignition. “I fixed that one up and kept it in memory of the old fellow, who was like a grandpa to my kids,” he says.

Lee bought junk engines no one else wanted, the ones with many missing parts that looked like they’d never run again. “That way I developed my engine-fixing skills,” he explains. “Part of my livelihood is building engine parts for others, which keeps me busy all winter, which means I don’t get all of my own stuff done.”

Leaving it to luck

Even the name of Lee’s second engine hints at the friendship between Lee and a longtime engine buddy: United. The men decided that they didn’t want to bid against each other, so if they both saw an engine they liked one would buy it, then they’d flip a coin to see who would own it.

“So in 1976, for $29.50, I bought this 1915 1-3/4 HP United engine, air-cooled, hit-and-miss with a 3-3/4-by-5-inch bore and stroke,” Lee says. “It was worn out but pretty complete, and I wanted that engine badly.” But Lee lost the coin toss, so the engine went to his friend. Lee made sure his friend knew that if he ever decided to sell it, he had to give Lee the first chance. The United is serial no. 80627, with an 18-inch diameter flywheel and 2-inch-wide face.

Years went by, Lee moved, and the friends lost regular contact. In 1992, Lee’s friend gave him a call, saying he was ready to sell the engine and wanted to know if Lee was interested. “I said I guess and asked how much he wanted,” Lee recalls. “Market was $300, and I said that’s a lot more than I paid for it. But it was air-cooled, and I liked it and wanted it and didn’t have another one like it, so after all those years, I finally acquired it. I’m happy to have it at home after many years.” That engine started Lee’s love affair with air-cooled engines.

One coin toss Lee won was for a 1916 Happy Farmer Co. tractor from Twin Valley, Minn. When he got it, the tractor was just a frame and three wheels. It took Lee seven years to find all the parts, but now he drives it when he puts on his own little old iron show for friends.

Bluffton Gasoline Engine

One of Lee’s most unusual engines is a 1912 Bluffton Cream Separator Co. 1-1/2 HP air-cooled engine. When Lee bought it in 1975, it was missing almost all its moving parts; all that was there was the block, flywheel, rod and piston.

It took Lee 25 years to get it running. He had luck while taking a motorcycle trip with a friend to Montana. At an old showground, Lee asked the guy who ran the place if they had old engine parts. Lee was pointed to a parts pile on the fence row, and it didn’t take him long to find the head for his Bluffton engine. But before he could keep the part, the board of directors for the show had to OK its sale. “Three months later I sent the money,” Lee says, “and they sent me the part.”

Lee says identifying that part reflects how things were years ago. “Many people don’t understand that years ago information was scarce,” he says. “No Internet like today, so if you needed something, you had to research in books or whatever you could find, or attend shows looking for similar engines.” Lee’s early copy of C.H. Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines Since 1972 and Gas Engine Magazines starting in 1970 helped him pick up information.

After procuring the head, Lee decided 25 years was long enough to wait to get the machine running. He called another Bluffton owner to tell him he’d be at a show the next day and asked to borrow a few parts off the other Bluffton as patterns. Thankfully, the other Bluffton owner was good-hearted enough to go out at midnight and take the parts off the engine to bring to the show the next day.

Lee says that duplicating parts is always risky because the copy shrinks. So he builds up the parts, for instance putting a metal band and wax to build up a gear, so the foundry part comes back bigger. Then Lee machines it down to proper size in his fully equipped machine shop. In his lifetime, he has had a welding/blacksmith shop, done auto body repair, been an engineer and machinist, and helped in engine restorations.

Because of the midnight collector, Lee was able to cast the governor, gears, cam, igniter and a few other miscellaneous pieces. Lee also borrowed an original Bluffton skid and discovered the company stenciled the buyer’s name and shipping address — name, city and state, all that was needed at the time — onto the skid. Then the engines were delivered by rail.

From that skid, Lee found out that the manufacturer, Bluffton Cream Separator Co., Bluffton, Ohio, considered each purchaser a dealer, entitling the purchaser to a portion of proceeds if a neighbor bought a Bluffton.

The Bluffton has a make-and-break ignition with a hit-and-miss governor. Bore and stroke is 3-3/4 by 5 inches. Lee’s Bluffton is serial no. 3683, which is stamped on the cylinder.

Lee feels good when he gets these rough machines going, especially when he’s been told they’re too far gone or that the engine is junk. “That’s just adds fuel to my fire to make it work,” he says. “At that point, it’s a big joy. Then I take it to a show for a year, then put it in the shed and start the big challenge over with another engine. The hunt is the fun part for me, anyway.”

As the Bluffton was fairly cheap, Lee says quite a few were sold. He used to think his was very rare, but lately he’s seeing more pop up. Eventually Bluffton merged with the Nelson Bros. Co., Saginaw, Mich. With minor changes, like a slight difference in the governor arm and carburetor style, they became the Nelson Bros. Jumbo machines.

“These simple and real basic engines are the kinds of engines I like best of all,” Lee says. “Plain old cheap farm engines made for farmers. To them it was like having a hired man. The simpler it is, the more fascinating to me. Anybody can build something complicated. Building something simpler is complicated.” With the Bluffton, for example, a single bolt holds the pushrod assembly, compared to four bolts on an Associated engine. The Bluffton is also a simple 4-cycle engine with no gas adjustments on the carburetor: The choke plate adjusts the amount of air, which regulates the richness and leanness of the gas mixture, Lee says. The ultimate in simplicity.

Rawleigh-Schryer

Lee bought his circa 1914 1-1/2 HP Rawleigh-Schryer Co. engine at an auction. It was missing its igniter, and it stayed that way for 30 years, when a customer sent him an igniter for a Rawleigh-Schryer to repair. Lee got permission to make a pattern, and now the engine has an original igniter once again.

Last summer, Lee ran the Rawleigh-Schryer for the first time in 35 years. It has a hit-and-miss governor and make-and-break ignition, with a bore and stroke of 3-5/8 by 4 inches. This water-cooled engine, serial no. AA11089, is fairly rare. The flywheel is 17 inches in diameter with a 1-1/2-inch face. Rawleigh-Schryer engines, manufactured by Rawleigh-Schryer Co., Freeport, Ill., were only made from 1911-1916. Production ceased in 1916 when the plant burned down.

National Engineering Engine

Lee’s 1903 2 HP National Engineering Co. engine, serial no. 1817, is unique in his collection because it wasn’t “cheap” like most of his collection. “At $135, it was very expensive for its time so no farmer would own it,” he says. “It had an industrial application and would have been used in a factory.”

This engine needed a lot of work, but luckily another collector nearby had the same engine and needed parts as well. Lee had the parts the other owner needed, and the other owner had the parts Lee needed. So Lee borrowed the other engine for a year and copied the needed parts.

Lee made brass fuel valves and brass checks that look just like the originals, along with a new brass igniter, fuel pump, gears, rocker arm and stand with a glass bowl carburetor. The engine tag is incorrect, listing it as a “New” model, which did not have a glass bowl carburetor, Lee says. Not much information is available on this engine, but Lee says the engine uses an eccentric, instead of a camshaft.

Lee also made a new piston for the 4-by-5-1/2-inch bore and stroke cylinder. The engine has a brass body igniter, pendulum governor and make-and-break ignition.

Convertibility is a unique feature of this engine. The hopper could be changed to tank-cooling or vice versa by removing the head, sliding the outside of the cylinder off and replacing one with the other, making it easy to repair if it froze and broke.

Another unique feature is the glass bowl with a gasoline drip system for the carburetor, which circulates the gas and drops a drop of gasoline that is sucked into the engine.

“With no counterweights on the flywheel or crank, this engine isn’t balanced at all, so you can’t run it fast or it will jump up and down,” Lee says.

At a recent show many observers said it was running well, but Lee didn’t agree. “Pendulum governors are noted to run away once in a while,” he says. “At that show the engine would fire a couple of times, and then take off jumping, so I’d have to slow it down. People said that’s what pendulum governors do if they’re not bolted down solid.”

After the show, Lee spent two days tracking down the problem. He tried all kinds of different little  things before finally getting the setting right. After that it never missed, and now it runs like a million bucks. “Now I can take it out and be a lot more proud of it, unlike when it doesn’t work like it should,” he says. “And it’s not safe, either, when it goes crazy like that.”

He likes to do these jobs himself, like cutting gears, not just to save money but to learn new skills. “All throughout my life while working on engines I’d always get into trouble, but through that I’d learn by doing it,” he says. “Today I can do things I could only dream of when I was younger, like how to make patterns for casting, how to cut gear teeth, how to weld cast iron, and the list goes on and on.”

Air-cooled engines

Lee prefers air-cooled engines, featuring 15 in his collection. He likes their price and winter advantages, like not having a water hopper to break. Without antifreeze, old timers had to drain the water every winter night or risk breaking the engine. “Sugar water or glycerin made the engine sticky,” he says. “Salt ate the cast iron. Alcohol boiled away if the engine operated at over 160 degrees, leaving water behind to freeze.”

To complete the circle, Lee recently put his first engine, the 1926 Briggs & Stratton Model FH, back together again. “I had it on Dad’s farm, and after I left home, I had it apart at the time,” he says. “Parts got mislaid, and Dad sold the farm. I got what was left of the engine and it took me years to get all the parts I needed, but now I fixed it up, and it’s sitting up at my house, a memory of those days on the farm.”

Lee’s dream for many years was to have one open crankcase hit-and-miss engine, and now he has about 50. Lee also has a collection of Rock Island engines from 1 HP to 7 HP, and one of his favorite engines in his collection is an 8 HP Lauson hopper-cooled engine on an original truck that took many years to restore. Lee traded a 1941 Chevy Coupe for the Lauson. “The car is worth about $30,000 now,” he says, “but I like the engine better.”

Collector enjoyment

Lee says he likes old iron and old mechanical things, especially when they’re simple, like the open crankcase where you can see all the parts moving. “The mechanics of many of these engines are so simple and so fascinating, but I think just like all hobbies, it boils down to the people you meet at the shows,” he says. “The shows are only a reason to get together to meet friends you might see only once a year. The friends I’ve made along the way are so interested, so honest and helpful, so when it comes right down to it, the best part is the people.”

Lee has seen a lot of people, having attended more than 400 different threshing shows since he started. “I used to attend at least ten shows a year, but as I’m getting older and slower, I’m now cutting down,” he says. “That’s also why I made the trailer, so it’s a lot easier to crank some of the engines, and when they’re higher-up, you can see them better. Plus, I don’t have to unload and load at shows. It took a lot of time to get the trailer ready, but now all I have to do is put the top on and go. That makes it easy at shows.”

Lee says he’s a fortunate guy, making parts for engines the last 10 years. “It’s one of the jobs I’ve had in my life that I truly enjoy,” he says. “I’m living my hobby every day.”

Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369 • bvossler@juno.com