Gas Engines and Brotherly Love

How do you get two brothers to connect with each other? Gas engines, of course! That’s how it worked with the Churchill brothers.


Brad Churchill with the Churchill brothers’ circa-1914-1915 Keller 1-1/2 hp engine.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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Call it brotherly love, because when the Churchill brothers of Hager City, Wisconsin, were younger, they didn’t get along all that well, says younger brother Brad, 55. They grew up together on a dairy farm, and Mark, 63, says they both inherited their grandfather’s love of old iron.

“My grandpa used to collect steam engines,” Mark says, “and about my junior year in high school, my uncle had a John Deere engine that I wanted to buy, but he didn’t want to sell it. He said I could take it to ag class and repair it, but I said I’d rather buy one and keep it.”

This led to the first engine in Mark’s collection, a 2-1/2 hp Aerometer with a fluted hopper, which he bought in 1971. At that time, their grandpa was attending steam engine shows, and Mark would help. “That’s where I saw those small portable engines, and I started collecting them.”

Brad attended shows with Mark “before I discovered girls in high school,” he laughs. “He [Mark] gave me a 1-1/2 hp Lauson engine with the solid disk flywheel, and I got it up and running. So he got me started in gas engines.”

Soon they were attending shows and auctions together, and buying gasoline engines. Some individually, some jointly. “When both of us liked an engine, we each paid half, and owned the engine jointly,” Brad says. “For me, it meant paying less money,” Mark says, “but I still got the fun of working on it.” Today, they have 24 shared engines.

Brad lives in a rural area, and originally all the engines – Brad’s, Mark’s and those bought together – were stored in a shed there. Mark lived more than an hour away, so on weekends he drove to Hager City to work on the engines with Brad, staying overnight.

In 2012, Mark bought a house close enough to Brad’s that he could see the engine shed. “That eliminated a lot of the inconvenience,” Mark says, noting, “Brad has five kids and space was getting tight.” Next, Mark erected his own shed to lighten the load on Brad’s.

All in all the brother act has worked well. “Brad and I have this common interest, so we work together on the engines we both own. It’s more fun if you buy them together. We both work on them and get help from each other. It’s more interesting.” Although drawn to vintage iron, both brothers work or have worked in technical fields. Mark worked for tech company UNISYS until a year ago, while Brad is a shift supervisor at Prairie Island Nuclear Plant near Red Wing, Minnesota.

The togetherness extends to the rest of the family. Mark and Bud, along with their father, Donald, and brothers Jay and Dell and their wives and kids, regularly attend the Mt. Pleasant Old Settlers & Threshers Show in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. “It’s a family reunion and engine show all wrapped up into one,” Mark says. “Brad and I take turns at the engine display while the other wanders the grounds, talking to other collectors about the engines we have or that other people have.”

3 hp Modern

Manufacturer: Bates & Edmunds Motor Co., Lansing, MI
Year: Circa 1915-1916
Serial Number: 26357
Horsepower: 3 hp
Bore & Stroke: 4-1/2in x 6in
Weight: NA
Flywheel: 23in dia. x x2-1/8in face
Ignition: Igniter with Sumpter "Satan" low-tension magneto
Governing: Hit-and-miss

It was at the Mt. Pleasant show in 2010 that a man showed the brothers two engines he had in the bed of his truck. “One had a mushroom-shaped muffler with a baffle cast inside,” Mark says. “It was a real eye catcher; I was wondering how they cast all of that together.” Faint lettering still visible on the hopper identified it as a Modern Jr.

They both liked it, so they bought it – together. Little was known of its back story, except that it had been purchased in Portland, Indiana. “It’s an unusual-looking engine,” Brad says, and Mark notes its Sumpter “Satan” magneto. “That isn’t seen often,” he says, adding that it has a somewhat unusual igniter trip mechanism. “The trip mechanism for the igniter is about four inches from the igniter. When the arm goes back and forth, a spring pushes on the rod to trip the igniter. It’s different. Also, the governor weights are on the cam gear. I’ve seen that on other engines, but it’s not common. Usually the governor is on the flywheel, which spins faster providing more sensitive governing of the speed.”

The build plate shows serial number 26357. That high number suggests a few more of them should be about, but neither Mark nor Brad had ever seen another one. The mystery was cleared up when they saw a Bates & Edmonds Bull Pup engine and compared the two: They were dead ringers.

“The only difference is there’s no raised lettering on the Modern Jr.’s hopper,” Mark says. The Bates & Edmonds engine had “Bull Pup” cast in relief on the hopper. “From what I’ve seen, manufacturers would make small custom changes for the companies that wanted to re-badge and sell them.” Brad also notes the similar mixers. “The Modern Jr. carb looks like the Bull Pup carb. Both are updraft with a choke plate on the bottom you can turn.”

Getting the Modern Jr. ready to show required a bit of work, starting with cleaning the old grease off, followed by rubbing in linseed oil to bring the color back. The faded paint of the “JR” lettering is difficult to see, but both brothers agreed that with enough original paint on it they didn’t want to repaint it. The gas tank was missing and the original skids were rotting away, so a new tank and skids were made, along with a new cart. The engine itself wasn’t in bad shape. “We pulled the piston and installed new rings and spacers on the piston to stop blow-by,” Mark says.

They start it on battery and coil, and then swap it over to the magneto. “We had a crosshead water pump hooked up to it the last time we showed it and it ran great.” Brad says.

From what the brothers can tell, their Modern 3 hp is a rare rebadged engine. “Neither of us has seen another one,” Brad says. Another collector who has researched the brand, and has a 1-1/2 hp Modern, has never seen a 3 hp Modern. Mark says it’s difficult to determine its rarity, but that’s OK. “I love that engine because it’s different from what you usually see at shows. It’s very unique-looking.”

1-1/2 hp Keller

Manfacturer: Eau Claire Manufacturing Co., Eau Claire, WI
Year: Circa 1914-1915
Serial Number: 2391
Horsepower:1-1/2 hp
Bore & Stroke: 3-1/2in x 5in
Weight: NA
Flywheel: 17in dia x 1-3/4in face
Ignition: Spark plug w/ battery and coi
Governing: Hit-and-miss

A second co-owned engine is a circa 1914-1915 1-1/2 hp Keller. The Keller doesn’t have a build plate, but its serial number, 2391, is stamped on the end of the crank. “Based on Denis Rouleau’s Keller engine registry, it could have been built in either Bloomer or Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” Mark says, adding, “but we found that the rivet holes match for a Bloomer tag. It was manufactured during the switchover from Bloomer to Eau Claire.” Keller engines were originally made by Charles Keller’s Bloomer Machine Works, Bloomer, Wisconsin, before production was taken over by the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Manufacturing Co. Brad says they know it isn‘t an old-style Keller because it‘s got the Lunkenheimer-style carburetor. “The old ones had a needle valve in the head instead.”

Bought at an auction in 2002, it needed some work. “It was missing the carburetor,” Brad says. It was also missing a crank guard, but they were able to get a pattern. “We found someone with one and had one cast,” Mark says. “It also didn’t have an original muffler, and eventually we found somebody who had an original muffler.” The gas tank was rusted through, so they had a new one made.

Not a lot is known about Keller engines, but the brothers ran into a fellow at a show one day, who stopped by with an interesting story about how Keller got into engine production. “He said he’d gone to school with a guy whose granddad was the owner. They were buying electricity from an electric plant, but it was getting too expensive, so they decided to make an engine to create their own electricity. Someone came to them and said, ‘Can you make an engine for us?’ And that’s how the Bloomer plant came into making gas engines.” Or so the story goes.

Stover hp Type A

Manufacturer: Stover Mfg. & Engine Co., Freeport, IL
Year: Circa 1905
Serial Number: NA
Horsepower: 2 hp
Bore & Stroke: 4in x 6in
Weight: 2,400lb
Flywheel: 24-1/2dia. x 1-1/2in face
Igniter w/ battery and coil
Governing: Hit-and-miss

Another dual-ownership engine for the brothers is a 2 hp Stover Type A. Purchased in September 2011 and lacking a build plate or serial number, Mark and Brad confirmed its suspected identity by looking at C.H. Wendel’s Stover book, Power in the Past, Volume 3. “That work identified it as a 2 hp Stover vertical Type A,” Brad says.

They didn’t know the year of manufacture, but according to Wendel the square pushrod originally used on the Type A was replaced with a round pushrod starting on July 11, 1904, and effective with serial number 1648. “We believe it is a circa-1905 Type A,” Mark says, owing to the engine’s round pushrod.

Mark says they encountered two issues that required machine work. First, the mixer was incorrect. “We saw that by examining pictures,” Mark says. He had purchased a Stover Vertical Type C in 2012, and determined that the Type A, B and C all used the same mixer, so he had a reproduction mixer cast by Raymond Olson.

Brad says the Stover also needed a new piston. “The engine had been sleeved, but the piston was making noise so we had a new piston made by our good friend Donald Blausey.” Occasionally, the Churchill brothers make some of their own parts, including Babbitt bearings. “It costs a lot,” Brad says, “so we found out how to make our own.”

Unique features of the early Stovers include a one-piece cylinder and frame, the igniter offset from the cylinder and the governor on the camshaft – like the Modern 3 hp – instead of the flywheels.

When we were younger,” Brad says, “I didn’t get along with him as well. But now that we’ve got this in common, we get along well. We go to shows together, work on engines together, buy engines together. It’s a hobby that he got me into, and now it’s a disease,” he laughs.

“I enjoy the hobby because of the people you meet and talk to,” Mark adds. “It gives me something to do as a pastime, and I just enjoy fixing them up."

Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369 •