Farm Machinery Homesteading Stories From Frank Ott Sr.

Frank Ott Sr. talks about his history of using farm machinery and homesteading stories with readers of Gas Engine Magazine.

Line up of tractors

Photo courtesy of R. F. Somerville, British Columbia, Canada.


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Frank Ott Sr. shares his homesteading stories in Oregon. 

Received my first copy of Gas Engine Magazine and it sure meets my approval as it is right up my alley. Although I had a few tussels with steam power back in Wisconsin where I was born, Oct. 29, 1874, and a few in Oregon, where I moved to in 1890 (Portland) with my parents. Such as helping on steam powered threshing rigs, firing boiler and running stationary engine in a brewery in Uniontown, Washington in the middle '90's. I also spent some time with Nick Stiener running a portable steam powered wood saw in Portland, Ore. In them days most homes in Portland used wood for cooking and heating. It was piled on the curb in 4 foot lengths to season out and in the fall and winter we, and several other rigs, were busy every day sawing it into 12 to 16 inch lengths.

But more about my homesteading stories. I guess what got me started with gas engines was when I got my first piece of land. I built a snug 10 by 16 cabin and a 10 by 16 chicken house and a 30 by 50 barn. As I had no water on the place, I had to haul my water in barrels on a sled, so the next thing, I thought, was dig a well.

There lived an old guy in the neighborhood who claimed to be a whiz at witching wells and his fees were very reasonable (1 qt. of Mona-gram). I engaged him. After about 2 hours of walking around with a forked willow stick, and with a mysterious and professional air, he says: 'right here, young feller, you will get plenty of water at 50 feet. So I goes to Portland (12 miles) and buys 50 feet of 3/4 inch rope. Then I starts digging (4 feet in diameter) and when I get down about 8 feet I set up my windlass, get my brother, Ed, to help whenever he has time to spare. Of course, when we get down to the end of our 50 foot rope that old hole is still dry as an old bone. Back to town for 100 feet of rope, also around to implement dealers looking at windmills and pumps, as I figure if that old well is going to be over 50 feet deep, it needs more than a rope and bucket to get water out.

35 HP Waterloo Boy new in March of 1913 with a 27 foot Aultman-Taylor Separator. Picture taken in outskirts of Portland, Oregon as he was bringing home new separator in June1913.

Right then is when it started. (Fall of 1901) Fairbanks Mose and Co. had one of those newfangled 2 HP Jack of all Trades pump engines on display. The salesman started it up and boy, did it run nice. Of course they had the exhaust pipe run outside about a foot thick brick wall, so I did not know it sounded like a 22 cal. rifle everytime it hit.

So old Prince and the spring wagon hauled home a nice shiney red 2 HP Jack of all Trades mounted on hardwood skids, complete with walking beam, all ready to hook on to the pump, rod of the pump, which I didn't have money to buy yet.

Feeling quite important driving out of town with a new rig on my wagon, I stopped at the Standard Oil Co., and bought a case (2-5 gal. tins) of gasoline and a 1 gal. of red engine oil. Next, a 2 mile out of my way trip to display my new contraption to my father. Also engaged him and my brother, Ed, to come up and help me unload it.

The next morning early, here they came. After much arguing as to how it should be done, we hitched old Prince to the wagon and backed it up to a pile of fence posts. After skidding it off onto the pile of posts, installing glass drip cylinder oiler, filling it with oil and adjusting as per instruction book (6 to 8 drops per minute), filling gas tank, activating gas pump, and other as per instructions, (I was already the gas engine expert) the little Jack of all Trades took off with a bang. So did old Prince, straight for the stable door, him and part of the harness made it, but not the wagon.

Yep, you guessed it. At the end of that 100 feet rope and down in solid rock, that well was just as dry as when I started. All was not lost, however, as it was the permanent location of my outhouse for the 7 years I lived on that place, and was a good selling point when I sold, as I had the deepest hole under my privy of anybody in Clackamas County. In fact, it took 50 years to fill it up and right today there is a low spot in the ground where it was.

 Here is Frank and his present log cabin home. This picture taken in September 1965 and Frank is 92. (He certainly doesn't look his years — so I guess we can say he really is 92 years young. — Anna Mae.) 

After much ridicule and derogatory remarks from the neighbors about that nutty Dutchman, me, buying a pumping engine before I had a pump or any water to pump with it, I dug a 10 feet square cistern about 8 feet deep and run my field drains into it. Later I dug another one, and the two of them served my purpose, but a pitcher pump was sufficient.

But as to my little Jack of all Trades, I had to find another job for it. When we first came to Oregon we were too poor to buy crushed oyster shell for our chickens, so we picked up a sack or two of opened shells at a time from the oyster houses and it was the job of the smaller children to break them up with a hammer on a block of wood, so I got the idea of processing them through a crusher and maybe I could make a few dollars selling them. After much scrounging around the junk shops, I found a small contraption with a revolving cylinder and concaves, similar to a small threshing cylinder. It worked after a fashion, but the finished product had to not be over a certain size or the chickens could not eat them. So I had to run them over a shaker screen. I soon had a surplus of oversized oyster shell and had to get some kind of grinder to regrind the shell that were too big.

Tom Mahoneys threshing outfit, September 19, 1910 Threshing headed wheat near Dorrance, Kansas.  It is a 42 by 70 Avery Separator and an Avery 22 HP Undermounted.

Tom Mahoneys threshing outfit, September, 1908 threshing headed wheat near Dorrance, Kansas.  It is a 42 by 70 Avery Separator and 30 HP Undermounted. This is the first 30 H.P. Undermounted that was built. Tanks in front of engine were for steam cylinder oil.

About this time I was getting plenty of free professional advice from the neighbors and quite a few uncomplimentary remarks behind by back a-bout that nut who was fooling around with that gas engine trying to grind oyster shells instead of tending to his farm or digging out. his stumps in this good weather. Being a rugged and stubborn type individual who would never admit defeat, and also with very little money, I did some more looking around and finally bought for $25 a used 8 inch burr Hero feed grinder to regrind my oversize oyster shell. With a lot of hard work hauling out from Portland the green shells, drying them, and running them through my makeshift setup, I did all right. I had no trouble selling them and the green shells were to be had for hauling them away. The little 2 HP worked fine for grinding shells, but when some of the neighbors (mainly, I guess, to save themselves a longer trip to a regular custom grist mill) brought me some of their grain to grind, I found I didn't have enough power to get much capacity with that 8 inch burr Hero grinder.

So the little Jack of all Trades was traded in on a new (painted green) 3 HP upright Fairbanks Morse. This one I mounted on a steel wheel wagon with sliding table 28 inch blade wood-saw on the rear. I had intended to buy a 4 HP but at that time they made only 2, 3, and 6 HP in the vertical type engines. As I had only one big horse of my own to pull my saw rig, I was afraid the 6 HP size would be too heavy to move around.

I also built a new mill building, put in a line shaft so I could pull my saw rig inside and belt it to the shaft pulley. I located my little oyster shell crusher, screen shaker and feed grinder in convenient locations so I could run either one of them at a time.

For the next three or four years I ground many tons of oyster shells. Also did considerable feed grinding. The 3 HP, although not enough, did pretty good on the feed grinder. It had ample power on the saw rig and I had plenty of work with it sawing. I could saw about 25 cords a day of 4 feet wood into 16 inch (2 cuts), but I never did equal what that young whippersnapper son of mine did 1930. Sawed 12 cords of 12 inch (3 cuts) and 8 cords of 16 inch (2 cuts) in 3-1/2 hours with one helper putting it on the saw table and off bearing first cut only. He used a 5 HP Hercules and a 32 inch saw.

The first year I had my saw rig I took a contract for 271/2 "Times New Roman" a cord sawing 500 cords for the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was 4 feet wood cut once in the middle and lots of handling but not much sawing.

In the fall of 1903 I had a small stack of wheat and oats mixed and threshed by the local thresherman. He had an 18 inch cylinder Case agitator separator and a 6 HP Case portable steam engine. To get more capacity, he ran with one row of concave teeth. I had to let my chickens finish threshing it as he got the oats out, all right, but left half of the wheat in the heads. As his work was of about the same caliber wherever he threshed, my brother and I decided to buy a threshing outfit of our own.

So the following year (1904), against the advice of a local character with long red whiskers, who had come from Minnesota a few years before and claimed to be an expert on threshing machines, "The J. I. Case, boys, is the only machine", we bought a 23 inch cylinder Aultman-Taylor with hand feed, straw carrier, and half bushel tally box measure. My brother, Ed, was to own the threshing machine and I was to own the engine. I had intended to buy about a 8 HP steam traction engine, but could not find one in Portland at that time, and by the time one would be obtainable, it would be too late for the threshing season. At that time we were misinformed as to the rating of HP between gas and steam. As the Fairbanks Morse people told me their 8 HP gas engine would equal any 8 HP steam engine. As they did not make a satisfactory gas traction engine at that time, I settled for an 8 HP portable Fairbanks Morse gas engine.

An early American Gas Tractor which I have built out of old tractor parts. Operators are my grandchildren and myself.

This picture was taken in September, 1964 after the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Reunion was over. From left to right are: Dick Ries, Wilbur Ries, Glen Beals, James Fogwell, Howard. Boese, Leland Ries, Rill Fogwell, Dwight Nelson and Don Hardin. Dick Ries boys are in front of the Flour City Gas Engine.

This giant I.H.C., 20 HP gas engine was being moved from the Jay Shockley Flour Mill, Arcola, Virginia, September, 1965 by the new owner, Ernest J. (Kookie) Cornett. Mr. Cornett is a member of the Shenandoah Steam Engine Association. My father and brother, Joe, and a friend, Rush (Cannonball) Marshall were loading the engine on my trailer. This engine was last operated in early 1940. It is in excellent condition.

As we were setting up the rig for it's first job of threshing at Joe Mlady's place, the old Minnesota J. I. Case threshing expert, with much critical poking and prodding with his cane and liberally spraying all the pulleys, belts, and sides of the separator with tobacco juice, predicted a dark and gloomy picture of what was going to take place when we were going to try to thresh with anything but a J. I. Case. After about 15 minutes of threshing, the raddle, which carried the straw from back of the cylinder up onto the straw rack, choked up. On this machine, it consisted of 2 belts with wooden slats riveted on. On the later machines it was made of 2 chains with slats across. Being rank green horns, we couldn't find the trouble right away and the old J. I. Case expert was of no help except to tell us "Boys, if it was a J. I. Case I could tell you right away how to fix it". He was probably a good old guy and had volunteered his services to see that we got properly started, in fact, he got to be quite a nuisance as he appeared on the job every day with his old horse and buggy even when we got 4 or 5 miles from home. He would sponge his meals off the people we worked for plus a liberal supply of oats for his horse.

That little 8 HP did pretty good for it's size but did not have enough power to get much capacity. In fact, as I look back on it today. I cannot see how we got anything done at all with that little engine. But as we were doing satisfactory work and the farmers soon saw the improvement of gas power over horsepower or steam with no horses to furnish or wood to get ready, we were snowed under with work. After about a week of threshing and with no end of work in sight, I decided to get a bigger engine. I made arrangements with the Fairbanks Morse people over the phone to have a 10 HP engine ready and I would get it on a Sunday, as I did not want to waste any time on a weekday. Sunday morning early I hitched my team on the 8 HP and took it back to Portland. As we were threshing 4 miles east of home at that time, it made a long day with a 30 mile round trip. As they were not open that day they had the new one out on the street as per arrangements. They had neglected to put a brake on it and the team had a hard time holding it back downhill. But I got back with it about dark. Monday morning I pulled it in place and we got ready to thresh.

The Fordson Tractor was taken on what is part of the Fort Findlay Shopping Center. I was demonstrating this tractor and Oliver turning under a heavy growth of alfalfa sod while Mr. Thomas, the salesman, made the sale.

This engine was shown at the 1965 Pioneer Gas Engine Association Reunion. It is a 16 H.P. Lazier Gas or Gasoline Engine, made in Buffalo, N.Y. It is owned by Kenneth Roloff of Marilla, N.Y., shown at the right in the picture. On the left is Ronald Unverdorben, also of Marilla. This engine was bought from Henry Thauer of Gardenville, N.Y., a man of 81 years, in 1964. The engine was purchased for a sawmill in 1910 for about $250.00, and used in the mill until a few years ago when they went to other power. Then it was taken out of the mill and used to buzz wood and other odd jobs around his small farm. It was kept in a barn, covered and well oiled, in perfect running condition, until Mr. Roloff bought it.

That 10 HP, although only rated 2 HP larger, was a lot bigger engine than the 8 HP, and when the crew gathered around to admire it, they said "Boy, it's a regular Bull Giant". When we started threshing where the 8 HP had left off, it sure made a difference, as now in dry grain we could thresh at full capacity. When we finished up that fall, we had put in about 50 days of threshing and I suppose we felt pretty smart about our new venture. But we had made one decision and we acted on it immediately. No. 1 was to put on a windstacker, as some of our jobs were fairly large sets of 4 to 6 large stacks. Stacking that much straw required too much labor, as the straw carrier on our machine did not have the stacker extension attachment on it. I also realized I would need more power as they told us it would require an additional 5 HP for a windstacker.

So, in Oct. of that same year, I bought a new 15 HP Fairbanks Morse portable engine. Although I traded in the 10 HP on the new one, I made arrangements so I could use it on the feed grinder until the following spring. I bought a new 8 inch Hero grinder and set it up in my brother-in-law's barn in the Damascus district, which was about 5 miles east of where I lived. I used the 10 HP on this mill and used the 15 HP on my old mill, which was identical to the new one. I set this outfit up in a rented barn which was down on the main road, and much easier for my customers to get to.

Monday and Tuesday was grinding day in the Damascus district: Friday and Saturday in the Sunnyside district. Sometimes it was late at night, finishing up with lantern light, and then driving home with horse and buggy. But I was a single man them days and plenty tough, with no one to have to account to for what I did.

Our first year of running a threshing outfit, we had figured on doing only a limited amount of threshing and had not made any provisions for getting our engine fuel (distilate). A neighbor lady, Theresi Mlady, volunteered to haul our fuel out from Portland. She would drive in one day a week and get 2 drums of distillate and what oil we needed, and the next day would bring it on from her home to where we were working. Sometimes as far as 7 or 8 miles. She just had a single horse rig and it must have been quite a struggle, as she had a 4 year old boy and a baby girl to take care of. The baby was in a basket at her feet and the little boy riding with her on the seat. She had another son born in 1906 and both her boys, in later years, worked for me for several years as part of my threshing crew. Also, her husband, Joe, worked for us the first couple of years we started threshing. Old Joe, young Joe, Bill, and Hilda have all passed on, but Mrs. Mlady is still with us and vividly remembers the days when she was part of the crew and hauled our fuel. In fact, she and 1 are the only ones left of that original crew.

The one thing we missed with them one lunger gas engines was a whistle. So, that winter, I decided to remedy that fault. I took a heavy 50 gal. distillate drum, mounted it on a platform back of the 15 HP, fitted on a pressure gauge, brass whistle, and piped it up to a plug in the combustion chamber of the cylinder. I had a check valve and shut off valve in the pipe between the tank and engine, and when I had about 75 lbs. pressure, I could shut it off. It worked fine for awhile, until one morning after I had been grinding for awhile, I went back there to check my pressure. It was just about up to where I was going to close the valve, but instead I turned the needle valve down a little on the carburetor, which I always did after the engine had warmed up. But I guess I turned it down a little too lean, as the next time the engine hit, it backfired. That oil drum exploded at the same time. It blowed a hole in the back of that barn you could drive a team through. It blew the muffler off the engine, which was as big as a nail keg and went out past the front of the engine, through the open barn door and clear across the road. Outside of a few pieces of galvanized steel from the drum in my face, which are still there to this day, loss of hearing in one ear, I suffered no ill effects and was back at work within 2 or 3 days. I did not realize at the time that I was putting the same explosive mixture in that drum as was in the combustion chamber of the engine cylinder So no more of that monkey business.

I had to neglect my oyster shell grinding that winter, as between grinding feed and wood sawing, I was pretty busy.

Line up of tractors at Pioneer Museum Wetaskiwin, Alberta, 1964.

Here, is a picture of my 1929 John Deere GP and 1920 Fordson tractor which I have added to my collection of mostly gasoline engines. In the picture are Morris, Charlie, Hiram and Jane Titus.

Here is a picture of the world's only 6 cylinder motorcycle. It was hand made by Herb Ottaway. The engine was made from two 4 cylinder Indian motors cut and welded back to six. Crank and cams machined from solid billets of steel, producing better than 80 H. P. Top speed estimated at 130 M.P.H. Machine has Harley Davidson front forks, wheels, fenders and seat. Equipment includes radio, speedometer, ammeter, tachometer, hours meter, manifold pressure gauge and oil temperature and pressure gauge. Motorcycle operates very smooth at all speeds.

Here is a picture of our 30-60 Oil Pull which is in good running order but the radiator is bad. We have to find some radiation sections. We have ten sections and need eighteen more to restore the radiator. If anyone knows where I can get them please let me hear from you.

In 1907 I married and in 1908 I sold my original place and bought the place where I had set up my 15 HP and feed grinder. It was the same place I blew the back of the barn out with my monkey doodle whistle experimenting. There I built a new mill building, installed new feed grinding machinery, also a roller mill seed grain cleaner. Also bought and installed a new Wilson bone and oyster shell crusher and finishing mill. These I still have although my oldest son operated them in a different location in the late '20s and early '30s. My late and younger brother, Ed, and I ran that 15 HP and 23 inch Aultman-Taylor up to and through the season of 1912. In the spring of 1913 I bought a 35 HP Waterloo Roy gas traction engine, and in June of the same year, I bought my brother's interest in the old 23 inch and traded it in on a new 27 inch cylinder Aultman-Taylor separator. fully equipped with gearless wind-stacker, Garden City self feeder and Peoria weigher.

Has anybody ever heard of or seen a Waterloo Boy of that description? It had a 4 cylinder cross-mounted motor, about 6 inch bore, and fairly short stroke of about 6 or 7 inches. It also had 3 speeds forward and would go about 31/2 or 4 miles per hour in high gear, which was an advantage when moving the separator on dirt roads, which is all we had at that time. It proved to be a fairly good machine for threshing and running a rock crusher, where I used it in April and May of 1913. In fact, that old Waterloo Boy crushed the first rock that was ever put on the roads in this district. It's biggest fault was the oiling system on the motor which I changed a couple of years later.

From left to right are a 2 H.P., and 1/2 H.P. New Holland Gas engines. These engines were made in New Holland by the New Holland Machine Company. They were patented in 1903 and about 17,000 engines were made. These New Holland Engines arc my favorite gas engines.

The year 1918, I bought a 12-25 Fairbanks Morse 2 cylinder gas tractor. It looked like a little steam traction engine with. the motor mounted on top of the boiler, which was used for cooling water instead of radiator. The Fairbanks Morse people claimed it would run up to a 28 inch cylinder separator, which I soon found out it would not do, so used it only to run the grist mill the first year. So the old Waterloo Boy had to go back to work that year.

The next year I sold my 27 inch Ault-man-Taylor and bought a 20-32 inch Aultman-Taylor, which the little Fairbanks Morse handled fine. The old Waterloo Boy I kept and used once in awhile if I had a breakdown with my other tractor. Even used it on a saw mill part time, then like a fool I sold it for scrap during the second World War. It was still in good shape and if I would have kept it, it would probably have been one of a kind today.

About 1922 I traded in the little 20-32 inch Aultman-Taylor on a 24 inch cylinder A. B. Farquar separator which the little Fairbanks Morse handled pretty good. A couple of years later as Aultman-Taylor was going out of business, I bought a new 36 HP Aultman-Taylor gas traction. I bought it for less than the regular price, as they were selling out their complete stock. It proved to be a good machine and plenty of power for that little 24 inch separator.

So about 1926 I bought a new 30 inch cylinder A. B. Farquar separator. The 24 inch machine was a lot better separator than that 30 inch It was a good machine for wheat, but on trashy oats or barley, not so hot.

In 1928 I traded in the old 24 inch Farquar and the 18-36 Aultman-Taylor on a new 25-40 Rumley Oil Pull, which I still have today. At the same time my oldest son bought a 20-30 Oil Pull and a 22-36 inch Case separator, as we had enough work at that time for two outfits. He was not satisfied with the straw rack in that little Case separator. He always crowded it as he had plenty of power. So he threw the original rack away and built a completely new rack of his own design, which was a big improvement over the original rack. He ran that outfit until 1941, at which time he traded the separator in on a combine harvester, which was the beginning of the end.

In 1930 I bought a new 28 inch McCormic Deeing separator, which I still have and was used last in 1962 for about 3 days of clover threshing. This last outfit I ran was probably the best and most practical as to separator and engine of any of my other machines. It was used for over 20 years on runs of from 40 to 50 days, down to a week, and now it, like me, just sits and rests.

I also used that Oil Pull on a sawmill and planer for a number of years and it has had very few repairs. Just exhaust valves about once a year.

Well, I guess I am about back where I started from, back living in a 10-16 log cabin, nobody to have to account to for what I do (my wife passed away Sept. 21, 1923). I still drive my old Model A Ford, which I bought now in 1931, and go wherever I want to go. This cabin I have now is a little more modern than my first one, as it has running water, lights, and I don't have to go out and sit over that 100 foot dry well to do my morning chores. I also don't have to look very far to see reminders of what I did through my more productive days. I still have my 3 HP Fairbanks Morse which I bought 64 years ago. Although not used anymore, it is still in good running condition. Also my Oil Pull and 28 inch McCormic Deering are still patiently waiting to be called upon if they should ever be needed.

This is a twin Cylinder Maytag Washing Machine engine. It was brought in and given me by a man living near Ad, Kansas. I took it to a friend of mine who has a shop for such engines, and we soon had it running like new. I have it mounted on a four caster platform and expect to give it something to do by mounting an air compressor with it to operate.

My oldest son (I have 3 sons) is a kind of a nut on old steam and gas rigs. He has a 20 HP Case steam traction engine in his sawmill, a 14 horse Advance Compound, 10 HP Advance simple, and a nice little 10 HP Buffalo Pitts which I used this fall to saw up my winter's wood supply. I still do my cooking with wood. When a fellow gets older and doesn't do much outside work, he has to keep a fire going all day in this winter weather.

I also see about 12 or 15 old gas engines of various sizes from 11/2 to 10 HP sitting around here on my son's place. Plus a 20 HP Titan traction engine, 1 cylinder hit and miss type, also a 8-16 Mogul hopper cooled, 1 cylinder. They all seem to be in good running shape and he starts one of them up now and then.

If you can use any or all of this ramblings on in GEM you are more than welcome to do so. Am enclosing picture of my Waterloo Boy and 27 inch Aultman-Taylor taken in June of 1913 as I was bringing it out from Portland, Ore. when the separator was brand new. At the time of that picture. I was 38 years old.

After reading some of the stories about threshing in the Iron Men Album by some of the old time thresher-man from the Midwest, they, no doubt would have taken a dim view of equipment used and the type of threshing we did in this district. As I look back in my old records I see most of my jobs ran from as small as 100 bushel with the average 600 or 700 bushel. The job of three or four thousand bushel was quite rare, although we had a few.

The last holdout from the combine always had from two to three thousand bushels and he tried to make it an even 50 years that I threshed for him, but 1960 was the last year, as he got so crippled with arthritis he could not harness his team for the binder. He used the same binder all those 49 years.

I am now 92 years old and maybe I'll write up some of my remembrances of incidents amusing and otherwise of my days of woodsawing and threshing with them different types of early day gas engines of thou think they would be suitable for GEM. Also enclosed is picture of me and what I do most of now and my log cabin