Learning How to Troubleshoot Gas Engines From My Dad

Floyd W. Cook shares stories of learning how to troubleshoot gas engines from his dad.

Floyd W. Cook

Photo courtesy of Floyd W. Cook, Washington, Illinois.

PHOTO: KEN KESTEL

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Stories from Floyd W. Cook on learning how to troubleshoot gas engines as a young lad. 

"Go out to the field and get your dad, the gas engine has stopped again and my wash is not finished". Mom sends me out to a nearby cornfield where dad and the hired man are plowing com, to bring somebody back to get the gas engine running again. Had she been real aggravated, she would of used the emergency communication system; she would have rung the dinner bell. Such tactics being in reserve for in case of fire or a real emergency, mom was not able, or refused to start it, and I was just a small boy. Sometimes it was igniter trouble, or out of fuel, or it just plainly quit. Wash periods were long, and took all morning. I was more than willing to go for help; I have always been interested in machinery, and sort of started out with gasoline engines. At this time I not only wanted to learn what took place in getting it started again, but on other occasions when the wash was perhaps on the last tubful, I was drafted into finishing the load by hand and was perfectly willing to get someone to restart the balky engine.

The old washing machine was a twin, round wooden tub affair, with three wooden prongs mounted in a wood disk that hung under the wooden lid. (A "Dolly" washer I believed they called it.) This "three-legged-milk-stool" was driven by a rack and gear on top of the lid.

It tore and tangled clothes, wore splinters off the inside of the tub, also occasionally it got clothes half way clean, if they were left in long enough. With the homemade lye-soap we used, I believe, the 'soak time' did more than the actual rubbing of the washer. With some of that homemade soap, something had to give.

Now the rack drive had a place to put a wooden handle in a mating socket, and by pushing it back and forth, one could say he was washing clothes; I wasn't in favor of that, and had done it several times, and nothing suited me better than getting help to start the engine again — really though, I would have rather been far far away on some other self appointed mission at the moment, when it comes to washday.

Dad came in from the field, and I watched real close in order to learn how to troubleshoot gas engines; he seemed to know what to do, he unbolts the igniter, removes it from the engine and "here is the trouble" he may have said as he removes whatever obstacle that centered upon this gadget, replacing it and then restarting the engine. This was marvelous machinery, often dirty, troublesome and inconvenient, but it got the job done, if you had the fortitude to stick it out, Me? I liked it fine, trouble and all, any engine was all right, horses — well, they were fine for some, but I never saw a horse powered washing machine!

This first engine that I may recall, I believe to be an International but details are hard to remember, and we did have a number of different engines while on the farm, all about the same size.

Near the middle of a cornfield we had the water well whereby all water was pumped up to the barnyard and house, same as a lot of other farmers. When old windmills expired one by one (ours went down in a windstorm) a gas engine and "pumpjack" was employed to carry on this routine business of furnishing this necessary commodity — water. Some gas engines ran a couple of days a week, others seldom stopped. If you stopped to listen you could hear several other engines from neighboring farms. In fact, we made it a point to stop and listen to make sure it kept on working. You were trained in your listening, because certain characteristic 'barks' of the exhaust let you know if a drive belt had broken or was off the pumpjack.

As I grew older, I was entrusted in starting and restarting the engine. Now, we did not have to depend on a wind, which we sometimes ran out of, also we did not have to listen to a creaking and groaning windmill at night, which upon occasion could disturb our sleep, for we always shut off the pump engine in the evening if it had not already died from lack of fuel.

We did not have to take advantage of any wind, and use it before it is all gone. We could rest assured in getting the trusty gas engine started again in the morning.

In a high wind, one particular windmill sighed and groaned late one night. The windmill belonged to a neighbor, and was just across the road from us. The windmill was shut down but it kept on turning making so much noise that my dad could not sleep. He got up, and wearing only his underwear, got oil, climbed up the windmill tower and oils it. He then went back to bed to sleep in peace the rest of the night. I don't know if our neighbor ever found out about this stint but I sure would like to have had, if it were possible, motion picture film of it. It was a black night, but I can "see" his underwear a-flapping in that high wind.

When Monday morning came, the hired man would take one harnessed horse and a singletree, go down to this well out in the field, (us kids could get lost in the tall corn in this field, and we could not see how the hired man could "cut-over" the right number of corn rows and find the engine dead center.) He'd hook on the gas engine and skid it up to the wash-house which was about a yard and half from the house. He would get it positioned in one oil and grease stained corner of the wash-house, aim the exhaust muffler through a hole cut in the wooden wall, hook up a long flat drive belt to the old washing machine in another corner, placing blocks of the right width at the end of the skids on the engine and between a wooden cleat on the wooden floor to get the ungarded belt the right tension. A cleat on either side of the engine skids kept it from jumping around the floor too much. While this was going on, dad was to carry in water to heat for the washing, unto a small heating stove in the wash-house and some of the cold water went in the machine tubs, cistern water had to be pumped from inside the house and carried over to the wash-house, some of the water was also heated on the stove in house, and oil stove in the summer time; a coal and wood cookstove in the winter. After chores and breakfast was over, (Ah, breakfast — fried potatoes, fried meat, and a lot of other foods that you don't hear tell of much these days, served for the first meal of the day) the gas engine would be started and washday could begin and dad and the hired man could go to the fields or whatever. I can still "see" the smoke stained opening on both sides of the wash-house wall where the gas engine exhaust emitted.

The old wash-house was also a busy place for other operations, in the winter on certain days we kept a heating fire going, to resemble some warmth, you still had to keep your coats on, and we would oil horse harness, or crank up the gas engine to a sickle sharpener-grindstone and sharpen up mower and binder sickles. Or the engine may turn a meat grinder, preparation in making sausage at hog butchering time, then the wash-house would double as a smoke house for home cured meats, which still beats anything you may get from a supermarket today. Also on other occasions, the engine drove a cream separator, by way of an overhead line shaft and a special pulley drive that picked up the separator starting load gradually.

Come Spring, was "seed oat fanning-time". The Clipper Seed Cleaning Mill was positioned under a chute of the overhead grainery in the corn crib. This machine could be, and often was cranked by hand but we always belted our portable "well pumping" gas engine to it. I always liked to hang around and watch, for here was machinery working again, but I often had to go up above in the bin and kick or scoop oats over the hole above the chute to the fanning mill as the oat bin was very low at this time of year, and you had to work the supply in from the corners to the center of the bin, so I was "cheated out" from hanging around close to where the action was.

Like other farmers we also had little chickens to feed, we shelled corn by belting the gas engine to a one-hole spring sheller that was usually hand cranked, but at this time we needed a lot of shelled corn for cracking for the chickens. At other times when we did not need as much, my brothers and I had to hand crank some on Saturdays (after school all week). We did not see why we couldn't also use the gas engine these particular times, but dad and the hired man could not be around to supervise, or take the time to bring up the engine from the well just for a couple bushel of shelled corn. Turning that crank sure was a tough job, small boys appreciate labor saving devices, we were strongly in favor of gasoline engines.

The gasoline engines I was acquainted with on the farm were small, perhaps 11/2 hp. We did no wood sawing with them, as we also had a farm tractor we used for that job, but others used larger gas engines for cord wood sawing, supplying the winters fuel. We took the windmill frame, that blew down in a windstorm, as mentioned earlier, and built a cord wood saw frame, and did custom wood sawing for neighbors.

My dad used to tell me tales of his experiences with a large gasoline engine powered hay press, or baler we called them. He used to do custom baling with a Sandwich engine, when he was a very young man, having graduated from a horse powered baler. He would relate the use of ether as a starting aid in the winter time. He got along fine with the outfit.

I've seen some ingenous setups by various farmers whereby a gas engine may be located in one small building and by a system of jackshafts and extremely long, overhead line shafting, power was distributed to well pumps or what ever, to other nearby buildings or locations. Good old American know how really forged this country ahead.

We had our gasoline engines catch fire several times, fortunately they all happened when at the well pumping location. One time the engine caught fire, and burned out, to no ones knowledge as to when it happened, but the wooden well platform was burned up, pump, pumpjack and wooden well platform-remains had fell into the well, but the engine rested on the ground, upright still, balanced at the very edge, and on the verge of tetering into the well, it had stopped of course, and we rescued the engine, fished out of the well, equipment and debris, built a new concrete well platform, revived the engine and put it back to work. Another time the engine ignited a stubble field that surrounded the well; dad caught that one and put it out before it spread too far, again the engine was put back to work and was not seriously hurt.

Later in life we switched from farming to custom power farm machine operations, threshing, shelling, and so on. We had enough machinery to maintain that we also had to have some sort of a shop. Here the small gasoline engine filled in again, drilling holes, and rotating grinding wheels. This was the last gasoline engine we ever had. I believe it was bought from a mail order Co., the valves, piston, connecting rod was directly interchangeable with the Model "T" Ford car, as I remember. (What was it called?) We needed more power and built a machine shop, where the various power tools were powered by a Hudson Motor Car engine that was traded for this last gasoline engine we ever had. — I wish I had it back.

But before we lost this engine, us kids, brothers three, had grown up some, and into High School and being kids, we were also looking for devilment and fun, we enlisted the aid of this gas engine in a couple of experiments.

We had an old Dort car chassis (still visible today) all stripped down and ready for a grain box as we were building it into a trailer; everybody had to have one in those days. We mounted this gasoline engine on some boards across the middle of the frame, and way over to one side whereby the drive pulley of the engine lined up with one rear wheel — catch on? You guessed it! We put a flat belt around one rear wheel, over the outside of the tire, as a result this belt contacted the ground, the other end to the engine pulley. We may have borrowed the belt from one of dad's threshing machines. We had no way of steering, so we kicked the front wheels hard around so the machine ran around in a circle, making sure the belt side was the outside of this circle. This way the "outside" wheel had the farthest to go, resulting in absorbing less power. We had some trouble perfecting a lineup, but we used a good wide belt, and after some trial we could "keep the belt on the tire" (sometimes). We cranked it up, and I let my brother ride it around, dust a-flying, the engine snorting from over load. We soon tired of this, as we had a better idea, we should be able to steer too. We should also improve our final drive.

We had an old buggy! It was minus a top. We removed the one-horse shafts in front, tied on a rope on either side of the front axle and we had our steering problem licked. The gas engine was set behind the seat, and belted to an improvised jackshaft. From this jackshaft we installed a chain drive to one rear wheel. We borrowed this chain, and large chain sprocket wheel from dads wagon en-gate broadcast seeder.

We were working against time, and dad was not around. We wondered if he might not approve us of appropriating his various equipment. We cranked up the contraption, no clutch, no brakes, but did not get very far until we shut off the engine. We had gone but a short ways, but go we did. We had to make an improvement. It seems that every time the engine "barked" it wound up the rear buggy springs against the pull on the oat seeder drive sprocket and chain on the rear wheel. As a result the rear of the buggy hopped up and down on the spring, and had an alternate tightening and loosening of the final drive chain, with chain slipping cogs and threatening to wrap around the sprocket or throw off altogether, also absorbing most of our power. With some lumber thrust between the springs, we stiffened up and prevented this action and cranked up again, my brother in the drivers seat and away he went down the road with the aid of a slightly downhill terrain. I don't believe I rode this contraption. I was perfectly willing in having a hand in assembling it, maybe I did not want to get caught with it, or feared life and limb. Being like all young fellows, even today, we did not hear of "Hot Rod Cars" but we wanted all the speed we could get so we sacrificed power for the utmost speed and experienced some trouble getting our powered buggy back up the hill without the aid of some pushing.

However we had satisfied our curiosity at what we could do in assembling machinery, and we also figured out time had about run out so we quickly dismantled our gas buggy, putting everything back in its place before dad got home. However we were proud of our endeavor, and we told him what we had done. He didn't seem to care a bit. Maybe we tore it down too quick.

On occasions these small engines could be downright mean to start, if you did not know what you were doing, they could kick. One avoided this by holding in the intake valve with one hand while cranked flywheel momentum was built up to fast pace by the other hand, then the intake valve was released and starting usually took place safely. Now on one occasion, (this last engine was showing wear, lack of compression etc.,) we would remove the spark plug and squirt in a couple shots of gasoline from a pump action oil can through the spark plug hole, replace plug and crank the engine, being careful to hold that intake valve in, the engine would take off with several real bangs!

My youngest brother also thought he could command this engine, after all he seen and knew how we went about starting it. He may have been about 11 years old. He also primed the engine good through the spark plug hole and turned it over, however he lacked the proper technique or muscle and the engine kicked back viciously, breaking his arm. He went to his dad (All of us were gathered in the machine shop at the time) and remarked something like "— arm all broke", dad looked him over and assured him that it really was broken "— but I don't want my arm broke!" he cried amid tears. His arm was soon in a cast and sling and no one got reprimanded for the venture.

Dad was neighborhood doctor of ailing engines, often called upon to start balky 'pump engines', to fix ailing small washing machine motors then in use, mounted under the washer tub, the 2-cycle Maytag Multi-Motor was one famous one that had to be treated just right, the use of the right oil and the right mixture of oil to gasoline was important. He has had to help placate more than one exasperated housewife that experienced a fruitless washday and had sent her verbally battered husband after dad. But we survived, and we would not do without those little engines. You could tell in a close settled neighborhood which housewife was racing to be first in getting her engine going on washday. The staccato exhaust would properly announce the proceedings along with an oily blue haze in the yard if you were burning oil mixed with gasoline. If we did not hear a neighbors' engine exhaust we would wonder if sickness or trouble was involved, as one did not usually miss Monday morning wash day. Now of course, washing takes place any hour of the day or night, or any day of the week.

At this time we were also located about a block away from a grain elevator. Dad and I was called over several times to start the big kerosene burning engine used for power (it may have been a Fairbanks-Morse). I watched carefully how it was done and thereafter I started this engine several times when called upon. Cooling water came from a cistern and water was re-circulated by a belt driven reciprocating piston pump. On a hard working day, light steam could be seen rising out of the top of the cistern. After the engine was oiled up, one worked this pump by hand with a long handle inserted into a socket to be sure water was started up to the engine, and the pump in prime. Starting gasoline was turned on to the carburetor, the flywheel was then rocked back and forth with the valves and piston in the right relationship to draw in a fuel charge. One foot was placed in next a spoke at the bottom of the flywheel and the flywheel rim was grasped by the hands at the top. (The flywheel stood as tall as I was.) The engine could not be turned over even this way, as the compression was too great. Now the magneto had been preset with a little trip lever, and as you rocked the engine backward against compression with all your might, and before the flywheel would bounce back, removing your foot from the flywheel at the same time, you quickly reached with one hand and struck this lever, sparking the engine, and away she would go. I could always get this engine running on the first try and really enjoyed the chance to get to start it. While the engine was running, warming up on gasoline, you checked the oilers, and water circulation. After several minutes the gasoline supply was turned off, and kerosene was turned on from an underground tank.

Then electricity came through — how sad that this engine was junked and busted up with sledge hammers.

Today I have an original model gas engine to play with, designed and built it myself. I can quickly crank it up on a moments notice, and often do, right in the house! (Here you are, some advantages over steam again!) Specifications: 1 foot Bore by 1 foot stroke, water hopper cooled, atmospheric, intake valve, hit & miss governed, adjustable speed while running, 2-ring cast iron piston (the only cast iron used), welded steel block and base, full wet cylinder, 6 foot dia. flywheels, open crankcase, hardened valve seats, stainless steel valves, spark plug ignition, battery-coil-gas tank self contained in base.

Presently, I belt it up to an electric generator or to a model cord-wood buzz saw with 4 foot dia. saw-blade, with a flat belt drive. Incidentally, endless flat belts are easily homemade by borrowing some of your wifes "Iron-On Patch Tape" and by folding or using a couple of layers and a hot iron (also from the wife, be sure to ask her first) you can concoct a belt of various widths and lengths, all "endless".

A number of you readers would remember dad, thresherman, sheller-man, inventor and manufacturer; Amer W. Cook.


Here is a picture of my W 50 McDeering, 6 cylinder, 450 cu. in., 80. 75 hp, 1625 Rev.

This is my youngest son, John, with a 30-60 Fairbanks Morse tractor I made with discarded gears and chain drive. The little flywheel on the engine turns when pushed across the floor. It is ALL STEEL, no plastic or fillers used.

Pictured is my Rumely Oil Pull taken at my farm in 1955. My son, Gerald and I are on the engine.

Double header train on Mojove Desert. Construction of Los Angeles Aqueduct.

26 hp Samson Gas Engine, built in 1890 — picture taken at Miller's near Modesto, California — July 1959.

This is a picture of my Bessemer engine I got about two years ago from an old Carpenter I knew. He bought it in 1915 and used it in his shop on a table saw. It is a 4 horse gaso kero type and runs good. I have shown it at Midwest Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. The plate on it says it was made at Grove City, Pa. The number of the engine is 1328.

This picture is of a 1914 Ford with a Fond du Lac tractor attachment. I located this one in a romote part of Lake County, California. The elderly gentleman who owned it would not part with it. It has had considerable use; the owner claimed to have built all his roads with it. He has since passed away, and I have no idea what has become of the machine.

This is a 1936 Huber owned and restored by the Zaring Brothers of Shelbyville, Kentucky. We bought this tractor in March 1966 from an abandonded sawmill and finished it this September. It has a Waukesha engine which starts on the third turn every time.

Here is a picture of my spoke flywheel John Deere, 1924, and the other one is a 1929.

Here is a picture of most of my tractors, three of them are missing here. The years of the tractors which I own ae: D-1924, D-1929, 2D-1936, D-1946. I have 5 GP that are between 1930 and 1936 and one GP that is a 1927 and one "B" John Deere, 1936. All the tractors run perfectly and I have had to overhaul some of them and those are now in good running order.

A 1914 Fairbanks Morse Oil Tractor owned by the Zaring Brothers of Shelbyville, Kentucky. This is a 25 horse power one cylinder engine. A Shelby County family traded several fine Jersey cows for this engine in 1917. Its origin is Macon, Georgia. It arrived in Shelbyville in September 1917 from Macon by Southern Railways. It stayed in the county from then on. We bought it in 1964 making us the fourth owner. This engine really pops good. Who has another one?

Arthur Hudachek is pulling a 14 inch 3 bottom plow which plows 7 inches deep. Also pulling a-harrow with a 1918 10-20 Titan.

This is a picture, of a 11/2 hp International Gas Engine. My Dad found this one in a junk pile in the woods. It was very weather worn, and had to be sandblasted before I could paint it. It looks and runs like new.

This is a two hp New Holland Engine which was used to saw wood. It is not restored yet, but it runs very well. The big one in the background is a 5 hp New Holland engine. The little one is a 11/2 hp Fairbanks Morse, it also is in good running condition. The left front is a 1 1/2 hp Domestic Engine, which was used to pump water.

Alamo "Blue Line" Type A, 4 hp, 385 rpm, No. 83045. Made by Alamo Mfg. Co., Hillsdale, Michigan. One of my collection, this one runs, but is unrestored. (Fuel pump and lines are removed.)

Brush Runabout, 1903. This fire-red beauty owned and restored by Stanley Francis who operates Golden Restoration, 850 Nile St., Golden, Colo., stopped by my shop for a picture and a ride. Its one-cylinder engine gets it around pretty good.

I suppose many of you have heard the old fisherman's story about the "big one" that got away. Well, here's the "big one" that got away from me. It was first used to thrash with then to power a saw mill and finally to power a cider mill. It was belted to a planing mill when I took this picture. This is an International 15 hp engine and with it were many extra parts so I guess this was the BIG one that got away.