Nelson Engine One for the Ages

An early Nelson engine resurfaces as a family heirloom after several decades.

Nelson Engine

This circa-1905 8 hp Nelson gas engine is one of approximately 18 known to the Barretts. Production figures no longer exist, but the line was known to stretch from 3 hp to 15 hp in hopper- and tank-cooled models.

Photo by Loretta Sorensen

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Family treasures are seldom found at the bottom of a silt-filled ditch. But that’s exactly where Tim Barrett and his family discovered an early gas engine – an 8 hp Nelson – that has quickly become a treasured heirloom.

“It was manufactured in Harlan, Iowa, by Nelson Gas Engine & Automobile Co.,” Tim says. “My grandfather purchased the engine new somewhere around 1905 and used it to power various implements around the farm. I know it powered the cup elevator used to fill the corncrib. When electricity came to his area in the 1950s, Grandpa had no use for the engine. His solution was to toss it into a ditch.”

As far as the family knows, Tim’s grandfather unbolted the Nelson from its original cart and pushed the engine into a ditch along a creek that passed through the farm. The cart, however, still had functional value, so it was repurposed to hold a wagon box that remained in use for many years. “That’s why we still had the cart,” Tim says. “It was in the barn with the wagon box on it.”

The search begins

Tim had heard stories about the Nelson for years. His dad, John, was fairly young when the engine went into the ditch, but he had a good recollection of the spot where it was buried. “Around 1985 I started bugging him about where it was,” Tim says. “In 1988, on the 4th of July, I brought the skid loader home from work and we started looking for the engine.”

Tim’s brother Darrell (since deceased) had a gift for “witching,” using a metal rod to find water. As it turns out, the rod also led him to the engine. “Darrell went out in the area where Dad thought the engine might be and found something,” Tim says. “He took a rod and started probing in the area where he suspected the engine was buried. Finally he hit something. It turned out to be the engine.”

It took five hours for the family and several curious neighbors to excavate the weighty, unwieldy chunk of iron, first pushing dirt away and then pulling the engine out with a skid loader. “At the first sighting of a little bit of flywheel, Dad was thrilled,” Tim says. “I was too. We were really surprised the flywheel didn’t break when it was dumped in the ditch.”

Pretty good shape, considering

When they started examining the engine, the Barretts were pleased to find that the Nelson was in very good condition considering how long it had been buried. “Once we got it home, Dad spent most of the winter cleaning and polishing it,” Tim says. “The outside wasn’t really damaged. It was mostly pitting from corrosion.”

Since Nelson Gas Engine & Automobile Co. had long since ceased to exist, Tim and John relied on auctions and friends in the hobby to find replacement parts. “The brass carburetor was gone,” Tim says. “The fuel pump was missing, too. Oilers and grease cups were gone as well as some ignition parts.” It took the better part of a year to get the engine running again. “The piston happened to be clear back,” Tim says. “With the cylinder head around it, the piston didn’t get rusty or corroded.”

The Barretts did their best to keep the restoration authentic. The color scheme is correct, so far as they know. “I’ve seen a couple of Nelson engines with striping,” Tim says. “I’m not sure if that was original or not. As far as we know, only 18 of these engines have survived. That’s counting the two I have, plus a third one we’re putting together.” All of the Barretts’ Nelson engines are 8 hp models.

Tim and his son Brion display the engine at several shows each year. Tim also has a small McCormick-Deering gas engine; Brion has a John Deere 1-1/2 hp engine. The two hope to attend more shows and be more involved in restoring vintage farm equipment in the future. But the Nelson will always be at the heart of their hobby. “It’s a rare piece,” Tim says, “and we all feel it’s a special part of our family history that we want to preserve.”


Thomas K. Nelson, inventor of the Nelson stationary gas engine, was born in Denmark. He came to America with his parents in 1872. The family lived on a farm in Shelby County, Iowa.

In Past and Present of Shelby County, Iowa (1915), author Edward S. White described Nelson’s early years and career: “Here (Shelby County) he went to school and spent his early years working on the farm. Even in boyhood, however, Mr. Nelson was mechanically inclined and, following this inclination, he moved to Harlan and secured employment with Cass & McArthur, who were engaged in manufacturing plows, cultivators, buggies, wagons, sleds, scoop boards, etc. He remained with this firm about six years and mastered practically every branch of the business.”

Eager to establish his own business, Nelson purchased a half-interest in a Harlan, Iowa, blacksmith and machine shop. In 1892 Nelson sold his interest to take a position as foreman with Sunderland & Anderson, a new machine shop, foundry and planing mill in Harlan. Nelson later worked short stints at Ogden Iron Works in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Phoenix Foundry and Machine Co., Omaha, Nebraska, eventually returning to Harlan where he bought out Sunderland & Anderson.

In business for himself, Nelson performed all kinds of machine and foundry work. In 1898 he developed a gasoline engine and put it on the market. Nelson Gas Engine & Automobile Co. was established by 1903. Two years later, in 1905, Nelson produced his first automobile. He drove the two-seat touring car with a 3-cylinder air-cooled engine while taking orders for stationary gas engines. “Mr. Nelson is working on a gas tractor, a 2-cylinder opposed (7-1/2-by-8-inch bore and stroke) and also a 4-cylinder vertical (6-1/2-by-8-inch bore and stroke) and has high hopes that these tractors will meet the same degree of success that the Nelson engine has always enjoyed,” White wrote in 1915. “The company built a 2-cylinder traction engine about eight years ago. This engine has been in almost constant use ever since and has proved itself a success.”


– Contact engine enthusiast Tim Barrett at tlbarrettbarn@fmctc.com.