Ol Bessie

Two Friends Restore a 50 HP Bessemer


Jim Baue inspects the Bessemer, Nov. 15, 2003, three days after purchase.

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For the last couple of years, my buddy Jim Baue and I have been looking for a large gas engine to restore. We had gone through many of the normal channels in our search, but finally, on Nov. 12, 2003, we found our engine - and it was advertised in the local trading newspaper.

An early 1920s 50 HP Bessemer, this engine was previously used by an oil company to generate electricity to run their wells. Fortunately, it had been stored inside until late 2000, so it was in better than average condition when we saw it for the first time. After looking it over we made a deal to buy it, and Larry and Chris Schmittler of Grayville, Ill., agreed to furnish the truck to move it as part of the deal.

On Nov. 22, 2003, we met up with Larry and Chris in Grayville to get the Bessemer out of the field where it sat. Lloyd Schoenheit brought out a Mack truck with a boom and had the engine and frame loaded on the trailer within 30 minutes.

Larry and Chris had originally intended on restoring the engine, and they had discovered that a local man, Wayne Knight, was the last person to run the Bessemer. It took a couple of weeks to catch up with Wayne, but when I did, he told me the engine was taken out of service around 1971.

Although "Bessie" had worked faithfully, she was retired because it was cheaper for her owners to buy electric power off the grid than to produce it with the engine. Regretably, in August 2004 I found out Wayne had passed away in the spring. We all had plans of having him start the engine at a show.

The Real Work Begins

Once we had the Bessemer at Jim's shop, we jumped right into trying to find out what we were up against. We removed the crank cover, along with the governor, air and fuel valves, the exhaust pipe and the side covers. As we took the parts off, water poured out of everything we touched.

We removed the side plates at the main bearings so we could inspect for any needed repairs, and once we had the gear side plate removed it was clear we were going to have to make new keys and shims to line up the gears a little better.

The engine's McCord mechanical oiler was full of water, necessitating pretty much a full rebuild with lots of soaking, cleaning, new packing, new gaskets and a good polishing of the brass.

We pulled the main bearing caps and the rod cap, and using air jacks we raised the crankshaft high enough to check the main bearings for wear. Satisfied the bearings were in good shape, we put them all back together.

The governor was rusted stuck, so we had to give it a complete overhaul - sandblasting, new springs, bushings and paint. The fuel valve only needed a good cleaning (the rings and springs were in great shape). We rebuilt the fuel line with new black pipe, and we sandblasted and repainted the butterfly assembly. We also refaced the governor-controlled gas valve and installed new packing.

In a little over three weeks, we were on the road to putting the engine back together. Before going any farther, we decided to belt the engine up to a Massey-Harris Pony in an attempt to turn it over, but to no avail. On closer inspection, we discovered quite a lot of carbon was breaking loose, so we pulled the head off, cleaned the bore and then turned the engine some more. Still not satisfied with how the engine was turning over, we decided to pull the piston out. We discovered the piston rings were stuck and there was a lot of carbon under them. Using plenty of penetrating oil and tapping the rings with a hammer, we finally freed up the rings. We gave the piston a good cleaning and a once-over. The only thing we broke in the whole process was one stud - which took us four hours to get out.

On The Downhill Slope

When we got the engine, one decal could still be made out on one side of the engine. We took a photo of it and gave it to our friends at Sign Solutions, who made new decals based on the photo. Finally, we prepped and painted the engine and made a custom exhaust system. The exhaust is made from 8-inch diameter aluminum, and it took a lot of cutting and welding to route the exhaust from the bottom of the cylinder out to the side and up. To hook the exhaust up to the cylinder, we had to custom-cut an 8-inch threaded exhaust nipple on a lathe.

On Feb. 1, 2004, we started Bessie for the first time in almost 35 years. Its first show was our home show, the American Thresherman Assn. Steam, Gas and Threshing Show held Aug. 19-22, 2004, in Pinckneyville, Ill. The Bessemer ran like a clock for us all weekend.

This was a very large project, and without the support of all our friends, it would still be sitting in the shop. Thanks to everyone who helped.

Contact engine enthusiast Gary Bahre at: P.O. Box 40, Sparta, IL 62286; gsrba@egyptian.net

"Bessie" will be on display at the 46th Annual Steam, Gas &Threshing Show Aug. 18-21, 2005, in Pinckneyville, Ill. For more information call: (618) 357-3241; or on the web at: www.americanthresherman.com