Jeff Wahl’s love of old iron was bred into him early. When he was 3 years old, he already owned a gasoline engine, courtesy of his grandpa Harvey Wahl, a 1-3/4 HP Associated Chore Boy that he still owns today.
Jeff’s father, Tom Wahl, had moved the family to Fairfax Station, Va., but the family returned to Grandpa’s Minnesota farm for a week or two each summer, around the time of the Butterfield (Minn.) Threshing Bee. “So I’d get to see my grandparents and the rest of the family that lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” Jeff says. “We would all attend the Butterfield show to help Grandpa show his antique farm equipment, camp out and have a family reunion of sorts.
“For me, going out to the farm, as we did every summer, was a completely different world from northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.” Jeff says. “I enjoyed being on the farm, riding Grandpa’s farm machinery, helping to mow the lawn and pick veggies from the garden. And best of all, I got to see all my aunts, uncles and cousins.
“When we were young, we would jump off the hay wagons into the piles of threshed hay and get dirty and filthy,” he laughs. Additionally, he remembers riding in the parade on the back of an Aultman-Taylor 30-60 tractor that Grandpa operated for the elderly owner at the Butterfield Threshing Bee, “getting a ride, sitting on back with my legs hanging off. My parents say I used to spin my arms in a circle like a flywheel going around and made the sounds of an engine, shoo shoo shoo put,” he says. “It was a fun experience.”
Rare gasoline engines
The Wahl family has a series of rare gasoline engines about which little is known:
1904 9 HP Flour City
Harvey Wahl bought this rare item Sept. 14, 1974, at an estate auction in Valley Springs, S.D. “The engine was complete, including the original water tank, but it had been completely taken apart because it was in the process of being restored,” Jeff says.
His grandfather restored it by 1975, and in 1996 the Flour City was featured at the 30th Annual Butterfield show, acknowledging Harvey’s showmanship and involvement since the first show in 1967.
The engine appears to be about a 1904, Jeff says. “We think it’s a 9 HP based on bore and stroke measurements we obtained from original literature.”
Flour City portable farm engines are unique in how they are mounted to their carts. “Most portable engines can be removed from the cart, and you still have the engine intact,” Jeff says. “But with the Flour City, the engine cylinder, main crankshaft bearings, chain-driven water pump, etc., are all bolted directly to the heavy steel channel iron of the engine cart. There’s no engine base mounted to the cart frame and thus the flywheels hang down pretty low.”
The Flour City features ignition via igniter, battery and coil, governor weights in the flywheel, a chain-driven water pump to circulate the water through the cylinder and back into the original cooling tank, and a large pulley that is engaged and disengaged via a long horizontal lever located along the pulley’s side of the channels of the cart. While this Flour City has its original brass tag, it is not stamped with a serial number or horsepower.
“Flour City engines are rare and valuable, with portable engines being more sought after due to their unique features,” Jeff says.
Flour City gasoline engines were manufactured by Kinnard-Haines Co., of Minneapolis, from about 1898 to 1908, when the company dropped gasoline engines and turned to the manufacture of tractors. Very little is known of the company. C. H. Wendel writes in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, “Flour City portable engines were popular for threshing and many other farm duties ... (and were) built in several styles to accommodate specific needs. Despite their unconventional design, Flour City engines were apparently a high-quality item.”
6 HP Root & VanDervoort
“My grandpa purchased this one out of the original grain elevator not too far from his farm,” Jeff says. This 6 HP engine never sat outside, and is called a short sideshaft because the shaft doesn’t extend all the way to the head of the cylinder. “It stops short,” he laughs, “but it does run a vertical flyball governor, the fuel pump, igniter trip and so forth.”
The R&V is a hit-and-miss engine with a tank-cooled ported exhaust engine. “With serial no. X3002, it’s the oldest short sideshaft that we know of and is the only one we’ve found with brass governor weights,” Jeff explains. “The funny thing is that because this one never sat outside it had beautiful original paint, but back in the day people cleaned off the paint and repainted everything, which is what my grandfather unfortunately did.”
His grandfather built a cart so he could take it to shows, and also built a cooling tank and added a water pump, which is not original. “My uncle George Wahl made the pattern for the R&V logo and painted it on the side of the cooling tank.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of this engine is how easy it is to start. “You can start it by turning the flywheel backwards against compression and the igniter will automatically trip, kicking the flywheels forward and away she goes,” Jeff says, “so it was always a favorite of mine, because literally a 5-year-old can start the engine by turning the flywheels backward against the compression. When my cousins and I were young, we started it all the time, and people at Butterfield really got a kick out of watching us starting it.”
R&Vs were manufactured by Root & VanDervoort Engineering Co. of East Moline, Ill., starting in 1900, but got a great push when the John Deere Plow Co. took them on to distribute them. By 1912, all R&Vs were distributed through the extensive Deere network. This one was sold by an agent in Minneapolis, and the year of this engine is unknown. R&Vs were made through the middle teens.
6 HP 1913 Abenaque
This rare 1913 6 HP engine, serial no. 4073, was purchased by Harvey Wahl in 1987 at an estate sale in Chicago. “This is one of them that we run each year at the Butterfield show,” Jeff says.
The Abenaque engine features a sideshaft with horizontal governor weights, unusual thin cooling tanks mounted on opposite sides of the cylinder, just inside the flywheels, as well as a “star wheel” igniter. “The igniter utilizes a small insulated wire that ‘rubs’ a wheel resembling a star,” Jeff says. “When the point of the star rubs off the wire, a hefty spark is produced. This method also constantly cleans the ignition system, preventing issues due to carbon build-up, so we don’t have to take it out and clean it. It is a fuel-injected engine and the fuel injector is adjustable to allow enrichment or leaning of the fuel. The fuel pump makes only one stroke during the compression cycle and then remains idle until another power stroke is needed.
“The Abenaque always starts on the first pull and is one of the nicest running engines out there.”
Abenaque Machine Works of Westminster Station, Vt., built the Abenaques starting in 1895 until 1916. According to Wendel, “total production at Abenaque likely never exceeded a few hundred units.” The larger versions of these same engines were used to power Abenaque tractors.
5 HP Wolverine
Jeff says they didn’t get much information about this engine from his grandfather before he passed away. “About what I do know is that it’s an older restoration engine that runs on a Webster magneto with big governor weights on the flywheel. It’s hopper-cooled and really doesn’t have any unique features. It was an early engine Grandfather purchased, and he restored it and painted it blue. The color should technically be a kind of a dark green, and about 15 years ago he put it on a larger cart,” Jeff says. “He thought about repainting it but never did. The Wolverine logo was made by my uncle and painted on ... We believe Wolverine engines are uncommon, as we’ve only seen a few around.”
Though the Field-Brundage Co. of Jackson, Mich., was organized in 1905 as a successor to Jackson Engine & Motor Co., they did not manufacture Wolverine engines until 1914. Manufacture ended in the early 1920s, and because the basic design was the same throughout, according to Wendel, it’s difficult to determine what year these engines were made.
Wolverine autos, manufactured by Reid Mfg. Co. of Detroit, and two other Wolverine gasoline engines, manufactured by companies with the same name — Wolverine Motor Works of Bridgeport, Conn., and Grand Rapids, Mich., were not related to the Wolverines of Field-Brundage.
The Lennox engine is easily identifiable based on the large raised lettering in the base of the engine. However, there is no other brass tag or markings to indicate a serial number, year or horsepower as far as the Wahls have been able to determine. “It was advertised as a 7 HP when Grandpa purchased it in 1982 at an auction near Fremont, S.D.,” Jeff says. “It is probably the earliest Lennox engine known to exist and would have had hot tube ignition, but when Grandpa got it that part was missing.”
A previous owner had drilled, tapped and fitted the intake chest with a spark plug, and Jeff’s grandpa fabricated an ignition system by mounting a small contact pin to the side of the timing gear. An insulated spring contact was mounted to the engine base such that the pin on the timing gear touched the spring contact when the piston neared top dead center. A Model T buzz coil and a battery completed the ignition system.
“My grandfather fabricated a cooling tank and gas tank that resembles a picture of a Lennox gas engine ad in a 1902 edition of The Farmer magazine,” Jeff says, “so we estimate this is a 1902 engine.”
According to Wendel, the ad appeared only in 1902, where its claim was that the engine was “Always ready whether wind blows or not. Clean, safe, reliable. Can be attached to any wind mill pump. Just the thing for a farm.”
The Lennox Machine Co. was founded by David Lennox in 1880. The company manufactured boilers and fabricated experimental designs for other companies; they introduced their first gas engines around 1894. Manufacturing was discontinued about 1914.
Jeff’s favorite engine is probably the 6 HP R&V because it’s unusual and easy to start, and because it never sat outside it runs like a watch. “We have a 7 HP Stickney that was the last engine that my dad and grandpa bought, and I got to help them work on it one summer before he passed away in the spring of 2000. Grandpa didn’t get to see it restored, but it was the last one we worked on together, so that makes it special.”
What Jeff enjoys most about old engines is their mechanical ingenuity, “Seeing how each one is mechanically designed and engineered differently, and appreciating that while I try to figure out how they run.”
He takes the opportunity to go around the Butterfield show each year to study other engines. At 33 years old, he’s only missed two Butterfield shows, one when a baby and the other five years ago when his son was born.
Collectors are generally impressed with the number of engines the Wahl family shows, Jeff says, and the nice variety of sizes, manufacturers and rarity. “People who don’t collect and don’t know much about them are usually impressed with the variety, because it gives them truly an idea of how many different manufacturers there were, and the different methods and designs they came up with. My grandfather preferred engines in the 4-10 HP range, and for the most part didn’t get two of the same engine because he liked variety. There aren’t too many shows where you can find a single family collection of 20 to 25 engines being exhibited. We’ve run as many as 18 engines at one time, but it’s a real challenge to have enough working batteries and coils and to get them all going. My grandpa was always proud to exhibit his collection at the Butterfield Threshing Bee, and as a family we try to continue the tradition. While it can be a lot of work, we generally have a great time and I think Grandpa would be proud.”