Every year, an elderly man in a golf cart drives up to Bill Thelemann at the Le Sueur (Minnesota) Pioneer Days, and says of the big engine Bill is running, "That's sure a nice-running engine. Where did you ever get it?"
The answer goes back to one day in 1979 when an engine collector asked the instructor of the Mankato, Minn., Vocational School if someone could make parts for an oil field engine he'd found. Bill Thelemann was in the machinist tool and die class, and had been involved with gas engines for a few years. "I started with engines when I was in my early teens," the 45-year-old farmer and machinist said. "I bought a horse-and-a-half John Deere from a guy and fixed it up, and got other gas engines through my high school years from neighbors when they came up for sale."
The class instructor knew about Bill's love of old engines, so he gave the project to him. The assignment was to make a connecting rod bearing, wrist pin bearing and wrist pin. "It was a good project with quite a bit of machining, because the connecting rod bearing wasn't just a round bearing, but a two-piece adjustable one." Bill finished the parts, and engine owner John Hiniker collected them, installed them and got the engine running - and Bill kind of forgot about it all.
That is, until one day a few years later when he saw John with a big Superior 35 HP engine at a mall in Mankato. "I told him who I was, and that I had worked on the parts for him, and we talked." But after that, the engine disappeared into a shed for many years until about 1990, when John brought it to the Le Sueur Pioneer Power Show and ran it. Following that, Bill began running the engine for John at the show each year.
Five years after that, John decided to sell the engine. "John and I had become special friends, and he knew I liked that engine, and I told him it would always stay at Le Sueur, so when he started getting up in years my sister, Sue Smith (kind of the silent partner in the deal), and I bought the engine, Bill says." Because Bill and John share the same interest, they were both delighted in the outcome of Bill getting the engine. So when Bill had the feeling he was being watched from behind at a recent Le Sueur show, he turned around and there was John in his golf cart. They had their yearly conversation about that good running engine, and "Where did you ever get it?" "That's a standing joke between us," Bill chuckles.
Oil field past
Little is known about the history of this Superior 35 HP engine, except that it originally came from an oil field in the South, and that something happened so it had been run dry. "From what people have told me," Bill says, "those big engines that ran a transfer pump or oil derrick with a line shaft pump would run nonstop, and had some sort of an oil system that would supply lubricant for a long period of time." This Superior was actually a natural gas-fired engine first, using natural gas right out of the oil well. When the engine ran dry, it knocked the bearings out, which is how John came to buy it.
The engine came without any identification tags or badges, but the research John and Bill have done indicates it is indeed a Superior engine. "I don't think it ever had any. Normally if an engine had a tag, you'll see a couple of holes with some rivet heads, but there's nothing like that on this engine. But it's definitely a Superior. Everyone has confirmed that," Bill says. It doesn't appear to have a serial number either, although "1076" is stamped into the block, and it's unclear what that means. Bill says it has to be about a 1920s engine, or even in the teens, because it's an open engine and a sideshaft engine, which was an early type of Superior. "It doesn't have a rocker arm that runs the intake valve, but is still a spring-loaded one, like a vacuum valve." One of the unique features of this 35 HP Superior is at the front of the engine around the cylinder, where it has a water-cooled intake, with a water jacket surrounding it to cool it. "I don't know if that means it's a newer or older model, or a particular model, but maybe someone out there would know?" Jim wonders.
"We used a John Deere carburetor to convert it to running on gasoline for starting and running purposes so we don't have to fool around with bottle gas," Bill says. "It runs real good that way."
Superior Gas Engine Co. of Springfield, Ohio, began making Superior engines just before the turn of the century, about 1898. Their high-quality engines sold themselves to oil field and industrial services, so advertising for the company is difficult to come by. Superior engines came in 15, 20, 25, 35, 40, 50, 65 and 100 HP sizes, and perhaps others. Little is known about the company.
Since Bill and his sister bought the engine in 1995, it has been relatively maintenance-free. "I go through it and check that all the oil lines are free. The main bearings and the piston bore are fed with a force-feed oiler, so I check all that stuff. But as far as the engine is concerned, it has been pretty good," Bill says.
People come first to watch Bill start the engine. "I have started it by hand, but for safety purposes, I belt it up to a tractor and start it, and then everyone starts in with the questions: 'What does it run on; where did you get it; how old is it?' Someone once asked me if it was a steam engine, probably because it's an open crank engine where you can see the connecting rod and the whole works moving. People have their mouths open as they watch the massive flywheels, and after it's running, it just sits there and runs so nice and smooth. We've got it running about 150 RPM, and it never did run real fast. It's a slow-running engine. The flywheels are counterbalanced. The machine was made for the long haul, so it can stand there and run for a long time. People just stand in awe."
The oversize connecting rod is massive and made heavy, Bill says. Bore and stroke are 12-by-24 inches. "There's a lot of cubic inches there for a single-cylinder."
As far as rarity, Bill says you don't see a lot of these engines around. "On a scale of one to 10, with one the rarest, maybe it's a three. You might see more of them around in the South where most of them were run, but up here in the Midwest, there aren't many. The only reason it's up here is that a collector would have brought it up for show. Most of the bigger engines of all kinds up here are diesels, too." He's heard there are quite a few of the engines around in pieces, flywheels here, heads there.
"Why do I collect? I grew up on the farm, and though we never had any engines like that, I was always tinkering with something, and I always liked them," Bill says. The engines related back to the farm, and he was interested because the purpose of those engines was to make farm life easier. "Like most collectors, my biggest thrill was always to find an old rusted one, and get it running. Once it was painted and running, the challenge was gone, so I moved on to another one."
Bill used to have some 50 engines in his collection, but nothing really rare, he says. In addition to Maytag, Stover and Fuller & Johnson and the like, he's also had a full run of Economy engines, but he's sold many of them now. His greater interest is the Superior 35 HP and a couple of tractors, a Little Bull and a Thielman.
Bill says he was really excited to be able to get the Superior 35 HP engine. "It's very seldom you come across something like that that's in the shape it's in. It's right in your backyard, and you don't have to haul it or anything." If it had to be hauled, that wouldn't be too difficult either, as John had built a sturdy set of trucks for it. "It had 12-inch I-beams for the skids, and has some pretty hefty wheels from a threshing machine on it."
Bill says it's getting to the point where he wants to repaint the engine.
"I painted all my gas engines and tractors myself, so I'll repaint this one in a couple of years. Probably in the same dark green, but we'll dress it up a bit more, with red pin striping, and red wheels. But right now it's in good condition, because it's kept inside all the time," Bill says.
More than the machine itself, Bill says, he enjoys the people. In his case, that includes his family, his sister Sue Smith, who lives in Rochester, Minn., and her children. "As children we lived right across the street from Pioneer Power, so we grew up with it. My sister and I were talking one day and she said she'd like to have something like that engine to have an interest in, so her boys could get involved. So they help me take care of it and run it, too. It's a family venture."
Additionally, Bill says you meet a lot of neat, talented people, especially model builders and restorers, when you're collecting old engines. He adds that everyone is willing to share their expertise, too. "They'll tell you where to find a part, or how to fix this. It's fun, not like fishermen who won't tell you where the hot spot is."
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; firstname.lastname@example.org