The Cultivator
Thoughts from the editor.

Stewards of Gas Engine History

Whether by intention or necessity, collectors regularly find themselves funneling their old engine energy into historical research, becoming stewards of history in more ways than “simply” restoring and keeping their old engines running.

The point comes up thanks to two articles in this issue, Charles Wise’s excellent piece on the Walls engine and Jim White’s examination of the production roster of John Deere’s kerosene EK engine line. In their respective articles, both Charles and Jim took on the role of researcher and historian, seeking out relevant documents for insight and information on their chosen subject.

Charles, as you’ll read in his article “Rediscovering the Walls”, searched through old advertisements and newspaper clippings for any records that could help him understand the history and development of the Walls engine, designed by Cicero Walls in the early 1890s. For his article on John Deere’s EK engine line, Jim looked at over 100,000 serial numbers in the John Deere archives to come up with complete production data for the three EK variations produced (1-1/2 hp, 3 hp and 6 hp). In both cases, the authors discovered new and interesting information.

Researching the EK line, Jim found unexplained anomalies in EK prefixes in the factory notes, points of fact that will be of great interest to EK collectors. In his research, Charles uncovered the compelling story of an engine designer who, eager to enter the nascent gas engine business, turned to Keystone Iron Works, an established foundry in Fort Madison, Iowa, about 1894, to produce his engines. About a year later, Walls took over production when he founded Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. with his brother-in-law. That concern apparently lasted no more than a year or so, after which Keystone Iron Works began building a variation of Cicero Walls’ 1893 engine design under an 1896 patent awarded to George Lamos, Keystone’s owner. That’s a curious progression that begs as many questions as it answers, including whether Walls made an arrangement with Lamos giving the latter rights to his basic design? Whatever the case, Walls went out of business, but Keystone Iron Works continued making its version of the Walls engine until perhaps 1900 or so.

Lost as they are to time, it’s unlikely we’ll find the answers to some of these questions. And yet, who could have imagined that 72 years after the last John Deere EK left the factory we’d still be uncovering new and detailed information about EK production? Or that almost 125 years after the fact we’d be discovering for the first time the unique story of an engine and its designer?

Thanks to the never-ending curiosity of engine collectors everywhere, we’re constantly treated to new discoveries to fuel our imagination, and our interest in learning as much as we can about the companies that made the engines we collect.

Old Engines Are Still Out There

The quality of engines that continue to come out of the woodwork – quite literally in this case – continues to amaze me.

The engine I’m referring to is a rare, circa-1915 15 hp Ohio, found in a long abandoned pump house next to an old inn on an island off the coast of Maine. And the reference to coming out of the woodwork? The wood-framed roof of the old pump house had to be surgically cut open – and then replaced – so the engine could be lifted out with a crane!

Rescued by veteran engine man Mike O’Malley, the engine had been found some 30-plus years earlier by engine collector Alec Stevens. Buying it was another issue, the seller clearly intent on keeping it where it was. Undaunted, Alec routinely checked up on the engine and patiently waited for the opportunity to purchase the Ohio. Ironically, after all that time, when the opportunity finally came and the owner decided to sell, Alec’s personal circumstances dictated otherwise. Fortunately, he knew that Mike would give the engine a good home, so he handed the opportunity over to him.

It’s an incredible story from just about every angle. For starters, there’s the simple fact of Alec finding the engine in the first place. The Ohio had been out of operation for decades and few people even knew of its existence. It would probably still be sitting in the pump house if Alec hadn’t learned of it. Second, the engine was still plumbed, as if ready for service. Third, there’s the engine itself, a rare and extremely attractive tank-cooled 15 hp Ohio sideshaft engine with a vertical flyball governor. And it was complete, right down to the original igniter, which, after being replaced at some juncture with a spark plug, had been stored on a shelf, where it remained until the day Mike removed the engine from the pump house.

And of course there’s the extraction of the engine, which is indeed what this was, with the engine removed from the pump house using slings and a crane, but only after cutting the roof open for access. As was often done back in the day, the engine was most likely installed in the pump house after the foundation was poured, but before the walls and roof were erected.

Mike’s story has every element of the classic, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime find, with an added twist: he had to hire a barge to ferry his truck and trailer to the island, and to get the now-loaded trailer back to the mainland.

The finding and saving of the Ohio is the stuff of dreams for collectors. Here’s hoping there are many more dreams to be lived – and that we get to share them here! Go here to read Mike’s incredible story about the Ohio.

Remembering Dave and Bob

November 2017 was a bad month in the old iron community, witnessing the loss of two of the hobby’s – and GEM’s – staunchest supporters; Dave Rotigel, who passed away Nov. 10 at the age of 79, and Bob Crowell, who passed away the next day, Nov. 11, at the age of 76. Diagnosed with cancer, Dave’s passing wasn’t altogether unexpected, but Bob’s came unexpectedly, apparently suffering a heart attack while doing yardwork, a favorite pastime of his.

Of the hundreds of fine people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and get to know in my time at GEM, Dave and Bob stand out in particular. In 2001, when I took over the helm at GEM, Dave and Bob were the first to personally call and congratulate me on my good fortune. They were both genuinely excited for me, and they quickly appreciated that at that time I knew little about the old iron hobby. I had a strong mechanical background, with lots of wrench time on cars and motorcycles, but vintage engines? I’d never seen or worked on an IHC M or a Fairbanks Z, much less even contemplated flame ignition or half-breed oil field engines. 

Dave called me within a few weeks of my hire, and over a series of subsequent conversations he patiently gave me a crash course in Hit-and-Miss 101, explaining the variations and intricacies of the engines he collected, helping me understand and appreciate why he collected them and what they – and the community – meant to him. Bob’s call came shortly after, and I’ll never forget his bubbling enthusiasm for GEM and the people who populate its pages. Where Dave, one of the most intelligent and critically insightful people I’ve ever met, could be challenging and direct – a byproduct, no doubt, of his years in academia – Bob could disarm with his wide-eyed  embrace for the people and the engines they collected. It’s no wonder he spent much of his life involved with younger people, whether through coaching high school track or supporting various clubs and initiatives.

I first met Dave and Bob in person at Portland in 2001, and since then they have been constants, regular contributors and diehard supporters of the magazine – Dave forever chiding fellow engine collectors to send articles and subscribe to GEM and Bob and his lovely wife, Linda, promoting GEM and Farm Collector subscriptions at Portland and other shows. Their influence had become so regular, it became easy to take it for granted. 

I hadn’t seen Dave or Bob in a few years, and it’s sobering to realize the next time I go to Portland or Mt. Pleasant, Dave won’t be there making some wise-crack and Bob won’t greet me with his regular “Hey, Kiddo” as I walk toward our tent. Those are sad thoughts, but they’re made happier by having known Dave and Bob in the first place. They were rare men, and we’re all poorer for their passing.

Richard Backus

Building Interest in the Gas Engine Hobby

Of all the shows I wish I’d attended in 2017, the Northwest Michigan Engine & Threshers Club 50th Annual Buckley Old Engine Show at the club’s grounds outside Buckley, Michigan, sticks out. Not to take anything away from the hundreds of incredible shows held across the country, but if you didn’t go to the Buckley show – and I didn’t – you missed one of the more historic occasions in our little corner of the world: the first turning of the club’s 1907 double-acting, twin-tandem Snow engine.

And yes, I said “turning,” as the engine wasn’t actually run, but turned over on compressed air. That fact hardly detracts from the herculean task completed by the club’s volunteer members, namely the disassembly, transportation and reassembly of a mammoth 225-ton, 150,000-cubic-inch engine. Rated at 1,100 hp, it develops 58,500 ft/lbs of torque at its rated speed of 90rpm. It took 230 yards of concrete, 10 tons of rebar and 44 2-1/2-inch anchor bolts to make a pad for the engine. 

This was an amazing undertaking, one only possible through the coordinated efforts of a large, active organization like the Northwest Michigan Engine & Threshers Club. A growing and dynamic club, it not only continues to hold the attention of its members (more than 550 families) but perhaps more importantly continues to grab the attention of people outside the hobby, drawing them in with an ever-changing and growing show ground (over 200 acres) and constantly expanding exhibits that allow the visitor to really immerse himself or herself in the past. For those of us already in the hobby, when you tell us a club has added a Snow engine, well, you’re singing to the choir, and we’re in before you finish. But it’s harder trying to draw in a new audience, one that most likely has little if any connection to the machinery we care so passionately about. 

Not every club can do what the Buckley folks have done, of course. It takes a combination of luck, skill and opportunity in equal measure to find the resources to realize a dream as large as rescuing the Snow engine. And I’m not ignoring the ample success stories in the old iron community, where we’re astoundingly lucky to have literally dozens and dozens of clubs that have been around a half century and more, many of them continuing to grow. A quick look at the 2017 Farm Collector Show Directory shows an incredible 110 annual events 40 years old or older. The National Threshers Assn. holds the honor of the oldest, hosting its 73rd (!) annual event in 2017.

I mention all of this for the simple reason that while we often despair at what we see as a decline in interest in our shows, I don’t think we need to call the funeral home just yet. Certainly, member retention, much less growth, is a very real issue for many clubs. But the simple truth seems to be that when we engage fully in our hobby, other people naturally follow us. If we can maintain that dynamic, the old iron community has many, many decades of growth and celebration ahead.

Richard Backus

Finding Vintage Engines

It wasn’t all that long ago that a dedicated engine man could pretty much guarantee himself that with enough looking he could find the fabled “engine in the barn.” Once upon a time, it seemed like you couldn’t go into an old barn without tripping over an abandoned engine. But as time passed those engines slowly got found, and the next thing you know it seems like all the good finds have, well, been found. Yet just when you start thinking the well’s running dry, somebody trips across another fantastic engine lost to time, sitting quietly in the dark corner of a barn, still in its work clothes and looking very much as it did when last run.

That’s exactly what South Dakota engine man Dave Thompson found when he retrieved a circa-1918 6 hp Gade from Arden Abild’s farm. Truth be told, the engine wasn’t exactly forgotten, as Arden was well aware of its presence in the granary on his ancestral family farm. Arden had in fact received an offer for the engine some years back, but he’d hung onto it, happy just knowing it was there. For Arden, the old Gade was a material tie to his past and his grandfather, Sid Abild, who set the engine up sometime around 1918 to power a bucket elevator. The engine stayed on the farm longer than most, still used occasionally up to the 1970s.

Eventually, however, Arden realized it was time to let it go, to pass the engine along to someone who could bring it back to operating condition. Looking at its condition, we’re pretty confident new owner Dave will have it back and popping along in short order, and when he does, we hope to run a follow-up on the Gade. See the story of its retrieval.

Speaking of engine men, longtime reader Andrew Mackey has more than a passing knowledge of vintage engines, having shared his wealth of knowledge with GEM readers for some 35 years, most recently with a six-part series of articles detailing various operating aspects of gas and diesel engines. This issue, Andrew shares his knowledge working with oilers, providing a detailed explanation of several types of common oilers and how they work, complete with comprehensive drawings.

Finally, we’re excited to announce the publication of Coolspring: Discovering America’s Finest Antique Engine Museum, Vol. 2, a close look at 40 different engines in the Coolspring Power Museum collection, with detailed photos and a concise history of each engine chosen. As with the first volume, we’ll share those engines here in the pages of GEM with the return of Coolspring Spotlight this issue covering the museum’s rare 1883 10 hp Schleicher, Schumm & Co. slide valve. Visit our store for more information and to order a copy of Coolspring: Discovering America’s Finest Antique Engine Museum, Vol. 2. 

Richard Backus

Learning by Chance

I’m constantly amazed to discover just how much historical information concerning vintage engines and equipment is still out there waiting to be discovered and shared.

A case in point is the Beetle tractor, a mini dozer manufactured by Western Gear Works in Seattle, Washington, from 1946-1948. Designed for the U.S. Forest Service for building trails and general use, the Beetle was small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck, but powerful enough to do real work thanks to its 61-cubic-inch Waukesha 4-cylinder engine.

Until recently, I’d never heard of the Beetle, a not particularly surprising fact given its rarity and the small number built. My education began after receiving a phone call from Robert Janyk, an estate settler with a penchant for preserving old literature. Settling unclaimed estate property, Robert routinely comes across materials of no immediate or obvious monetary value, materials like a manila Western Gear Works inter-office envelope he sent me containing memos, photographs and mimeographed materials relating to the Beetle tractor.

Over the years, we’ve published several mentions of the Beetle, including a 1998 article by John Lindner following his purchase of Beetle tractor serial number 154, and a 1999 article by Gary Bural, who found a Beetle in Port Orchard, Washington, and subsequently restored it. Convinced that someone somewhere would want the envelope and its contents, Robert had conducted a little research, which led him to GEM. As you’ll read in Flywheel Forum, we heard from several readers interested in the materials following our posting of their availability last issue, eventually passing them on to regular subscriber and collector Marv Hedberg in Minnesota.

The surprise in all of this has been the opportunity not only to learn about an obscure little dozer I never knew existed, but to discover the wealth of knowledge related to the machine and its development. Marv himself knows as much about the Beetle as anyone, owning not just a Beetle tractor, but a prototype grader developed from the Beetle tractor. And a hidden page at (, found only through a keyword search and not listed anywhere on the site’s main page, gives a full accounting of the Beetle’s history, complete with brochures, serial numbers, an original concept drawing and much more.

The deeper you dig, the more you find, discovering the Beetle’s inspiration in the Clark Airborne Crawler, a military mule designed in World War II to be air transported to remote installations to build and repair airfields. That tractor spawned a generation of mini-dozers, including the Beetle, the Mead Speedcat, the Agricat and more. It’s a fascinating little corner of the old iron world, one that, like many, is often discovered simply by chance.

Richard Backus

Piersen Engines and Shows

Well, I’m almost ashamed to report that I’ve yet to get my 1920 5 hp Piersen running. Worse, I can’t even say I’ve put much time into the effort since last issue, focused as I’ve been on helping my kids get their vintage motorcycles ready for the new riding season. Charlie, just turning 21 this summer, has been upgrading and modifying a 1972 Honda CB350 that’s been hiding in the back of the shop for some 10-plus years while Madeline, now 23, is learning about the 1980 Moto Guzzi 500cc V-twin she recently acquired. The Honda’s moving toward new paint and final assembly, while the Guzzi’s apart for new cylinder base gaskets and pushrod O-rings to take care of a persistent oil leak.

In the interim, however, it’s been enjoyable hearing from readers who also own Piersen engines. And also something of a surprise, as outside of my Piersen I’ve never seen another one and simply assumed they were very few and far between.

Which, in fact, they are. Yet at least four made their way to California, where they’re now in the possession of California engine and tractor historian Jack Alexander. Another Piersen made its way to Illinois, now owned by longtime reader and regular contributor Gary Bahre. Gary’s engine is actually a Collis, made in Clinton, Iowa, after Collis acquired Piersen in 1921. Its brass engine tag announces its heritage, with “Collis” stamped in large letters at the top of the tag and “Formerly The Superior Piersen Designed By E.B. Cushman” stamped in smaller letters below. The tag on Gary’s Collis includes a May 23, 1922, patent date, making it one of the later engines made as it’s believed that Collis went out of business in 1923. Jack’s engines span the 1919-1921 time frame, when engines were made in Topeka, Kansas, by Piersen. One of Jack’s engines shows serial number A755 and another A805. Mine shows serial number A775, making it possible Jack’s engines and mine were built within days or weeks of each other.

My lack of movement on the Piersen is a little frustrating, as I’d really hoped to show it off at the 23rd Annual Power of the Past Antique Engine and Tractor Show in Ottawa, Kansas, Sept. 8-10. The largest engine and tractor show in Kansas, Power of the Past draws an impressive and growing selection of engines every year, making it kind of a natural for a hoped-for first showing. I’ll still hit the show, but I guess the engine will have to wait another year.

On that note, among other shows on my list I’m hoping to make it to the 50th Annual Buckley Old Engine Show in Buckley, Michigan, Aug. 17-20, when the Northwest Michigan Engine & Thresher Club hopes to spin the giant 1907 1,100 hp Snow twin tandem engine we featured in the June/July 2016 issue. It won’t be burning gas yet, instead powered by compressed air, but watching that 225-ton monster spin its 18-foot flywheel will be a sight to see.

Richard Backus


Gas Engine Magazine A_M 16Gas Engine Magazine is your best source for tractor and stationary gas engine information.  Subscribe and connect with more than 23,000 other gas engine collectors and build your knowledge, share your passion and search for parts, in the publication written by and for gas engine enthusiasts! Gas Engine Magazine brings you: restoration stories, company histories, and technical advice. Plus our Flywheel Forum column helps answer your engine inquiries!

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