Engine Show Camaraderie

It's the people who make engine shows what they are.

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by DC Johnson
Left to right: Kevin Maas with his father, Willard Maas; Mike Ellenbecker with his son, Tim Ellenbecker; Tyler Shellpfeffer, who shows his grandfather’s Sandwich collection; Jeremy O’ Brien, who was brought into the hobby by his grandfather; and Chad Johnson, who saw his first engine at a County Fair when he was 13 and was hooked immediately.

What keeps the antique engine hobby running over generations? How do new people become involved in the engine hobby? It all happens at engine shows.

From beginning to end, the engine hobby revolves around show season. Northerners hide away for the winter, have crank-ups on New Year’s Day, and work on one of the many projects they have accumulated over the years while spinning away the winter days until the next engine show. Others flee south where the shows take place during the winter because it is too darn hot in August to crank anything over, much less something like a 25hp Marion.

Why does the engine hobby revolve around the shows?

“In 1970, my dad and I were out driving, and we happened to drive past the Baraboo show [Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club, Wisconsin],” says Jon Rowsam, “and that is how it started.

“I took my girlfriend to the first Edgar Steam Show [Wausau, Wisconsin] in 1973. We went back the next year. I would wake up at 4 a.m. in Madison to get to Plainfield to go to the engine show [Tri-County Threshermen’s Assoc.].

“As I got involved with the hobby and got to know the people, I learned how great the people are, people like Mike Ellenbecker [Iron Mike]. I learned the decades of knowledge they hold in their heads. At home on the farm, we overhauled everything, so any new knowledge was helpful. You never quit learning at engine shows.”

Catching the Spark

“We started attending engine shows in 2011,” says Karen Santee, “but Bob, my husband, started working on Briggs & Stratton engines when he was 12.”

Bob Santee (known as Scooter Bob at shows) says, “At the 2011 Burnett Show [Dodge County Antique Power Show, Wisconsin], I picked up a Fairbanks Morse ZD salt block engine because it was cheap and looked like a project. Two weeks later I picked up an International M at the Pickett Engine Show [Wisconsin].”

The Santees attend 10 antique engine shows a year, but they are not members of any specific club. They are always welcome; club membership is not required to show at or attend engine shows. “Engine shows are a great hobby. You can bring your dogs to the shows and show all weekend for cheap, or for free,” says Scooter Bob.

Visitors can count on seeing all the Santees’ engines do work during the shows. “I want to make our exhibit more interesting for spectators, show them what these engines used to do,” explains Karen. “This is a perfect way to show our history and how our forefathers lived. Now we live in such a disposable world, these antique engines can still be fixed and made to run.”

What keeps them coming back every year? “We come back every year for the camaraderie.  The engine community became a big family for us,” the Santees say.

Engine show camaraderie inspires the feeling of family and can be appealing for those who want to jump into the hobby, but many participants at engine shows caught the spark from their family.

“I blame my involvement in the engine hobby on my brother-in law,” says Kevin Maas. “He brought his grandfather’s Lindsay-Alamo engine to my dad’s house. My brother-in-law said, ‘I am going to keep it and show it.’ His first show was Symco [Union Thresheree, Wisconsin].

“Once he started going, my dad, Willard Maas, started getting interested and said I should start showing engines. In 1985, my wife, Liza, and I bought our first two engines, a 1926 Stover KE and a 1.5hp Fuller and Johnson N.”

“We take the Stover to every show,” says Liza. “I love just sitting and listening to these antique engines run.”

Fathers have as much impact as brothers-in-law in recruiting new antique engine enthusiasts.  Jim Keats’ first engine was a 7hp Lauson Lawton that he picked up in 1961 while still in high school in Fargo, North Dakota. His son, Andy Keats, was born into the engine hobby and says, “We do it for the camaraderie.”

“Your pa has as much passion for engines now as he did 60 years ago,” Donald Blausey says to Andy Keats.

Blausey went on to explain how he got involved in the engine hobby. “Our local county fair had steam and old engines. I was fascinated by them. A church member was one of the steam guys and he started taking me to shows. Back then it was more of a social event for me, a chance to party and look at some engines. I didn’t get too excited until I got out of high school. I’ve been showing engines ever since.”

Blausey’s first engine was a 1.5hp Economy, which he has since sold. He is a member of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Club in Rolag, Minnesota, and attends five shows a year.

“My favorite engine is a Springfield, which I built from nothing, no original parts. A repro,” says Blausey.

“Come on, the oiler is original,” Keats says.

Laughing, Blausey agrees and says, “Early on attending engine shows makes it is easy to get engines, but then you reach a certain level, and the shows are about camaraderie.”

Jay Cox also got involved in the engine hobby through his brother-in law. He says, “My brother-in-law had a 1.5hp Monitor with a pump that he used as a carrot at rummage sales. I watched the engine run. Then I purchased my own and it was great. But then I had to buy another one and then the next thing I knew I had 200 engines. That just happens.

“I was at a gas engine auction and my wife was ornery. She told me that if I wanted to buy engines, I had to buy her a push seeder that was up for sale. Now she has 200 push seeders. It’s all old iron, so it doesn’t matter to me. Our collections gave us something we could do together.

“Garden tractors are becoming a thing at engine shows now,” continues Cox. “I think it is great, it keeps the hobby going. And if a kid gets a garden tractor, you just know someday he or she will want a bigger one. That just happens.”

“It Becomes All About the People”

Young or old, hundreds of engines or only one, everyone feels welcome at engine shows. Stan Erlien from De Kalb, Illinois, says, “My father took me to my first show when I was 10 years old. I wanted to collect but I thought I couldn’t afford the hobby. In 2015, I got my first engine, an original 2.5hp Stover that runs well. Now, I have 14 engines and attend 3 to 4 shows a year. I attend shows so I can meet people and learn from the older (and younger) guys. You can learn from everyone at engine shows.

“There is a sense of camaraderie,” continues Erlien. “We all have things in common and experiences that we can share. For example, I know a lot of the guys would say they are like me and that their favorite engine is the easiest starting one. At least on show days.”

“I grew up on a farm,” says John Drumm. “My grandfather was a sawyer and farmer. I always liked mechanics. Dad always fixed stuff and it fascinated me. After graduating from high school, I apprenticed to be a machinist and ended up as an auto mechanic for 30 years and I got really into cars. When I was young with the farm to run, there was no time for engine shows.

“When I was 18 years old, I started attending auctions. I bought my first engine from Mike Ellenbecker [Iron Mike] 30-35 years ago. It was a 1.5hp International M, complete but not running. I will never sell that engine.

“After buying your first engine, which is always the hardest to find, the flood gates open. Dad and I showed at Symco [Union Thresheree, Wisconsin]. We would restore engines every winter. I was 30 when Dad passed. I still attend 10 engine shows a year.

“People are the best part. First it starts about engines and collecting, but as you get older it becomes all about the people.”

Kevin Behnke stopped by Drumm’s engine display to check out his 2hp Famous air-cooled engine. They rapidly delve into a conversation about the particulars.

Drumm says, “The fuel pump has a roller, it is a cam with a roller on it instead of an eccentric like in later models, and the push rod is different. The cam lobe is concave, and the roller is convex. The governor weights are different on the earlier versions. I added a set of M trucks, but this engine never came with trucks. The battery box is on loan from Jason Dahm.”

“I’ve got a battery box from my grandma,” replies Behnke with a chuckle, “but it’s not for sale. How much work did you have to do?”

Drumm replies, “I tightened the exhaust flange, worked on the muffler and elbow, gas tank, fuel lines, governor weights, fuel collar, and oilers. It took a little bit, but it was a fun project, and well worth it.”

Drumm then goes on to tell how he found this engine, “A man, Brock, saw me wearing a gas engine T-shirt at the hardware store, we chatted about engines, and he asked for my phone number. Next thing I know, I get a call from Brock, and he says, ‘I am standing in this lady’s garage and looking at something you need to have. I know you will be fair with this lady.’

“After asking a few questions, I made a reasonable offer. I could hear the lady jumping up and down in the background after Brock told her. Everyone was happy. Then I went to see it. This is first time I am showing this engine.”

It is exactly this kind of collaborative and communicative give and take that creates the most special moments at engine shows. Moments like the buzz that went through the entire showgrounds during the 2021 Tri-County Threshermen’s Show in Plainfield, Wisconsin. The buzz that the Sorg would be stopping by for a visit on its way to make its debut at the Coolspring Power Museum Summer Exposition in Pennsylvania.

Marv Hedberg, Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, says, “Old Mr. Keats called me,” as he pulled into Plainfield on Saturday afternoon. Hedberg had just finished his restoration of the Sorg, which has a wholly unique mechanical feature of a cylinder that moves and a piston that is stationary.

Jim Keats knew that everyone at Plainfield would love a chance to see the Sorg before it went to its final home with owner Ed Laginess in Carleton, Michigan. Keats called his friend Hedberg and asked him to stop by on his way to Coolspring.

Hedberg honored Keats’ request and stopped by the Plainfield engine show for a few hours before making his way east. He pulled in with the model of a Sorg he made more than 20 years before restoring the actual Sorg, and the restored full-size Sorg on his tailgate for everyone to see.

One reason Hedberg was asked to restore the Sorg is the scale model he created many years ago based on an article in a 1912 Cosmopolitan magazine.

As the crowd leaves, the engine exhibitors spend the evening sharing tales, skills, or just camaraderie amongst their exhibits. Chad Johnson says, “Sometimes the collective knowledge present after dark around a fire or in an engine shed gives me chills. I can be sitting with two dozen people who blow my knowledge out of the water.”

Exhibitors work together on projects into the night and as their families load up for departure. They make one last attempt to start that troublesome engine before going home and getting up for work on Monday morning.

At the end of the day, it is the people who make engine shows what they are. The people find their passion through engines, at engine shows, and collaborating with engine people. Engine shows provide an opportunity to trade, buy, and sell parts and engines, but more importantly, engine shows strengthen relationships with other collectors in a way that allows the entire family to participate.

DC Johnson can be emailed at dcjohnsonwriter@gmail.com.

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