First Gas Engine on Green Lake?

Take a look at how a rummage sale find inspires the search for an engine’s company history and origination.

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by DC Johnson
Figure 10: Jack Robinson on Green Lake in his noisy “putt-putt.” Photo courtesy of the Dartford Historical Society.

It always starts with a Craigslist ad. “Let’s go to a rummage sale. There is a tractor in the photo. They might have an engine,” says my spouse.

The rummage sale is 40 miles away, but they might have an engine. It is a lovely drive to the middle of nowhere. As the car door shuts, I hear, “You’re a long way from home.” The man has the same twinkling eyes he did a quarter of a century ago when he said to me, “I hope you like polishing brass.”

My first engine was purchased from this man.

“Well, Hello!” I’d been here before, so long ago I forgot the address.

Picking. Picking. Picking.

gas engine

I’d found a whole bus full of carburetors, an adding machine, and Christmas decorations. There are rows of truck toppers sheltering treasures. They tell tales of a barn fire, extreme loss, and horrible insurance challenges. There is one engine, his first, a Nelson and not for sale.

“There is one other, I’ve never offered it for sale. I was told it was the first gasoline engine used on Green Lake. I was told it’s a Schaefer built in Berlin. I’ve had it for over 30 years,” he says.
The single-cylinder marine engine (see Figure 1) looks older than anything in the collection back home. It is primitive and simple. It is an F-head. Schaefer built stationary engines in Ripon, Wisconsin, as early as 1899 (see Figure 2). Is it possible this engine was built in Ripon? I return home to the bank and make another picturesque drive to pick up the Schaefer and the adding machine.

black and white photo of a machine shop advertisement

A preliminary examination (see Figures 3, 4a, and 4b) indicates the engine is in perfect condition and the greaser is attached so it cannot be turned over. Accumulated dust and crust indicate that the engine has been stored immobile for a long time. There is not a drop of oil in the Schaefer. The piston is stuck at the bottom of the bore. After pumping grease into the spark plug hole under pressure it finally comes free.

The annual home engine show and citywide rummage sale was the next weekend and the Schaefer was on display. Someone from the nearby town of Green Lake showed interest. “You should contact Doug Norton,” he says. “He really knows Green Lake’s boating history.”

A phone call to the Green Lake (Dartford) Historical Society resulted in contact information for Doug Norton, whose family history goes far back concerning steam engines on Green Lake.
Schaefer engines are not in C.H. Wendell’s books. A Google search yields one good hit. Thomas Stranko, a Gas Engine Magazine contributor, owned a 2-cylinder Schaefer with a catalog and posted about it on the Old Marine Engine discussion board in September 2004. His catalog shows a single-cylinder engine (see Figure 5). Schaefer marine engines have a distinctive five-spoke flywheel, like some Ingeco engines, and the Monitor VJ Pump Jack. This confirms the engine is a Schaefer. The catalog is titled Schaefer Boat Engines, Schaefer Mfg. Co., Berlin, Wisconsin, and Thomas Stranko’s 2-cylinder engine is represented exactly (neither the engine nor the catalog have dates). Was the single-cylinder engine also built in Berlin or does the primitive design indicate manufacture prior to Schaefer’s move from Ripon?

The single-cylinder engine in the sales catalog has several distinct design improvements. The intake chamber cap has a hex head design that allows access to the intake valve (and might have been used for priming). The rummage sale engine has a knurled intake chamber cap. The catalog engine has a flanged exhaust port that reduces damage due to overtightening (the flange is cracked instead of the entire cylinder). The rummage sale engine does not have a flanged exhaust port. The catalog engine’s timer is steel and the rummage sale has a brass timer. Perhaps this is a cost-saving measure. Finally, the yoke/lifter mechanism on the catalog engine is engineered with more stability and less cost in comparison to the rummage sale engine (see Figure 6).

All the modifications described either decrease production cost or increase ease of maintenance and repair. Is it possible that the primitive nature of the rummage sale engine indicates that it was a predecessor to the catalog engine?

Chronology and history of William E. Schaefer’s company

William E. Schaefer was 13 years old when his father died in 1870. His mechanical inclination took him to Oshkosh to learn a trade. A single extant love note tells us he met his wife while there; she was a student at Oshkosh Normal School. No evidence of a specific apprenticeship was found. Did he learn from H.C. Doman? Both Doman and Schaefer chose to make 4-cycle marine engines. Termaat and Monahan, also based in Oshkosh at the time, and most other marine engine manufacturers make 2-cycle engines. Other similarities between Doman and Schaefer marine engines include the similarly unique intake towers, valve chambers on the cylinders, and the lifter mechanisms (see Figure 7).

At the age of 22, William E. Schaefer purchased an operating foundry on Pacific Street in Ripon, Wisconsin, and renamed it Schaefer’s Iron Foundry. He began producing stationary gasoline engines for creameries and milk plants (see Figure 2). 16 years later, a devastating fire caused $10,000 worth of destruction. “Shortly before noon today fire broke out in the foundry and machine shops of W.E. Schaefer and rapidly spread until the whole building was a seething furnace … The foundry plant was completely destroyed along with all machinery and tools … The fire was started by the breaking of a rope from which a hot metal pot was suspended,” as described in Oshkosh Northwestern, February 13, 1895.

An insurance payout for $7,000 allowed Schaefer to recover and continue building engines. A weekly advertisement for stationary gasoline engines appeared in Ripon Commonwealth from July 7, 1899, to March 7, 1902 (see Figure 2). On January 10, 1901, Schaefer increased his endeavors and filed articles of incorporation for the W.E. Schaefer Manufacturing Co. The capital stock was valued at $40,000, and the stated intentions were to manufacture automobiles, gasoline launches (marine engines), and bicycles. Advertising with additional text that includes “marine engines” reappears in the Ripon Commonwealth and runs from June 30, 1905, through September 5, 1906 (see Figure 8).

According to a biographical account written by his sons, W.E. Schaefer moved his family to nearby Berlin, Wisconsin, in 1907. On March 17, 1908, the Wausau Record-Herald announced that, “W.E. Schaefer of Ripon has agreed to move his foundry and machine shop to Berlin. This is the second manufacturing plant that Berlin has secured within the year.” The Schaefer Mfg. Co. is established in Berlin, and Schaefer was president until 1917. At that time, at age 60, he stepped back from the manufacture of mostly concrete mixers and moved back to Ripon to establish a garage. Frank Chapman became president of Schaefer Mfg. Co. and advertised as a machinist and founder into the 1920s. In 1923, Schaefer sold the Berlin property and business entirely to Frank Chapman and established himself in Ripon as William Schaefer & Sons. This series of events indicated that the move to Berlin was the beginning of the end of Schaefer’s production of stationary and marine gasoline engines. By 1917, William E. Schaefer was listed in the Ripon city directory as running an automobile garage (see Figure 9).

It seems possible that the rummage sale engine could have been made in Ripon based on its primitive nature and the history of W.E. Schaefer’s endeavors. But was it the first gasoline engine on Green Lake? This is a coveted title, which many Green Lakers have stepped forward to claim. Doug Norton, whose family history goes back to 1886 on Green Lake, has stated that 1902 was the first year a gasoline engine appeared on Green Lake. He and his best friend, Byron Hill, came to see the rummage sale engine. Byron’s ancestors, who built the third house in Ripon and owned the Spring Grove Resort on Green Lake, operated a launch called Annie that he believed was powered by the first gasoline engine on Green Lake.

When they saw the rummage sale engine there was a subdued perusal of the photographs of Annie provided by Byron. There was acknowledgment that the rummage sale engine was not the same engine that powered Annie. Antique engine means different things to different people. The book, A Heritage History of Beautiful Green Lake Wisconsin, states, “One of the first motor boats belonged to Jack Robinson … His original ‘putt-putt’ was a single-cylinder noisy affair.” The Dartford (Green Lake) Historical Society docent is betting Jack Robinson had the first gas engine on Green Lake because he has a photograph (see Figure 10, top). As you can see, the engine in the photograph is not a Schaefer (it does not have a 5-spoke flywheel). The photograph is not dated and the information in the book is from a photographed hand-written note. Can Jack Robinson’s engine be identified and dated? Not by the author at this time.

An article in The New North confirms William E. Schaefer himself had an engine on Green Lake. On August 30, 1906, the Green Lake Yacht Club hosted the first annual power boat race on Green Lake and “W.E. Schaefer’s Flying Fox, which was expected to win the time prize, finished with only second best time to her credit, covering the course in 89 minutes and 13 seconds.” Obviously this engine was much larger than a single-cylinder. This is also true of the oldest reference to a Schaefer marine engine on Green Lake. An advertisement in the Oshkosh Northwestern, August 27, 1901, says, “The Schaefer engine launch the Arweh may be rented for pleasure parties. Boat complete with cabin, closet, and all modern conveniences.”

The Schaefer marine engine was cleaned up (see Figure 11). Due to lack of wear, no restoration was necessary. Was it the first engine on Green Lake? Was it made in Ripon or Berlin? It is hard to say. Like all antiques with stories, the truth is filtered through bias, time, and expectations. It is the history, chase, rescue, and preservation of the artifact that motivate the collector. Maybe it should be the first Schaefer marine engine on Green Lake in the 21st century. I wonder what the story behind the next engine will be.

Special acknowledgments to the employees and volunteers at the following organizations for their assistance: Ripon Historical Society, Ripon Public Library, Green Lake Public Library, Dartford Historical Society, and the Berlin Historical Society.

DC Johnson can be emailed at

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