People can’t stay away from a good mystery. Need proof? Angela Lansbury’s know-it-all character Jessica Fletcher made everyone’s business her own by solving the weekly who-done-it in ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ which attracted television viewers by the millions. Similarly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary gumshoe Sherlock Holmes – with his trademark hat and pipe – followed the trails of criminals and killers in 60 published stories, often professing, “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”
There’s no shortage of mysteries in the world of stationary gas engines, either. Take the case of Kenny Thompson of Leavenworth, Kan., for instance. He’s on the trail of his own who-done-it after literally stumbling onto an old gasoline engine manufactured by the Oldsmar Tractor Co., Oldsmar, Fla. What follows is a description of how he found the engine and the known historical facts about this obscure company.
Not your typical breakfast
In December 2002, Kenny and his wife, Chris, were eating with friends at a local bed-and-breakfast in Calloway, Fla., a small community outside of Panama City, Fla. Since Kenny’s a member of a couple old-iron and antique-car clubs, conversation naturally gravitated toward the antiques displayed around the beautiful bed-and-breakfast and the owner’s homestead and museum. The owner, Yvonne, asked Kenny and the rest if they’d like to take a tour of the property.
The tour of the scenic bed-and-breakfast and adjoining buildings revealed a nice variance of antique farm equipment, including a 25 HP engine that powered a grist mill, which was once a commercially operated sugar cane mill. Plenty of 50-gallon wooden barrels, which held the sugar cane extract that’s processed into sorghum or molasses, were also on display. Another barn revealed a 1919 Model T touring car and old buckboard wagon, engines, wagon wheels and walking plows.
All of this was of passing interest to Kenny, but a flywheel peeking out from a canvas tarp farther back in the barn immediately alerted his old-iron radar. Being as nosey as he is, Kenny held back from the group and turned the flywheel to see if it spun. Sure enough it did, but what to do? Everyone had moved on to another building.
Later, while the rest of the group was in the craft shop, Kenny pressed Yvonne about his little discovery, still not sure of what he had found. He took Yvonne aside and asked her if she’d sell the engine.
Not sure how to react to Kenny’s offer, Yvonne told him she would have to talk to her son about the proposal. A week or so passed, so Kenny called to follow up on his offer, and Yvonne told him, “Yes, I could use the extra money.”
Kenny, who splits his time living in Kansas and Florida, returned to the bed-and-breakfast three days after Christmas to pick up the engine. With $200 in hand to pay for the engine, Kenny and three friends put the Oldsmar on a trailer.
Once home, closer inspection didn’t reveal much about the Oldsmar’s origins. The engine is an air-cooled, hit-and-miss horizontal gasoline engine manufactured by Oldsmar Tractor Co., serial no. 557. Construction is cast iron, it has an enclosed crankcase, and the exhaust is actuated by a rocker arm located on the engine’s belly. Additionally, the Oldsmar has one solid-disc flywheel and one pulley. Lubrication is probably splash for the connecting rod big end, although the engine also uses a drip oiler for the cylinder and cooling fan. Grease cups are present on the crankshaft’s main bearings.
Compression is good on the engine, and the only restoration work Kenny performed on the engine was to build a cart, attach a Model T buzz coil and coat the engine with a 50/50 mixture of mineral spirits and linseed oil.
Next to nothing is known about the Oldsmar engine, and what little is known comes courtesy of C.H. Wendel’s Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors.
According to Wendel, “Oldsmar Tractor Company was organized in 1917. R.E. Olds of automobile fame set up the million dollar company to manufacture a lightweight tractor. Olds bought out Kardell Tractor & Truck Company of St. Louis in 1918 with intentions of moving the plant equipment to Oldsmar. The 1920 model used a single-cylinder engine with a 5 inch bore and 5 1/2 inch stroke. Weight was 1,270 pounds, and the 1920 price was $375.” Wendel notes the only Oldsmar offering was a garden tractor of 2.5-4.6 HP.
Although the accompanying picture of the little garden tractor is poor, Wendel’s claim of a 5-inch bore and 5-1/2-inch stroke seems plausible, as well as his claim of 2.5-4.6 HP, if not a little underpowered for such a tractor. Kenny’s engine is attached to a frame (instead of a skid), which assumedly was mounted to something – possibly a tractor.
The fact that a tractor manufacturer produced this engine poses a couple of questions. First, is this a stationary engine or a power plant for a garden tractor, as Wendel indicates? Since neither a tractor nor another engine is known to exist, it’s not certain. The engine is probably from a tractor, however. According to Wendel, R.E. Olds bought the Kardell Tractor & Truck Co. with intentions of moving the firm to Florida, where he started both the town of Oldsmar and the tractor company.
The second – and larger – question is, what happened to the Oldsmar Tractor Company? The fact that automobile magnate Olds decided to build a whole city – including its industry – is curious. Almost all historical records about Olds concentrate on his successes as a car producer while entirely glossing over his Oldsmar experiment.
It is documented, however, that Olds’ investment in the town of Oldsmar went way beyond just his tractor company and included many other industries, a town infrastructure and the agricultural investments that make a community sustainable.
Founding a town
In the early 1910s, R.E. Olds had reached a crossroads in his career as an automobile magnate, having successfully developed the Olds Motor Vehicle Co., Olds Gasoline Engine Works, Olds Motor Works, R.E. Olds Motor Car Co. (REO) and countless other subsidiary companies that provided support to his automotive empire. By 1908, however, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. had begun to dominate the automotive market, severely diminishing Olds’ market share. Additionally, Olds was a talented manufacturer, but supposedly not such a good financial manager, which further compounded his company problems. In 1915, he relinquished control of REO to his protege, Richard H. Scott.
Although he was temporarily out of the automobile business, Olds had other business plans – big plans. In a grand vision of building a great manufacturing hub in the South to rival Detroit, Olds bought 37,541 acres of land on the northern tip of Tampa Bay in 1913. Paying $400,000 for the land, he established a town aptly named R.E. Olds-On-The-Bay, which was later changed to Oldsmar as he tried to attract investors.
Olds’ new community was designed for working people, not for the wealthy. Surveyors from Boston designed the city layout, which was modeled after Washington D.C., with tree-lined boulevards leading from the bay to downtown. Streets were even named by Olds to remind him of Detroit. A water tower and power plant were installed, as well.
Advertisements placed in Detroit newspapers coaxed businesses and people to relocate to Florida. A yacht serving liquor enticed prospective homebuyers with shorefront property, and a luxurious 60-room hotel was built in 1921. A city hall, library, schools and other social institutions subsequently followed.
About this time, Olds bought and relocated the Kardell Tractor and Truck Co. of St. Louis. According to town history, Olds hoped to devise a machine to cut through the stubborn palmetto roots that plagued the area.
Oldsmar’s future looked bright in 1921. Farms had been established, as well as a thriving fishing industry, casinos, a banana plantation, even a race track. Just below the surface, however, trouble was brewing for the fledgling town. In 1924, a highway was built across Tampa Bay that essentially cut Oldsmar out of the commerce route between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Olds also spent $100,000 drilling an oil well that yielded nothing but water. In fact, oil was supposedly poured into the well each morning to make it look as if it had struck oil. Also, in Olds’ quest to attract workers to his new town, he built primitive shacks without proper sanitary facilities for his employees, making himself widely unpopular. Then, a devastating hurricane decimated the town in 1921, uprooting pine trees and flooding the town with water 14 feet above normal.
Olds had more than $4.5 million invested in the community in 1923. Unfortunately, his vision of a thriving ‘Detroit of the South’ had literally crumbled to the ground. The town hadn’t grown as he had anticipated, so Olds – as in other business ventures – cut his losses and sold the town’s assets.
When he gave up, what he had envisioned as a city of 100,000 had only grown to a meager 200 inhabitants (today, the population is about 12,000). Olds sold as much of the land as he could and traded the nearly completed racetrack for a hotel in Clearwater, Fla. In all, Olds lost $3 million, and his city-building experiment was over.
Fast-forward to 2004, and it seems as if Kenny’s rare Oldsmar engine is only one mystery in the giant disappearing act involving Olds and his great city-building experiment. The facts of the Oldsmar Tractor Co. are few, but put into the context of the town’s peculiar history the only logical conclusion is the company didn’t stay in operation long enough to make many engines or tractors. When the town failed, so did the company.
With luck, a clearer picture of the engine’s origins, the town and the company will come to light some day with the discovery of a similar engine or tractor.
Kenny would like to learn more about his Oldsmar engine. Contact him at (913) 727-3950. Historical information courtesy of the National Park Service, Reflections of Oldsmar published by The Friends of Oldsmar, Oldsmar Public Library, and Ann Liebermann and Paula Geist from http://snoopy.tblc.lib.fl.us/opl/history.htm
Olds’ Other Companies
Many people know that R.E. Olds made his fortune in the automobile business, but his involvement in the development of stationary engines came first.
In addition to the Olds Gasoline Engine Works (1890), Olds was either a chief stockholder or president of a handful of lesser-know Lansing, Mich., firms – all of which produced and distributed similar-looking air-cooled engines. Just exactly how many companies he had control in is hard to estimate, but C.H. Wendel has researched a few.
According to Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, R.E. Olds controlled the Air Cooled Motor Co. that produced engines credited to W.S. Olds. A 1909 advertisement states these engines were built in sizes from 1-1/2 to 10 HP.
Wendel notes the Ideal Motor Co. was incorporated in 1911, resulting in the merger of the Air Cooled Motor Co. and Ideal. Interestingly, Ideal’s horizontal air-cooled engines sport a unique shroud and belly rocker arm similar to the Oldsmar engine.
In 1912, the Original Gas Engine Co. succeeded the Ideal Gas Engine Co. Wendel states the change was in name only, as engine output remained consistent in addition to the company’s ownership.
Original continued to build the same styled engines in various sizes, including a 5-by-5-inch bore and stroke engine that looks almost exactly like the Oldsmar.
It’s likely these companies existed in the same factory, producing Olds-sanctioned engines under the name of a few different companies, and the Oldsmar Tractor Co. was just another business venture that used the Olds style of air-cooled engine.