1869 12 HP Gibbs & Sterrett

A challenging conversion

| February 2009

Editor's note: Be sure to check out the extensive eight-part photo gallery  breaking down the restoration of this engine.

It all started with the article "A Rare Half-Breed Engine" in the October/November 2007 issue of Gas Engine Magazine. “I was at an engine show in Republic, Mo., showing my 1886 12 HP Ferrar & Threfts, and I was reading the article about Dick Bouma’s engine [a converted steam-to-gas M. Lytle & Son cylinder on a Gibbs, Russell & Co. bed],” says Stan Ellerbeck, Excelsior Springs, Mo., of the moment he decided to make his own steam-to-gas conversion with an 1869 12 HP Gibbs & Sterrett. “That’s what got me interested. I fell in love with the look.”

Over the course of the next 10 months, Stan, a retired machinist, logged more than 2,500 hours to get the engine finished in time to show at the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Show in Portland, Ind., last August. And while it’s amazing the amount of time he put into the project and the technical prowess he demonstrated throughout the process, the most impressive aspect is the fact that Stan only has 25 percent of his vision. Suffering from the condition chorioretinitis, the most that Stan can see with both eyes are crooked lines and blurry, incomplete pieces. But Stan’s no stranger to uphill climbs, having worked his way from pushing a broom at Midwest Hanger Co. in 1966 to becoming a machinist, designing the machines that made the hangers, and eventually running the company. It should be no surprise that his desire and drive to finish the project helped him overcome the obvious physical obstacles. “What takes some people a day to do can take me a week,” says Stan. “I did most of this myself but a lot of people helped me out.”

Finding a frame and a cylinder 
The first person to help was Tom Weatherford, Big Island, Va. “I came home from the show and I was talking to Tom, asking if he’d seen the new GEM,” says Stan. “I told him I was interested in doing something like [Dick’s engine].” Tom told Stan of a friend in Bradford, Pa., named Denny Greisbaum who might be able to help him out. “I called Denny and asked if he knew of any Gibbs & Russell box bed frames available and he said he had a Gibbs & Sterrett,” says Stan. Years prior, an old local oil lease became a ward of the state of Pennsylvania, and Denny managed to purchase the frame right before it was sent to the scrap yard. “I asked if he was interested in selling and we agreed upon a price we were both happy with,” says Stan. The deal included an additional crankshaft and a 6-spoke flywheel, which Stan would later use on the engine.

As Stan understands the history of the frame, it started out as a box bed steam engine in 1869, working an oil claim on Tunungwant Creek in northwest Pennsylvania, 1/4 mile from the New York state line. Eventually, the engine was converted to gas sometime in the late 1880s, but the cylinder from that conversion is long gone. Fortunately, Stan needed to look no further than Tom, who had an old-style Bessemer cylinder available for purchase. Old-style cylinders were made with the intake on the bottom and the exhaust on the top, and were specially suited for steam-to-gas conversions. With the box bed steam frame and a cylinder correct for the time frame, the two major pieces of Stan’s engine were taken care of.

Road trip!
Schedules were coordinated, and soon Stan and his wife, Diana, were on their way to Bradford to pick up the frame as well as the cylinder, which Tom had already dropped off. “It was the week of the 2007 Coolspring Fall Swap, and since we’d never been there, we loaded everything in the truck and drove to Coolspring [Pa.] on the way back home,” says Stan. Luck continued to be on Stan’s side as he walked the grounds and found more pieces he needed for his engine. “It was like one-stop shopping,” says Stan. “I found the intake valve, air-fuel mixer, oilers – I almost bought everything I needed there.”


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