Metamorphosis: From Steel Yard to Show Grounds
This project came about quite by accident, and was prompted when
I received a model of the famous 1892 Froelich tractor (generally
considered the first gasoline-powered tractor in the U.S.) a number
of years ago as a present from my family.
I am disabled (the result of a bad head injury and a couple of
other accidents), and I only have one good arm, one good eye and
little or no short-term memory. For me, restoring old machinery is
good – if sometimes frustrating – therapy.
An old cut of John Froelich’s original tractor. Compare this
with the photos at left and below and it’s clear how faithful
D.J.’s replica is to the original. Froelich’s success with
this tractor led to the creation of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine
Co., Waterloo, Iowa.
A few years after receiving the Froelich model, I purchased an
early 1900s Fairbanks-Morse 6 HP Type T vertical engine, and while
restoring it an idea hit me. I looked at the Froelich model, then
at the vertical FM. I went back and forth between the two a couple
of times and said to myself ‘I can do this!’ The project
The project, in case you haven’t guessed, was to build a
replica of the 1892 Froelich tractor. The FM engine was a perfect
choice, as it looks very similar to the 16 HP (some sources say 20
HP) vertical hit-and-miss Van Duzen originally used by John
Froelich in 1892.
After a lot of measuring and scaling I decided I could recreate
the Froelich at a 12:1 scale. By allowing for the difference in the
width of the FM engine and the model engine, and by fudging a
little here and a little there, I knew I could make it look right.
The first thing I decided to hunt down were the gears I would
Rounding Up Parts
I’m a machinist and welder by trade, and I used to run a
machine shop where I dealt with all the equipment dealers around my
home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I checked with all of them, but
didn’t have much luck. I was just about to give up when I
stopped at the local John Deere dealer and, lo and behold, in a
dumpster out back was a complete set of gears almost identical to
the ones used on the Froelich, including a small Siamese gear for
With gears in hand I did a lot more measuring, and I discovered
the spur gears presented a unique problem because of their size.
The gears are hardened steel, and the bores in the gears are about
3 inches. They weren’t going to fit the drive shaft I wanted to
use, so I machined bushings for each one, sizing them down to fit
the drive shaft. With a 50-ton press (and a little Loctite added
for extra security) I pressed them into the gears and then keyed
them to the shafts.
I continued on with more measuring and more figuring, and I soon
realized it would be easier to just make a tractor than to scale
one up. At one point my wife said, ‘Are you nuts? You’ve
got tractors to restore, why go to all this work?’ I just told
her, ‘Because I want to,’ and kept on going.
Before I went clear off the deep end, I thought I had better
look for wheels. With some searching around, I found four that
would work from Buck Charles, a good friend in Ellensburg, Wash.
Some trading, a quick trip to Washington and the wheels were mine.
The fronts appear to be from a 10-18 Avery, and the rears are from
a Hart-Parr 30.
The wheels required some major surgery to the spokes, and all
four had to be bored and bushed, but they turned out fine. That
part of the project was really lucky, because there aren’t a
lot of wheels out there that would fit this unit. The ones I used
are almost perfect to scale and, more importantly, they fit the
gears I had found. After some more measuring I made my first trip
to the steel yard. You might notice how much I kept measuring
things: I hate doing things over.
The metamorphosis went fairly well from this point. Well, pretty
well for a guy with one arm, one eye and a broken head. More
cutting, fitting and welding – plus many trips to the steelyard and
the ranch store – was followed by even more cutting, fitting and
welding. I work alone most of the time, and at this stage I was
really thankful for having a forklift and an overhead hoist. Things
continued going well – until I realized I had to make pulleys for
the engine. This meant removing one flywheel so I could make a
small pulley to drive the water pump, and it meant bushing and
machining the proper size pulleys for both sides of the engine. If
that wasn’t enough, while I was in the middle of this part of
the project I discovered a 10-inch crack in the FM’s cylinder,
which I quickly repaired.
Getting it Together
The next big problem was positioning the complete set of gears
to the frame so they would all fit together and mesh with the gear
teeth on the wheels. This meant I had to find some old-style
bearing mounts (which was no easy task), melt out the old babbitt
and, once positioned, pour new babbitt and machine them to hold the
gears. I had to notch the frame in one place a little bit, but all
the gears fit perfectly. At this same time I cut, machined and
welded together all the parts for the front end, plus I made and
installed the front axle swivel and holder. Once this was done I
installed the rear axle and wheels.
I still needed a gear and worm steering setup, but I
couldn’t find one to scale. I decided to run some
‘wanted’ ads, which lead to a setup I bought.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be too small, so I took apart an
old pump jack that I already had to see what it was like. It was my
lucky day, for there was my perfect scale gear and worm. Some more
measuring, cutting, fitting and welding, and the front end,
steering gear and wheels were on. I made and installed the water
tank and the tractor’s wooden platforms, and I plumbed in the
water pipes and installed the belts. Things were looking good!
Then, for some reason, I started looking at the box the model
came in, and . . . a-a-a-a-r-r-r-g-h! Right on the end of the box I
read: ‘1892 Froelich tractor, first gasoline tractor capable of
running in forward and reverse.’ Well, I hadn’t designed in
a reverse, because the model doesn’t actually work, and I
simply didn’t know I needed reverse. (The model also didn’t
show a clutch/belt tightener and brake, but I KNEW I needed those,
and I designed something I thought fit with the tractor.)
So now I had to take the gears off, change one shaft, machine a
sliding mechanism and make it go both directions. I couldn’t
fudge this part, because not having a reverse would have totally
negated the reason for making the tractor. After a bit of trial and
error I got everything together again, and it goes both ways.
That done, I fitted up the rest of the tractor, started and ran
it, and then took it completely apart for detailing (grinding welds
smooth, etc.), final priming and painting. Once that was done I put
it all back together, just as you see it here.
It isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it’s still nice. All
told it took me about 2,200 to 2,500 hours to finish, but I think I
spent half that time looking for pieces I laid down and
couldn’t find, and rounding up parts that I could use for this
I’ve been collecting tools, implements and then engines and
tractors for years. Because of my advancing age and my health
issues, I conceived of this project as a possible ‘last
hurrah,’ a chance to actually make something instead of
rebuilding something. It might seem like a crazy thing to have
built, but the end product makes it all worthwhile, and I enjoyed
the whole process.
Contact engine enthusiast D.J. Baisch at: 6230 E. 81 N.,
Idaho Falls, ID 83401, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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