An Iowa engine collector acquires and restores a 1910 Stickney, right down to the cart.
Steve Alt with his Stickney display at the 2012 Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
Manufacturer: Charles A. Stickney Co., St. Paul, MN
Serial Number: 10842
Horsepower: 3 hp
Bore & stroke: 5in x 6in
Flywheel dia: 30in
Ignition: Igniter w/battery & coil
Governing: Hit-and-miss, Stickney pat'd crankshaft governor
Weight: 1,275lb (engine only)
Steve Alt of West Liberty, Iowa, fell in love with Stickney gas engines years ago visiting the local Muscatine County Fair when he was young. “Every year this guy brought three engines and sat on a lawn chair with an umbrella,” Steve remembers, adding. “They were always Stickneys, including a little 1-3/4 horse. I’ve always loved that style and loved that look. The Stickney is one of the first engines I loved.”
Steve wanted that 1-1/2 hp Stickney badly, so when it came up at auction in 1988, he borrowed $2,000 from the bank, hoping that would be enough to make it his. “That still couldn’t buy it,” Steve says. “It sold for way more than I could afford.”
Steve kept hoping that someday he’d own a Stickney, and finally in 2011 he found a 3 hp 1910 Stickney for sale from a collector in Willmar, Minnesota. “I contacted him, and we met in Omaha, Nebraska, late one night. He unloaded it off his trailer, and I loaded it onto mine. I went back home and he went to Texas to deliver two or three more,” Steve remembers.
As purchased, the engine was in pretty rough shape. “The reproduction gas tank wasn’t correct, and it had used ‘hard water’ at one time, as we joke when an engine has frozen up. This one had frozen water in the bottom and it cracked from the bottom up through the Stickney letters on both sides of the engine. It had been partly welded together.” Steve decided to redo the entire engine, “to reproduce everything to the Nth degree.” That took a lot of research and time.
Steve spent the next 11 months going through the entire engine. “That meant four to five hours a day, and weekends, nonstop working on the engine,” Steve says. “Almost all my spare time, easily 20-30 hours a week.”
One of the most difficult parts was restoring the cast embossed “Stickney” letters, marred by the engine break, to make them look authentic again. “That was tough and tedious. I had to weld it, then grind it, and hope no imperfections like an air bubble or something might go through so water would leak through. I had to make a nice weld, grind back the impurities, weld it again, then start again on the letters, slowly shaping them back to original.”
It wasn’t easy. A section of the bottom of the “I” was missing, part of the “N” wasn’t correct, and the bottom of the letters wasn’t at the same level, but Steve had a good idea how it should be. The block was sanded down to knock off the higher spots, then painted with epoxy primer before being painted and detailed. Getting inside the engine he found the wrist pin had been brazed and filed to make it tighter, and the valves had to be replaced. “Every piece on the engine was torn apart,” Steve says.
Even so, Steve made sure it was finished in time for the “Gathering of the Sticks” at the 2012 Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. In fact, he took the lead for the gathering, contacting owners to get as many Stickney engines to the show as possible. Twenty-two showed up, a great showing of Stickney engines.
At the show Steve displayed his excitement for Stickney engines, recreating a scene from an old photo of a Stickney gasoline engine dealer as shown in a local newspaper in 1912, including replicating a 4-foot by 20-foot “Stickney Gasoline Engines” sign used in the 1912 newspaper.
For the exhibit, he dressed like the old-time dealer, wearing a white shirt, black pants and boater-style hat. “With a PA system, I talked about why Stickney is so much better than any other gas engines. I had one sitting still, which I went through from the top down. Then I gave the sales pitch for cleaning the igniter while a friend goes to find the wrench needed to clean the igniter on his non-Stickney engine. When I’m finished, he still isn’t back with the wrench.”
Steve says Stickney engines in general are rare. “A guy in Canada has an online Stickney registry listing 189, including different varieties, early and late models with a gas tank or a fuel pump, a tin hopper (which usually rotted away) or cast hopper, and the really rare Kenwood gasoline engines sold by Sears. They also made a magneto-type engine and hot tube engine, which are pretty rare. Mine is a fairly common Stickney, but it still has a lot of unusual features to it.”
Stickneys were different. “During their era, they stuck out because they did things differently than anybody else in the Midwest. Their block and hopper were cast as a single unit, amazing when you consider the time frame and their success in about 1908.”
The Stickney gasoline tank is unusual, too. “Many engines of that era used a fuel pump, which sucked gas up from a tank under the engine. It didn’t always work, so the engine would stop. Stickney gas tanks were above the engine and worked on gravity, so they always worked.”
The igniter is another unusual aspect. “The igniter is the cylinder-shaped brass item above the ‘3 HP Stickney’ letters on my engine. Igniters are commonly inside the engine, where they get sooted up, and then needed to be cleaned from time to time. A wrench was needed to remove two bolts, pull it out, brush it up nice and clean so it would run better, and then replace it, like a spark plug. But the Stickney igniter rod is on the outside, so just pull on the spring, remove the rod, slide out the part that makes contact inside, wipe the soot off with a rag, slide it back in, put the pushrod in place and you’re ready to go. It’s really as quick and easy as the time it takes to tell you about it.” The coil, mounted between the flywheels and bolted onto the engine, is another unique Stickney item.
Steve built the 400-pound-plus cart for the Stickney using a catalog picture. “I knew the flywheel was 30 inches high, so using perspective, I figured out how big the cart had to be,” he says.
Designing the cart, cutting the pieces, drilling the holes and hot riveting as on the original took about four weeks of steady work. With all the parts ready, he bolted it together in 20 minutes, and then spent six hours removing the bolts one by one and replacing them with 28 hot rivets. “Originally, a bucker on the other end held the back side of the red-hot rivet. The riveter pounded on it, one side at a time, hammering it down to make a dome. When the rivet cools, it shrinks and pulls the pieces tight.”
Steve found the tools and rivets online, then practiced until he had the process down, heating the rivets with an oxyacetylene torch and using an air hammer to make the head nice and round. “Back then, of course, they didn’t have air hammers, so they used real hammers. Now I know why they don‘t use rivets any more,” he laughs.
The Stickney’s uniqueness probably doomed the company. “Everybody else in the Midwest was doing cheap engines, so it was hard for Stickney to compete. The extras that made the engines run better added manufacturing time, and increased the price, so the company eventually went bankrupt,” Steve notes.
He adds that Stickneys his size were probably used to grind feed and move feed for livestock, pumping water to irrigate crops or water livestock, because that was big business in the Midwest. They could also be used in a small machine shop, a small butcher shop to run a band saw or meat grinder, or even a printing press.
Steve says his greatest enjoyment comes from showing off the engine while it’s running. “It’s a good engine for idling and showing it off and stuff like that. The part of the hobby I like the most is when people walk up and ask questions. The No. 1 comment when they see smoke coming out of a gas engine is ‘Wow, that’s a nice-looking steam engine.’ So I say that it’s actually a gas engine that’s run on gasoline. With their grandfather or dad passed away, they don’t have anybody to explain the difference. I’ll stop the engine and restart it, show them things. For some people it’s hard to realize that not that long ago gasoline engines were the prime source of power.”
He also talks about the little tricks an engine owner has to learn to start their engines. One time a couple of guys commented on how easy the engine was to start. Steve stopped the engine, got them over to it, and had them try. “But they couldn’t do it. It looks easy, but it isn’t. You have to learn the little tricks that make it easier, so you can just walk up and pull on the flywheel and turn it over.”
Some people say to him, ‘Wow, they don’t make them like that any more,’ and Steve responds with, “There are reasons why. They don’t reuse oil, they smoke badly, and they’re not economical, considering the weight and power produced. I say a chainsaw will produce almost as much power, and you can carry a chainsaw around, instead of trying to push this 1,200-pound engine, plus another 400 pounds for the cart, around.”
Steve's always looking for another Stickney, but with their high price, he’s not sure he’ll ever find another. “If I did find one, it would be different from this one, maybe with the fuel pump, or something like that.”
One thing the Charles A. Stickney Co. of St. Paul, Minnesota, did exceedingly well was create uniquely designed gasoline engines. From the start (engine production had started by at least 1899), Stickney produced engines with a unique tubular design, with the engine block and hopper cast in one piece, just one of many notable features.
“Their patented igniter was a big selling point,“ C.H. Wendel writes in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, “with the company noting that the contact points were outside of the cylinder proper, thus preventing any chance of their becoming overheated and burned. It had the further advantage of a peep hole which permitted the operator to see if a spark was occurring at the proper time. A small petcock on the igniter body could be opened – exposing a tiny hole that allowed the operator to visually check for a spark.” However, if the engine fired at that instant, the operator could suffer eye damage.
Stickney made a wide variety of engines from 1-1/2 hp to 25 hp, including 1-3/4, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 20, some of which were made for Sears and sold under the Kenwood, Universal and Harvard banners. Stickney used a unique battery box, a round can with a cast iron cover and carrying handle. “Special partitions within the can held a full set of dry cells, requiring only the connection of two wires to the engine itself,” Wendel writes.
All Stickneys from 3-20 hp were also sold as St. Paul engines, designed to be used within buildings and conforming to Fire Underwriter’s requirements.
According to Wendel, Stickney used an interesting serial number system, with those in 1903 running from 1-999, and those in future years through 1911 starting with an even thousand number –1000, 2000, through 7000 in 1909. 1911 began with 9000, 1912 jumped to 12000 and 1913 was 14000, the last year they apparently were made. Interestingly, however, our 1910 feature engine shows serial number 10842, suggesting discrepancies in Stickney serial numbers.
According to Wendel, the Stickney Co. sold their engines through established dealers only, “never opting for mail-order sales philosophy.”
One of those dealers was Sears, Roebuck & Co., which ran into problems. Stickney agreed on a contract to sell gasoline engines specifically for Sears, according to the June 1909 Gas Power, “from special designs, under various names like Howard, Universal, Kenwood, etc. They were not the standard engines turned out by Charles A. Stickney company.”
Sears upped the horsepower ratings on the machines, selling a 2-1/2 hp as a 3 hp, a 6 as a 7, a 12 as a 13, and so on. Stickney would not go along with that and required them to change their advertising. By that time Sears had reportedly made as much as $15-$20 extra on each engine thanks to the exaggerated claims. In a subsequent lawsuit, Sears claimed “… among other allegations, that the engines were not up to their standard, and did not ‘make good.’” The jury found for Stickney for $10,000 damages. – Bill Vossler