A Collection That's Otto This World

Jim and Keven Withers have one of the finest collections of big engines you’ll ever find

| April 2008


A one-of-a-kind 1894 50 HP Otto owned by Jim and Keven. The two adult men partially hidden in the background give perspective to the 78-inch flywheels.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

Jim Withers, of Osakis, Minn., has only 50 gasoline engines - "only" compared to the others he's had during his 73 years. "I've owned about 1,000 engines over the years," he says, "but I've always traded the smaller ones for bigger engines."

And what a group of 50 engines Jim and his 43-year-old son, Keven, have in their collection: rare and unusual ones like a 150 HP Snow air-injection diesel, serial number 182; a 125 HP De La Vergne oil engine; and a 200 HP twin-cylinder Miller. Jim believes it is the largest collection of big engines in the country.

Auction fever

About 1964, the year Keven was born, Jim attended an auction. "I was surprised to see the gas engines didn't sell real high, about $15 each, and some uprights like Fuller & Johnsons, Monitors and a couple of others for about $40," he recalls. "They sold a rare upright Sandow 2-cycle engine with a hopper for $140. That astounded me, so I started collecting engines." His first engines were an early John Deere and a 2-cycle Fairmont engine, neither of which was very costly or very precious, Jim says. "After that I acquired about 50 engines quite fast, for hardly any money," he says. "They were very common on the farms and you could buy them for $3, $4, $5 each. They weren't all in good shape and there was a variety of them, John Deere, Fairbanks-Morse, Economy, McCormick-Deering among others."

After that, Jim decided to collect big engines. He published a list of small engines and asked to trade for 10 HP engines or larger. Next, he advertised for those with 6-foot flywheels or bigger, and then those with 8-spoke flywheels. "They were harder to find," Jim says. "We have four big Ottos with 8-spoke flywheels, so they're precious to us. I went to big engines because at a show you can't keep (small engines) all running. They miss a beat and stop. But the big engines maintain their momentum and keep going."

Keven collects alongside, saying he was born into it: "I grew up with the engines. I rebelled against it for a few years when I was about 18 - I don't know why - but then got real interested again, and started purchasing engines with my dad. I've known nothing else but being around the engines."

His favorite engine is probably the 60 HP Otto, he says, because it's an Otto with an early design that was acquired from a good friend, Harold Ottaway, for $10,000. "That was a lot of money at the time," Keven says. "But we didn't have to do much to the engine other than make governor flyballs and a few other things, but we didn't have trouble doing it. We copied the fly balls off another engine, and our Otto turned out real good."