Collecting Unusual Vertical Engines

A rare Ellis engine found at the 2017 Albany (Minnesota) Pioneer Days Show tops a trio of vertical engines owned by Craig Solomonson.

| October/November 2018

  • Solomonson's 1912 Ellis 3-6 hp engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The flywheels on the Ellis feature finger holds for a better grip spinning the flywheels when starting the engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The Ellis’ speed change lever controls engine speed by altering air ports.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The Ellis’ ignition timing/reverse lever. The engine can be reversed while running at a low idle.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The Ellis is equipped with a force-feed oiler, an unusual quality touch on a small engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • A glass reservoir makes it easy to see if the engine is getting fuel.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Craig Solomonson’s IHC is badged simply “Vertical.” The “Famous” trademark wasn’t adopted until 1906.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • IHC Vertical Manufactured by International Harvester Co., Chicago, USA, Patents Pending, No. L2033, Speed 360, hp 3.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Craig’s IHC vertical retains its original hand-operated clutch pulley.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The plain crankcase inspection cover was only used on 1905 engines. Later engines had a cast cover with raised lettering.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • A 1909 2 hp Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Type T is another of Craig’s engines. Pre-1908 2 hp verticals were sold under the “Jack-Of-All-Trades” name.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Fairbanks Morse & Co. Vertical, hp 2 manufacturer's plate.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Craig’s Type T is very original, down to the decal on the cooling tank.
    Photo by Bill Vossler


1909 Fairbanks, Morse & Co. 2 hp Type T Vertical

Manufacturer: Fairbanks, Morse & Co., Beloit, Wisconsin
Year: 1909
Serial No.: 85240
Horsepower: 2 hp @ 400rpm
Bore & Stroke: 4in x 6in
Flywheel: 24in x 1.75in
Ignition: Igniter w/ battery and coil
Governing: Hit-and-miss w/ cam-mounted weights
Cooling: Water w/ evaporator tank


Although many engine collectors enjoy bringing near-dead engines back to life, Craig Solomonson isn't one of them. "I don't have the equipment, skills or knowledge to do a lot of engine work, so I've avoided it by concentrating on engines in near-running or running condition – complete engines without a lot of breaks and welds. And loose. If I had to unfreeze it, I'd be lost," Craig says.

Craig grew up in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Storden, where both his grandfathers were farmers. "I spent a lot of time on their farms," Craig says. "One of them had an old steam engine and threshing rig, so that got me interested in old machinery." But he got into engine collecting by accident. "In 1972, a friend told me about a barn full of old car parts near Bemidji (Minnesota), so I made a trip to check it out."

He found the car parts all right, but also the keystone to his future gasoline engine hobby in two hit-and-miss engines. "There was an Associated Hired Man and a Galloway. They looked interesting, and the next thing I knew, I had the bug!" Both engines ran, which was good by Craig.



After that, Craig started putting together a small collection of engines. "Engine restoration back then was sandblasting, and bright shiny painting with pinstriping," like with a McCleod engine he restored. "It came with all the green paint, decals, and in wonderful condition, but I sandblasted it, repainted it and put new pinstriping on it. Oh how I regret that now! Today it's just the opposite – keep everything in its original work clothes, if possible. I know people who will spend weeks picking off paint to get the engine back to the original paint."

As time's gone by, Craig's added "original condition" to his requirements. "I know which engine I want when I see it, especially if it's unique and early and original; that's what catches my eye."

When an engine needed work, he used to call on his father-in-law. "My wife's father, Leroy Paulson, had old tractors and cars and the equipment and the knowledge to work on engines. He was a welder and machinist, so if I needed work done, he would do it. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us," Craig says.

Stopping and restarting

Back problems years ago prompted Craig to sell most of his engines, but he got back into old engines when his youngest son, Jon, decided to dust off the couple of engines that Craig hadn't sold. "He soon bought a couple more and was hooked. My oldest son, Chris, first ribbed Jon, but one day in Alaska while hunting down some Model A parts he found a 6 hp Economy, and he got interested."

Craig helped fuel that interest after finding a 5 hp Stickney on a visit to Alaska. "It wouldn't fit in the overhead bin on the airplane, so I asked Chris if he would like the engine; he was fascinated by the Stickney's unique design as well as its Minnesota roots. To keep things fair I bought a 5 hp Dan Patch for Jon. With two sons bit by the bug, I figured I should join back in, as my back was no longer an issue," Craig says. That led to Craig turning to collecting unique engines and taking them to shows.

A couple of engines that Craig especially enjoys taking to shows include a 1909 2 hp Fairbanks-Morse vertical gas engine and a 1905 International Harvester 3 hp vertical engine. “I found the Fairbanks-Morse engine on Engine Ads one morning. The optional evaporator tank, which you don‘t see very often, original paint and original skids caught my eye. When I saw the original decal, I called immediately because I knew it would not last long. The seller, Jon Rosevink, knew only that it came out of New Mexico. It showed no visible repairs and very little wear to the gears. Jon guaranteed it would start, and he was right. Two turns of the flywheel and it took right off. It will run all day without missing a beat! I've only taken it to the one show so far, and people were impressed by the originality of it."

1905 International Harvester 3 hp vertical


Manufacturer: International Harvester Col, Chicago, Ill.
Year: 1905
Serial No.: L2033
Horespower: 3 hp @ 360rpm
Bore & Stroke: N/A
Flywheel: 26.5in x 2.5in
Ignition: Igniter w/ battery and coil
Governing: Hit-and-miss w/flywheel weights
Cooling: Tank-cooled, thermosiphon (no water pump)


Craig's son Chris found the 1905 3 hp IHC engine, knowing that his father would like it because of its original paint and striping. "He knew I was looking for something early, all original and in running condition, and unique. This engine was all of that," Craig says.

"Many 2 and 3 hp vertical IHC engines were called the Famous, but this one is just labeled 'Vertical' on the tag because it was the first year they built them. It has no water pump, but has a tall external thermosiphon tank for cooling. They're not real common."

Sold as a stationary engine, it had no cart, but Craig made one similar to the later Famous vertical engines so he could move it around easier. "John Wanat had the same engine with the original thermosiphon cooling tank, so he made me a copy," Craig says. "These engines relied on an external gas tank and John designed one to fit directly under the engine between the skid rails. He made it so the plumbing hooked up easily and it had a filler pipe that was easy to get to."



The fuel pump was badly corroded and didn’t work, so Craig had IHC expert Don Oberholtzer rebuild it. One aspect that attracted Craig to this 3 hp IHC vertical is that it was the first year of production for the IHC vertical engines. "It is among the earliest of IHC engines produced. These engines had a brass nametag and a blank or smooth inspection plate. It also has the optional clutch pulley, which is nice. There weren't a lot of early engines with the clutch pulley, which allowed you to easily disengage a piece of equipment without stopping the engine."

1912 3-6 hp Ellis


Manufacturer: Ellis Engine Co., Detroit, Mich.
Year: 1912
Serial No.: 2292
Horsepower: 3 hp to 6 hp (variable)/250rpm to 1,000rpm
Bore & Stroke: 4.5in x 4.5in
Flywheel: 18in x 2.5in
Ignition: Spark plug w/ battery and coil
Governing: Throttling, w/ vertical flyball governor
Cooling: Tank-cooled
Weight: 455lb

Craig's circa-1912 3-6 hp Ellis vertical engine is probably the most unique engine in his collection, especially considering its many unusual features. And apparently, Craig was destined to get an Ellis gas engine. "Two years ago I found an Ellis engine on Craigslist, and some research showed it had many features not normally found in old engines." Only 20 miles away, it wasn't running, which had always been a requirement for getting a new engine. Plus, it was missing parts, with the cart and tanks gone. "I knew it was going to need a lot of work, but it was unusual enough that I decided I had to have it," Craig says.

Craig couldn't find the parts he needed, but luck was on his side, because while attending the 2017 Albany (Minnesota) Pioneer Days show, he found an identical Ellis sitting in one of the engine buildings: complete, original, and in running condition. He found the owner, and bought it. "Now I had the engine that intrigued me, and it was in good running condition."

A 2-cycle vertical engine, the Ellis has many unusual feature, including the fact it can be reversed, even while running. "The brass lever on top controls the timing of the spark," Craig says. "Slow the engine way down, flip the lever to the other side of top dead center, and it will reverse the engine. That was a feature more typical of engines on railroad inspection cars, like the Fairmont. They could be going down the track one way, and when it was time to go home, they would reverse the engine."

It also has a vertical sideshaft with a flyball governor. "It's what many collectors want in an engine, and here's a little vertical engine with it. It's not something you see a lot." Additionally, it has a lever that can be shifted to change the engine's output from 3 hp to 4 hp, to 5 hp, and to its high point of 6 hp, while running. "A friend sent me a reprint of how that's accomplished. It has three ports for airflow. When set at 6 hp all three ports are wide open, and at 3 hp only one port is open. In between, the other ports are only partially open. It's a unique mechanism."

Craig says the variable horsepower settings would have been useful when running a piece of equipment that needs more power, like cutting wood with a buzz saw and a heavier log is being sawed. Ellis Engine Co. touted economy in their ads for the engine, noting how many cents a day it would cost to run it at 3 hp and how many at 6 hp. Though it was only pennies, that was a lot back then. It has a variable speed control that goes from 200rpm to an incredibly fast, for the time, 1,000rpm.

It also has a force-feed oiling system. "You see that on big old tractors and on the more expensive gas engines like early Moguls. The oiling system is the box on the side, with the three tubes oiling various parts of the engine rather than drip oilers," Craig says.

The Ellis' five-spoke flywheels are also interesting to Craig. "Maybe it's just me, but it seems like 99 percent of all gas engines have six-spoke flywheels, and this one has five. I've only seen a handful that have a five-spoke flywheel, like the small Monitor and Worthington engines." Another unusual aspect of the flywheels are indentations on the side of the flywheels so you can grasp them with your fingers to help grip the flywheel.

The Ellis engine had many fuel options – gasoline, kerosene, distillate, fuel oil or alcohol – and it had a unique method to enable using those different fuel options. "A normal engine draws in fuel, mixes air with it and makes a vapor. This one takes the fuel directly in and shoots it into the cylinder against a hot deflector to vaporize it and mix it with the air, and that's why it can use literally any kind of fuel. That was one of the engine's primary selling points, that you could use whatever fuel was available or cheapest at the time." It also has a visible fuel reservoir. "My oldest son Chris likes that feature, you can see the gasoline in there and know it is flowing," Craig says.

The gas and water tank are combined. "The gas tank is 8 or 10 inches tall and is at the bottom, and the much larger water tank sits above that. The water tank has two chambers, so if you have a small job and only want a little bit of water in it, you could just fill one chamber. I've never seen that before. Some engineer really thought about how to design this engine."

The muffler is an automotive type. "I found an old ad that lists the 'automobile muffler' as one of the selling points. Two-cycle engines can make a lot of noise, and a good muffler is important. This one doesn't happen to be original, but it does muffle it down well enough to leave it."

After flooding it the first time he tried to start the Ellis, Craig learned the old engine rule: All engines are different. “The manual might say to turn the gas a quarter turn or three-quarter turn for starting, but that doesn't always do it. Some engines can be touchy. A lot of it depends on how worn the needle valve is, how much it was used, the timing, etc. I think every engine has a little personality. Once you learn it, you hope you remember it."

The Ellis is brand-new to Craig, and he has a few details he wants to take care of including redoing the skids in white oak, replacing the battery box and putting the Ellis on a correct cart, which he just found. "Other than that, I will just clean it up as best I can," Craig says.

Forging family ties

One of the best features of collecting gas engines, Craig says, is the connection it has forged with his sons. "Having a hobby we could enjoy as a family had always been on my bucket list. I was happy when my youngest son decided to take my engines so we'd have stuff we shared in common and could do together. And when my older son started collecting too, that was great. I was proud of that, and very happy they went that route."


Contact Bill Vossler at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; bvossler@juno.com



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