Collecting Big Engines

Longtime engine collector Chris Kabele loves big engines – and the bigger, the better!

| December/January 2016

When Chris Kabele of Jackson, Minnesota, had an auction in 2004, the now-82-year-old sold off his excess engines. Three hundred of them. Why? “I didn’t have room to keep them in good condition,” he says. “I sold everything I didn’t want, and some I did.” By this time, he had taken a larger interest in the big engines anyway. “The big ones are more impressive to people. They like to hear the engines air-start, and run.”

Chris still has 13 engines, all easily described as large. “I restored them at home,” he says, “adding new bearings and grinding the valves on all of them, and when our Butterfield group found out I had them, they asked if I would bring three of them here to the grounds. They decided to build a building so other people could bring their engines, but nobody else did, so they asked if I had any more, so I brought my others.” Those “others” now fill the building on the grounds of the Butterfield (Minnesota) Threshing Bee.

Collecting Engines

Chris, who was raised in the country, began collecting gas engines in 1970 through his junk business. “That’s how I got interested. People would bring engines in that didn’t work, and then they started to bring in those that worked, and I decided to save them. Then I started saving the engines that didn’t work, too.”

Most of the engines were used in the oil fields, and many of the details about the engines have been lost to time, Chris says, such as when he got each of the engines, yet this basic information about Chris’s 13 big engines remains.

Black Bear 25 hp

According to C.H. Wendel in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, Black Bear engines “were designed especially for the Pennsylvania oil fields,” by Oil Well Supply Co. of Pittsburgh. In its heyday in the early 1900s, Oil Well Supply Co. had 2,000 workers. The company became a subsidiary to U.S. Steel in 1930.

The Black Bear featured a heavy-duty design and sideshaft valve gear. “I got that from a guy in western Montana, from an oil rig he was changing and updating, putting in a different engine,” Chris says. “I used my own outfit to haul it back here, taking a wrecker winch and just winched it up and chained it down, like I did with all of the big engines I got.” A 1920 catalog notes that the 25 hp engine sold for $1,325. According to Wendel, ignition options included “a hot-tube system, low tension make-and-break, Bosch magneto ignition, or Wico magneto ignition. Black Bear engines were marketed primarily in the oil fields and were rarely used in farm applications.” According to Chris, this engine runs on producer gas.