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Trials & Tribulations: 5-Year Dempster Engine Restoration

An old Dempster engine avoids the scrap yard and comes back to life after an extended restoration.

| April/May 2018

  • 1920 1-1/2 hp Dempster Model 1K
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • The 1-1/2 hp Dempster as found, looking a bit worse for wear but fairly complete.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • The stripped engine base was fitted to the new cart.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • Before getting a fresh coat of paint.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • Garry Anderson turned the axles for the Dempster's cart on his lathe.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • The broken igniter bracket in the process of being repaired.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • Getting ready to fit the cylinder head.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • Fitting the crankshaft to the almost assembled engine.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • It took five years, but the Dempster finally came together.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton
  • The Dempster running. Note the gas tank, made from a Coleman lantern.
    Photo by Brian Edgerton

The email note came unexpectedly in October 2012 from a nearby engine collector I’d never met. Randy Aldous had a Dempster Mill 1-1/2 hp engine he’d found on a farm in Aberdeen, Idaho, as a teenager and had hauled around for 55 years, never having had the money or time to restore it. He had read my story in the October/November 2012 Gas Engine Magazine, “A Farm Team Resurrected,” of the restoration of a 1917 Fairbanks-Morse Z and its companion Typhoon pump, and wanted to know if I would be interested in the engine.

A Vietnam veteran, Randy was at the tail end of life with advanced cancer, and didn’t want the old engine that had been a lifelong companion to go to the scrapyard after he died.

Well, of course I said yes and went down to see Randy and his engine. I was not familiar with Dempster engines, but I could immediately see this would be a challenging restoration! It had been sitting outside exposed to the elements for many years. Besides being heavily corroded and seized, many parts were missing. Yet I simply didn’t have the heart to say no, so I made arrangements to bring the sad old engine to my shop in Idaho Falls, Idaho. I learned later that Charles Randall “Randy” Aldous passed away only a month after our meeting.


The Dempster Mill Manufacturing Co. started in 1878 in Beatrice, Nebraska, making windmills and water-pumping farm equipment. Their first gasoline engines were 2-cycle models and were introduced around 1898. The 4-cycle engines were introduced after 1900 and looked similar to early Olds engines, with a vertical, box-like water hopper. Engines manufactured up to about 1922 were typically igniter fired using a right-hand mounted Webster Tri-Polar Oscillator magneto, after which they apparently went with the popular WICO magneto.

After more research, I confirmed this was a hit-and-miss, igniter-fired Dempster Model 1K, 1-1/2 hp engine, serial number 12897, manufactured about 1920. An exact date is unknown as there is no Dempster engine registry. Fortunately, this is one of the more common Dempster engines. I made an inventory of missing parts and sketched out a restoration strategy for this rusted engine remnant. I reached out to collectors from GEM, Smok Stak and HitNMiss to glean advice and develop sources for procuring missing pieces.

It quickly became evident that few of these well-built engines survived and finding parts would be difficult. The generosity within the old engine hobby for sharing information and the trust for providing original parts for re-casting was heart-warming. Over the next few years, original parts were generously shared by collectors, from which I cast and machined replacement pieces for my project including flywheel weights, the rocker arm and the rear crank casing.


Gas Engine Magazine A_M 16Gas Engine Magazine is your best source for tractor and stationary gas engine information.  Subscribe and connect with more than 23,000 other gas engine collectors and build your knowledge, share your passion and search for parts, in the publication written by and for gas engine enthusiasts! Gas Engine Magazine brings you: restoration stories, company histories, and technical advice. Plus our Flywheel Forum column helps answer your engine inquiries!

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