Hometown Favorites: Charles City Engines

An Iowa man builds a collection of rare engines built in Charles City, Iowa, including those manufactured by the Armstrong Mfg. Co.

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courtesy Kelly Barnett
This 2hp Armstrong-Quam vertical engine (serial No. 206) was built in about 1909. This engine and Kelly Barnett’s Armstrong-Quam (serial No. 255) are the only two vertical Armstrong-Quam engines known to exist.

Kelly Barnett of Plainfield, Iowa, wasn’t satisfied with collecting just the gas engines once built by Armstrong Mfg. Co., Charles City, Iowa. He also wanted to dig into the little-known company’s history.

Kelly, who has Armstrong pieces produced as early as 1909, has done extensive research on the Armstrong company and its products. His passion for the engines and their history is rooted in the fact that the engine factory the Armstrong family built in 1914 was located in what is now Kelly’s hometown.

“Because Charles City is the home of Hart-Parr and Oliver, there was always a hotbed of Hart-Parr and Oliver collectors here,” Kelly says. “As a kid, I attended area steam shows and was always fascinated with the steam engines and mechanical items.”

Swap meet find

As he got older, Kelly knew his chances of owning a steam engine were virtually nil. For that reason, he turned to hit-and-miss engines, which were smaller, more available and affordable.

“I already had a couple of Hart-Parr engines when I went to the Le Sueur swap meet in Minnesota one year,” Kelly says. “I was visiting various vendors, looking for miscellaneous engine parts, when I came across a fairly large engine.”

Stopping to read the engine’s serial number plate, Kelly was amazed to learn that the 7hp throttling engine (serial No. P2736) was manufactured in about 1918 by American Engine & Tractor Co., Charles City. At least, that’s how the nameplate read. The engine was identified as being part of an Armstrong well drilling rig. “Before finding this engine, I’d only heard rumors of Armstrong engines and the company,” Kelly says.

When he spoke with the engine’s owner, he learned the engine was stuck. That didn’t put him off, but Kelly didn’t buy the engine that day. He didn’t have any way to get it home, and he needed a bit of time to meet the asking price. When he contacted the owner a few weeks later, Kelly learned the engine was still for sale and he struck a deal with the seller.

“He lived up north of St. Cloud, Minnesota,” Kelly says. “I recruited my dad to go with me to pick it up.” When they got there, they found the engine was still on the same pallet the owner used to display it at the swap meet. In no time, it was loaded and strapped down in the pickup.

“When we headed home, I knew I had to ask my dad an important question,” Kelly says. “‘Well, do you think I’m nuts?'” Kelly asked his dad. The answer? “Yup.”

An early Armstrong-Quam

Once he brought the engine home, Kelly – a CNC programmer for a Waverly, Iowa, manufacturer – started looking for information on Armstrong engines.

“I located a blueprint showing how the 7hp engine would have looked back in the day,” Kelly says. “I also learned that this specific engine was originally used by a well driller. It took some time to get it up and running. Once I reached that goal, Dad told me, ‘Never in a million years did I think you’d get that to run.'”

Over the years, Kelly’s built a collection of seven Armstrong engines, which he displays at area steam shows. His collection includes a 2hp Armstrong-Quam engine, serial No. 255, dating to about 1909.

“That one is a horizontal hopper-cooled engine,” Kelly says. “It’s complete, from the gas tank to the coil and little knife switch on the skids. It was hidden away from the public eye for well over 40 years, right on our show grounds. I know this engine’s history back to the 1960s. Before that, its history is unknown.”

On the trail of rare engines

Another uncommon Armstrong-Quam gas engine, minus the serial number tag, turned up in the basement of an old house in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. Kelly learned about it in the online SmokStak forum.

“The owners of the house were having an estate sale,” he says. “A SmokStak forum member obtained permission to go through the basement to see what might be there. That’s when he found this engine.”

The rare piece – a vertical engine – was still belted to a water pump and coal conveyor. Since the nameplate was gone, the engine’s serial number is unknown. “Judging by some of its features, it’s a later production engine than my other vertical Armstrong-Quam,” Kelly says. “Right now, I have the only two vertical Armstrong-Quam engines known to exist. I’m hoping there are more out there.”

Spanning the Armstrong era

Kelly’s other vertical Armstrong-Quam (serial no. 206) is thought to be in the 2hp range. Dating to about 1909, the engine was found by a Minnesota collector in the early 1970s in a Missouri antique store. “It was all in pieces,” Kelly says, “virtually sitting in a basket.”

The Minnesota collector recruited a friend in southeast Minnesota to assemble the engine. Eventually, the engine ended up on an estate auction, where a family member purchased it and held on to it for a few years. “That’s when I acquired it,” Kelly says. “The history of the 206 engine prior to the ’70s is a mystery.”

Another of Kelly’s engines, the 2hp Armstrong (serial no. G2818) dates to about 1920. It came from the Sturgis, South Dakota, area.

His 2-1/2hp Armstrong, a small throttle-governed engine, was once owned by a Des Moines, Iowa, man. Eventually it turned up in Marshalltown, Iowa. “It was part of a great collection of Waterloo-made engines,” Kelly says. “It’s a little different in that it has a sub-base for mounting it on footings. That’s not all that uncommon for gas engines, but it is for one this size.”

Kelly’s collection spans the era from early Waterloo-made Armstrong engines to the last of the Charles City-built models. “From the start to the end, there were fewer than 2,300 total engines made,” he says. “They ranged from the 1-1/2hp engines up to the 20hp engines that were used on self-propelled well drillers.”

Four decades of experience

The company that would become Armstrong Mfg. originated as Waterloo Mfg. Co. Founded in 1867 in Waterloo, Iowa, the company produced a wide range of agricultural equipment.

The Armstrong brothers – James, George, David and C.L. – bought out Kelly & Taneyhill Co., a well drilling company, in 1906. The company’s early engines were badged as both Kelly & Taneyhill and, later, following a 1909 name change, Armstrong-Quam engines. After undergoing numerous name changes, the company was renamed Armstrong Mfg. Co. in 1911.

Armstrong engines were marketed through various mail order catalogs, including Harris Bros., Chicago, and Hudson & Thurber Co., Minneapolis. “Hudson & Thurber Co. tagged their engines under their own name but kept the sequential serial numbers from the regular engine production line at Charles City,” Kelly says. “For Harris Bros., I don’t know of any re-naming of the engines.”

“More simplified and efficient”

An article in the June 1913 issue of Farm Implements noted that Armstrong Mfg. Co. “have for years manufactured internal combustion engines to be used in connection with their well drilling machinery, but have never had facilities to more than supply their own needs and that of a limited number of dealers.”

The article went on to explain that the company initially purchased engines from other manufacturers, “but for many reasons found this unsatisfactory, the main one of which was that by this method they were not able to give their customers as strong and liberal guarantee on the engine as they wished.”

Armstrong ads claimed that well drilling applications offered “the severest test to which an engine can be subjected.” The company’s ads made clear that the Armstrong engine was marked by quality, being one “which embodies all the essential features of a high-grade engine and yet is more simplified and efficient than anything heretofore placed on the market.”

The Farm Implements article also pointed out that Armstrong engines were not mere copies of other designs. Armstrong’s “roller valve gear … eliminates all cut gears, cams, etc. and reduces the actual working and moving parts from an average of 30 to a minimum of 11.”

Short-lived expansion

When the Waterloo business began outgrowing its site, the Armstrongs searched for a site to house a new factory of sufficient size to employ 25 workers producing a minimum of 25 engines per day. Initial plans called for manufacture of pump jacks, feed grinders and friction pulleys at the same factory. Charles City, Iowa, business leaders were eager to see the new plant locate there.

Armstrong’s Charles City factory opened May 18, 1914. Engines produced there ranged in size from 1-1/2hp up to 20hp. About 65 men worked at the Charles City plant.

On Dec. 7, 1916, a Charles City newspaper reported on the company’s demise. After working through what amounted to bankruptcy proceedings, the business was sold to John T. Sudmeyer, a Charles City banker. From there, the plant was used to produce what was known at the time as a “revolutionary tractor.”

Kelly is delighted that so much Armstrong history has been preserved by Charles City historians. “To me, having an engine’s history is huge,” he says. “I’ve come across other owners of Armstrong engines and I greatly enjoy hearing their engine stories. Old engines often change hands so many times that the item’s history is lost, and that’s unfortunate.”

For more information, contact Kelly Barnett, 1013 Hawthorne Ave., Plainfield, IA 50666.

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. 

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