Stories from Floyd W. Cook on learning how to troubleshoot gas engines as a young lad.
“Go out to the field and get your dad, the gas engine has
stopped again and my wash is not finished”. Mom sends me out to
a nearby cornfield where dad and the hired man are plowing com, to
bring somebody back to get the gas engine running again. Had she
been real aggravated, she would of used the emergency communication
system; she would have rung the dinner bell. Such tactics being in
reserve for in case of fire or a real emergency, mom was not able,
or refused to start it, and I was just a small boy. Sometimes it
was igniter trouble, or out of fuel, or it just plainly quit. Wash
periods were long, and took all morning. I was more than willing to
go for help; I have always been interested in machinery, and sort
of started out with gasoline engines. At this time I not only
wanted to learn what took place in getting it started again, but on
other occasions when the wash was perhaps on the last tubful, I
was drafted into finishing the load by hand and was perfectly
willing to get someone to restart the balky engine.
The old washing machine was a twin, round wooden tub affair,
with three wooden prongs mounted in a wood disk that hung under the
wooden lid. (A “Dolly” washer I believed they called it.)
This “three-legged-milk-stool” was driven by a rack and
gear on top of the lid.
It tore and tangled clothes, wore splinters off the inside of
the tub, also occasionally it got clothes half way clean, if they
were left in long enough. With the homemade lye-soap we used, I
believe, the ‘soak time’ did more than the actual rubbing
of the washer. With some of that homemade soap, something had to
Now the rack drive had a place to put a wooden handle in a
mating socket, and by pushing it back and forth, one could say he
was washing clothes; I wasn’t in favor of that, and had done it
several times, and nothing suited me better than getting help to
start the engine again — really though, I would have rather been far
far away on some other self appointed mission at the moment, when
it comes to washday.
Dad came in from the field, and I watched real close in order to learn how to troubleshoot gas engines; he seemed
to know what to do, he unbolts the igniter, removes it from the
engine and “here is the trouble” he may have said as he
removes whatever obstacle that centered upon this gadget, replacing
it and then restarting the engine. This was marvelous machinery,
often dirty, troublesome and inconvenient, but it got the job done,
if you had the fortitude to stick it out, Me? I liked it fine,
trouble and all, any engine was all right, horses — well, they were
fine for some, but I never saw a horse powered washing machine!
This first engine that I may recall, I believe to be an
International but details are hard to remember, and we did have a
number of different engines while on the farm, all about the same
Near the middle of a cornfield we had the water well whereby all
water was pumped up to the barnyard and house, same as a lot of
other farmers. When old windmills expired one by one (ours went
down in a windstorm) a gas engine and “pumpjack” was
employed to carry on this routine business of furnishing this
necessary commodity — water. Some gas engines ran a couple of days a
week, others seldom stopped. If you stopped to listen you could
hear several other engines from neighboring farms. In fact, we made
it a point to stop and listen to make sure it kept on working. You
were trained in your listening, because certain characteristic
‘barks’ of the exhaust let you know if a drive belt had
broken or was off the pumpjack.
As I grew older, I was entrusted in starting and restarting the
engine. Now, we did not have to depend on a wind, which we
sometimes ran out of, also we did not have to listen to a creaking
and groaning windmill at night, which upon occasion could disturb
our sleep, for we always shut off the pump engine in the evening if
it had not already died from lack of fuel.
We did not have to take advantage of any wind, and use it before
it is all gone. We could rest assured in getting the trusty gas
engine started again in the morning.
In a high wind, one particular windmill sighed and groaned late
one night. The windmill belonged to a neighbor, and was just across
the road from us. The windmill was shut down but it kept on turning
making so much noise that my dad could not sleep. He got up, and
wearing only his underwear, got oil, climbed up the windmill tower
and oils it. He then went back to bed to sleep in peace the rest of
the night. I don’t know if our neighbor ever found out about
this stint but I sure would like to have had, if it were possible,
motion picture film of it. It was a black night, but I can “see” his underwear a-flapping in that high wind.
When Monday morning came, the hired man would take one harnessed
horse and a singletree, go down to this well out in the field, (us
kids could get lost in the tall corn in this field, and we could
not see how the hired man could “cut-over” the right number
of corn rows and find the engine dead center.) He’d hook on the
gas engine and skid it up to the wash-house which was about a yard
and half from the house. He would get it positioned in one oil and
grease stained corner of the wash-house, aim the exhaust muffler
through a hole cut in the wooden wall, hook up a long flat drive
belt to the old washing machine in another corner, placing blocks
of the right width at the end of the skids on the engine and
between a wooden cleat on the wooden floor to get the ungarded belt
the right tension. A cleat on either side of the engine skids kept
it from jumping around the floor too much. While this was going on,
dad was to carry in water to heat for the washing, unto a small
heating stove in the wash-house and some of the cold water went in
the machine tubs, cistern water had to be pumped from inside the
house and carried over to the wash-house, some of the water was
also heated on the stove in house, and oil stove in the summer
time; a coal and wood cookstove in the winter. After chores and
breakfast was over, (Ah, breakfast — fried potatoes, fried meat, and
a lot of other foods that you don’t hear tell of much these
days, served for the first meal of the day) the gas engine would be
started and washday could begin and dad and the hired man could go
to the fields or whatever. I can still “see” the smoke
stained opening on both sides of the wash-house wall where the gas
engine exhaust emitted.
The old wash-house was also a busy place for other operations,
in the winter on certain days we kept a heating fire going, to
resemble some warmth, you still had to keep your coats on, and we
would oil horse harness, or crank up the gas engine to a sickle
sharpener-grindstone and sharpen up mower and binder sickles. Or
the engine may turn a meat grinder, preparation in making sausage
at hog butchering time, then the wash-house would double as a smoke
house for home cured meats, which still beats anything you may get
from a supermarket today. Also on other occasions, the engine
drove a cream separator, by way of an overhead line shaft and a
special pulley drive that picked up the separator starting load
Come Spring, was “seed oat fanning-time”. The Clipper
Seed Cleaning Mill was positioned under a chute of the overhead
grainery in the corn crib. This machine could be, and often was
cranked by hand but we always belted our portable “well
pumping” gas engine to it. I always liked to hang around and
watch, for here was machinery working again, but I often had to go
up above in the bin and kick or scoop oats over the hole above the
chute to the fanning mill as the oat bin was very low at this time
of year, and you had to work the supply in from the corners to the
center of the bin, so I was “cheated out” from hanging
around close to where the action was.
Like other farmers we also had little chickens to feed, we
shelled corn by belting the gas engine to a one-hole spring sheller
that was usually hand cranked, but at this time we needed a lot of
shelled corn for cracking for the chickens. At other times when we
did not need as much, my brothers and I had to hand crank some on
Saturdays (after school all week). We did not see why we
couldn’t also use the gas engine these particular times, but
dad and the hired man could not be around to supervise, or take the
time to bring up the engine from the well just for a couple bushel
of shelled corn. Turning that crank sure was a tough job, small
boys appreciate labor saving devices, we were strongly in favor of
The gasoline engines I was acquainted with on the farm were
small, perhaps 11/2 hp. We did no wood
sawing with them, as we also had a farm tractor we used for that
job, but others used larger gas engines for cord wood sawing,
supplying the winters fuel. We took the windmill frame, that blew
down in a windstorm, as mentioned earlier, and built a cord wood
saw frame, and did custom wood sawing for neighbors.
My dad used to tell me tales of his experiences with a large
gasoline engine powered hay press, or baler we called them. He used
to do custom baling with a Sandwich engine, when he was a very
young man, having graduated from a horse powered baler. He would
relate the use of ether as a starting aid in the winter time. He
got along fine with the outfit.
I’ve seen some ingenous setups by various farmers whereby a
gas engine may be located in one small building and by a system of
jackshafts and extremely long, overhead line shafting, power was
distributed to well pumps or what ever, to other nearby buildings
or locations. Good old American know how really forged this country
We had our gasoline engines catch fire several times,
fortunately they all happened when at the well pumping location.
One time the engine caught fire, and burned out, to no ones
knowledge as to when it happened, but the wooden well platform was
burned up, pump, pumpjack and wooden well platform-remains had fell
into the well, but the engine rested on the ground, upright still,
balanced at the very edge, and on the verge of tetering into the
well, it had stopped of course, and we rescued the engine, fished
out of the well, equipment and debris, built a new concrete well
platform, revived the engine and put it back to work. Another time
the engine ignited a stubble field that surrounded the well; dad
caught that one and put it out before it spread too far, again the
engine was put back to work and was not seriously hurt.
Later in life we switched from farming to custom power farm
machine operations, threshing, shelling, and so on. We had enough
machinery to maintain that we also had to have some sort of a shop.
Here the small gasoline engine filled in again, drilling holes, and
rotating grinding wheels. This was the last gasoline engine we ever
had. I believe it was bought from a mail order Co., the valves,
piston, connecting rod was directly interchangeable with the Model “T” Ford car, as I remember. (What was it called?) We
needed more power and built a machine shop, where the various power
tools were powered by a Hudson Motor Car engine that was traded for
this last gasoline engine we ever had. — I wish I had it back.
But before we lost this engine, us kids, brothers three, had
grown up some, and into High School and being kids, we were also
looking for devilment and fun, we enlisted the aid of this gas
engine in a couple of experiments.
We had an old Dort car chassis (still visible today) all
stripped down and ready for a grain box as we were building it into
a trailer; everybody had to have one in those days. We mounted this
gasoline engine on some boards across the middle of the frame, and
way over to one side whereby the drive pulley of the engine lined
up with one rear wheel — catch on? You guessed it! We put a flat
belt around one rear wheel, over the outside of the tire, as a
result this belt contacted the ground, the other end to the engine
pulley. We may have borrowed the belt from one of dad’s
threshing machines. We had no way of steering, so we kicked the
front wheels hard around so the machine ran around in a circle,
making sure the belt side was the outside of this circle. This way
the “outside” wheel had the farthest to go, resulting in
absorbing less power. We had some trouble perfecting a lineup, but
we used a good wide belt, and after some trial we could “keep
the belt on the tire” (sometimes). We cranked it up, and I
let my brother ride it around, dust a-flying, the engine snorting
from over load. We soon tired of this, as we had a better idea, we
should be able to steer too. We should also improve our final
We had an old buggy! It was minus a top. We removed the
one-horse shafts in front, tied on a rope on either side of the
front axle and we had our steering problem licked. The gas engine
was set behind the seat, and belted to an improvised jackshaft.
From this jackshaft we installed a chain drive to one rear wheel.
We borrowed this chain, and large chain sprocket wheel from dads
wagon en-gate broadcast seeder.
We were working against time, and dad was not around. We
wondered if he might not approve us of appropriating his various
equipment. We cranked up the contraption, no clutch, no brakes, but
did not get very far until we shut off the engine. We had gone but
a short ways, but go we did. We had to make an improvement. It
seems that every time the engine “barked” it wound up the
rear buggy springs against the pull on the oat seeder drive
sprocket and chain on the rear wheel. As a result the rear of the
buggy hopped up and down on the spring, and had an alternate
tightening and loosening of the final drive chain, with chain
slipping cogs and threatening to wrap around the sprocket or throw
off altogether, also absorbing most of our power. With some lumber
thrust between the springs, we stiffened up and prevented this
action and cranked up again, my brother in the drivers seat and
away he went down the road with the aid of a slightly downhill
terrain. I don’t believe I rode this contraption. I was
perfectly willing in having a hand in assembling it, maybe I did
not want to get caught with it, or feared life and limb. Being like
all young fellows, even today, we did not hear of “Hot Rod
Cars” but we wanted all the speed we could get so we sacrificed
power for the utmost speed and experienced some trouble getting our
powered buggy back up the hill without the aid of some pushing.
However we had satisfied our curiosity at what we could do in
assembling machinery, and we also figured out time had about run
out so we quickly dismantled our gas buggy, putting everything back
in its place before dad got home. However we were proud of our
endeavor, and we told him what we had done. He didn’t seem to
care a bit. Maybe we tore it down too quick.
On occasions these small engines could be downright mean to
start, if you did not know what you were doing, they could kick.
One avoided this by holding in the intake valve with one hand while
cranked flywheel momentum was built up to fast pace by the other
hand, then the intake valve was released and starting usually took
place safely. Now on one occasion, (this last engine was showing
wear, lack of compression etc.,) we would remove the spark plug and
squirt in a couple shots of gasoline from a pump action oil can
through the spark plug hole, replace plug and crank the engine,
being careful to hold that intake valve in, the engine would take
off with several real bangs!
My youngest brother also thought he could command this engine,
after all he seen and knew how we went about starting it. He may
have been about 11 years old. He also primed the engine good
through the spark plug hole and turned it over, however he lacked
the proper technique or muscle and the engine kicked back viciously, breaking his arm. He went to his dad (All of us were
gathered in the machine shop at the time) and remarked something
like “– arm all broke”, dad looked him over and assured him
that it really was broken “– but I don’t want my arm
broke!” he cried amid tears. His arm was soon in a cast and
sling and no one got reprimanded for the venture.
Dad was neighborhood doctor of ailing engines, often called upon
to start balky ‘pump engines’, to fix ailing small washing
machine motors then in use, mounted under the washer tub, the
2-cycle Maytag Multi-Motor was one famous one that had to be
treated just right, the use of the right oil and the right mixture
of oil to gasoline was important. He has had to help placate more
than one exasperated housewife that experienced a fruitless washday
and had sent her verbally battered husband after dad. But we
survived, and we would not do without those little engines. You
could tell in a close settled neighborhood which housewife was
racing to be first in getting her engine going on washday. The
staccato exhaust would properly announce the proceedings along with
an oily blue haze in the yard if you were burning oil mixed with
gasoline. If we did not hear a neighbors’ engine exhaust we
would wonder if sickness or trouble was involved, as one did not
usually miss Monday morning wash day. Now of course, washing takes
place any hour of the day or night, or any day of the week.
At this time we were also located about a block away from a
grain elevator. Dad and I was called over several times to start
the big kerosene burning engine used for power (it may have been a
Fairbanks-Morse). I watched carefully how it was done and
thereafter I started this engine several times when called upon.
Cooling water came from a cistern and water was re-circulated by a
belt driven reciprocating piston pump. On a hard working day, light
steam could be seen rising out of the top of the cistern. After the
engine was oiled up, one worked this pump by hand with a long
handle inserted into a socket to be sure water was started up to
the engine, and the pump in prime. Starting gasoline was turned on
to the carburetor, the flywheel was then rocked back and forth with
the valves and piston in the right relationship to draw in a fuel
charge. One foot was placed in next a spoke at the bottom of the
flywheel and the flywheel rim was grasped by the hands at the top.
(The flywheel stood as tall as I was.) The engine could not be
turned over even this way, as the compression was too great. Now
the magneto had been preset with a little trip lever, and as you
rocked the engine backward against compression with all your might,
and before the flywheel would bounce back, removing your foot from
the flywheel at the same time, you quickly reached with one hand
and struck this lever, sparking the engine, and away she would go.
I could always get this engine running on the first try and really
enjoyed the chance to get to start it. While the engine was
running, warming up on gasoline, you checked the oilers, and water
circulation. After several minutes the gasoline supply was turned
off, and kerosene was turned on from an underground tank.
Then electricity came through — how sad that this engine was
junked and busted up with sledge hammers.
Today I have an original model gas engine to play with, designed
and built it myself. I can quickly crank it up on a moments notice,
and often do, right in the house! (Here you are, some advantages
over steam again!) Specifications: 1 foot Bore by 1 foot stroke,
water hopper cooled, atmospheric, intake valve, hit & miss
governed, adjustable speed while running, 2-ring cast iron piston
(the only cast iron used), welded steel block and base, full wet
cylinder, 6 foot dia. flywheels, open crankcase, hardened valve
seats, stainless steel valves, spark plug ignition,
battery-coil-gas tank self contained in base.
Presently, I belt it up to an electric generator or to a model
cord-wood buzz saw with 4 foot dia. saw-blade, with a flat belt
drive. Incidentally, endless flat belts are easily homemade by
borrowing some of your wifes “Iron-On Patch Tape” and by
folding or using a couple of layers and a hot iron (also from the
wife, be sure to ask her first) you can concoct a belt of various
widths and lengths, all “endless”.
A number of you readers would remember dad, thresherman,
sheller-man, inventor and manufacturer; Amer W. Cook.
Here is a picture of my W 50 McDeering, 6 cylinder, 450 cu. in., 80. 75 hp, 1625 Rev.
This is my youngest son, John, with a 30-60 Fairbanks Morse tractor I made with discarded gears and chain drive. The
little flywheel on the engine turns when pushed across the floor. It is ALL STEEL, no plastic or fillers used.
Pictured is my Rumely Oil Pull taken at my farm in 1955. My son, Gerald and I are on the engine.
Double header train on Mojove Desert. Construction of Los Angeles Aqueduct.
26 hp Samson Gas Engine, built in 1890 — picture taken at Miller’s near Modesto, California — July 1959.
This is a picture of my Bessemer engine I got about two years ago from an old Carpenter I knew. He bought it in 1915 and
used it in his shop on a table saw. It is a 4 horse gaso kero type and runs good. I have shown it at Midwest Threshers
Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. The plate on it says it was made at Grove City, Pa. The number of the engine is 1328.
This picture is of a 1914 Ford with a Fond du Lac tractor attachment. I located this one in a romote part of Lake County,
California. The elderly gentleman who owned it would not part with it. It has had considerable use; the owner claimed to
have built all his roads with it. He has since passed away, and I have no idea what has become of the machine.
This is a 1936 Huber owned and restored by the Zaring Brothers of Shelbyville, Kentucky. We bought this tractor in March
1966 from an abandonded sawmill and finished it this September. It has a Waukesha engine which starts on the third turn every time.
Here is a picture of my spoke flywheel John Deere, 1924, and the other one is a 1929.
Here is a picture of most of my tractors, three of them are missing here. The years of the tractors which I own ae:
D-1924, D-1929, 2D-1936, D-1946. I have 5 GP that are between 1930 and 1936 and one GP that is a 1927 and one “B” John
Deere, 1936. All the tractors run perfectly and I have had to overhaul some of them and those are now in good running order.
A 1914 Fairbanks Morse Oil Tractor owned by the Zaring Brothers of Shelbyville, Kentucky. This is a 25 horse power one
cylinder engine. A Shelby County family traded several fine Jersey cows for this engine in 1917. Its origin is Macon, Georgia. It arrived in Shelbyville in September 1917 from Macon by Southern Railways. It stayed in the county from then on. We bought it in 1964 making us the fourth owner. This engine really pops good. Who has another one?
Arthur Hudachek is pulling a 14 inch 3 bottom plow which plows 7 inches deep. Also pulling a-harrow with a 1918 10-20 Titan.
This is a picture, of a 11/2 hp International Gas Engine. My Dad found this one in a junk pile in the woods. It was very
weather worn, and had to be sandblasted before I could paint it. It looks and runs like new.
This is a two hp New Holland Engine which was used to saw wood. It is not restored yet, but it runs very well. The big one
in the background is a 5 hp New Holland engine. The little one is a 11/2 hp Fairbanks Morse, it also is in good running
condition. The left front is a 1 1/2 hp Domestic Engine, which was used to pump water.
Alamo “Blue Line” Type A, 4 hp, 385 rpm, No. 83045. Made by Alamo Mfg. Co., Hillsdale, Michigan. One of my collection,
this one runs, but is unrestored. (Fuel pump and lines are removed.)
Brush Runabout, 1903. This fire-red beauty owned and restored by Stanley Francis who operates Golden Restoration, 850 Nile St., Golden, Colo., stopped by my shop for a picture and a ride. Its one-cylinder engine gets it around pretty good.
I suppose many of you have heard the old fisherman’s story about the “big one” that got away. Well, here’s the “big one” that got away from me. It was first used to thrash with then to power a saw mill and finally to power a cider mill. It was belted to a planing mill when I took this picture. This is an International 15 hp engine and with it were many extra parts so I guess this was the BIG one that got away.