Larger Than Life

Massive De La Vergne has a Long History

| June 2005

Once you've seen an engine with 9-foot flywheels, how can you go back to one with flywheels a mere 7 feet high? That's what members of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion (WMSTR) group were thinking after their first sighting of a 1903 De La Vergne 125 HP oil engine.

As Jerome Swedberg writes in the 1976 Memories of Bygone Years, WMSTR's annual book, "Early in the spring of 1976, we heard rumor about a large, dual flywheel stationary engine for sale south of Little Rock, Ark. The flywheels were supposed to be about 7 feet in diameter." It was an 85 HP Muncie engine.

Just as they were about to set out, the late Harold Ottaway of Wichita, Kan., called to say he knew of a similar engine in Nevada, Mo., with 9-foot flywheels.

The group left for Little Rock from Fargo, N.D., at 9 a.m., drove all night, and arrived in Nevada, Mo., at 1 p.m. the next day. Jerome says, "We then located the W.F. Norman Sheet Metal Mfg. Co., a beautiful turn of the century brick building with a red tile roof, covering half a square block. Upon entering the engine room, we stood in awe. There in the middle of the room was the largest engine we had ever imagined seeing."


About a century before WMSTR's 1976 discovery of their 125 HP De La Vergne, John C. De La Vergne organized the De La Vergne Refrigeration Machine Co. The original intent was to manufacture refrigeration machines for breweries. His first machine had a 70-ton refrigeration capacity for Burr & Son Co. brewery in New York City. Soon the company was providing refrigeration for most of America's best known breweries, as well as some overseas. By the 1890s, De La Vergne ref- rigeration was used by hotels, restaurants, dairies, creameries, chocolate manufacturers, steamships and many more businesses.

After De La Vergne died in 1892, the business was taken over by Jacob Ruppert, who was interested in oil engines to meet the demand to power ice-making machines. "The result," said the 1936 issue of the Baldwin-Southwark Magazine, "was the first commercially-successful oil engine in the world." This forerunner of the diesel is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and was an improved design of the Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine, first produced in 1891, and invented by Akroyd Stuart of England. Sole American rights to manufacture the Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine were obtained by the De La Vergne Co. in 1893. In 1896, the company obtained the rights to produce Koerting gas engines.


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