Larger Than Life

By Staff
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The De La Vergne’s enormous, spinning flywheels give viewers a dizzying sensation, as well as a sense of how powerful this 125 HP engine really is.
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View of the working side of the De La Vergne, showing the vertical flyball governor, sideshaft and fuel pump.
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The building housing the big De La Vergne attracts a lot of attention during the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion show each year, where the 125 HP machine is run every day.
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The lower oilers are for lubricating the piston, while the uppers lubricate the wrist pin.
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A close-up of the 6-foot- diameter belt pulley, which was hooked up to metal-design machines when the De La Vergne was working in the W.F. Norman Sheet Metal Works plant in Nevada, Mo., starting in 1904.
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This is how the De La Vergne looked while sitting in the sheet metal plant, circa 1905. (Photo provided by Keven Withers.)

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

More than Engines

During the 1890s, the company produced a pair of unlikely items:
First, in about 1895, was the De La Vergne Hunting Trap, a
gas-powered automobile that moved at the unheard-of speed of 10
MPH. “Only one of these automobiles was ever built,” said
Baldwin-Southwark Magazine, “as the board could see no market for
this product.” Second, after the company supplied New York City’s
Hippodrome with an ice manufacturing plant for the ice-skating
rink, they came up with the idea of blowing cooled air under
spectators’ seats. Unfortunately, the audience didn’t like it, and
blamed their colds and illnesses on the cold air.

World’s Fair

In 1903, De La Vergne Refrigeration manufactured a 125 HP dual
flywheel oil engine for display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St.
Louis. That was where W.F. Norman Sheet Metal Works first saw it,
and purchased it. At their Nevada, Mo., plant, they belted it to a
line shaft to power machines that formed sheet metal, says Jim
Withers of Osakis, Minn., owner of the De La Vergne engine and one
of the WMSTR men who went to Nevada, Mo., to see the engine. “The
first time we walked around that engine we knew we wanted to buy
it,” Jim says.

As Jerome Swedberg adds, “I’m sure it took five minutes to walk
around the engine the first time, because there were so many
unusual and massive parts to inspect.” Measuring the flywheel, they
discovered it was indeed more than 9 feet in diameter, with a
12-1/2-inch face. The cylinder bore was 26 inches, and the stroke
was 38 inches. Valve heads were 10 inches in diameter, stems 1-1/2
inches in diameter, and the exhaust pipe was a foot in diameter,
soaring 30 feet through the roof. After inspecting the behemoth,
the parties agreed to a 60-day written option for $4,000, plus $500
to remove the exhaust pipe and repair the roof.

A Little Bit of Figuring, a Little Bit of Hauling

The lone exit door was 6 feet square, which meant, after careful
measuring, Jerome says, that the engine base and cylinder would fit
with less than an inch of clearance. “By enlarging the height of
the door to 9 feet 5 inches, we thought we could wiggle the
flywheels and (15 foot long) crankshaft through this opening at an

Then the party headed out to Little Rock, where they found the
Muncie engine just as it had been described: 7-foot flywheels, 85
HP, weighing 13 tons. “But this engine was sort of an anti-climax,”
Jerome says. “How could we be interested in an engine with 7-foot
flywheels when we had just bought one with 9-foot flywheels
weighing three times as much?” The answer was, they couldn’t, so
they returned home. Later, Warren O’Day, Curt Baxter, Jim and Jeff
Withers and Jerome returned to Nevada, Mo., and began disassembling
the big De La Vergne.

The small pieces, Jerome says, took up to five people to carry.
The flywheels and crankshaft, which alone weighed 15 tons, were
jacked up and removed from the main bearings, using rollers and a
small come-along, until they were out of the building.

The next morning, the 20-ton base and cylinder were raised using
10-foot jack handles on each side. “The 2-inch bolts were cut off
and rollers were placed under the base. We then proceeded to move
it towards the door, again with the small come-along,” Jerome says.
The small parts were loaded in a U-Haul truck, and the rest by
large crane on two semis, and were transported to the Rollag,
Minn., WMSTR grounds. It was set up that summer on a cement
foundation, with a lot of volunteer help.

Keven Withers, Jim’s son, says, “We try to run it all four days
of the show, starting it in the morning and running it all day,
unless we run into problems.” It has run every year since, except
one year when Jim Withers was sick, and another year when it needed
a series of repairs.

Some of those repairs included a cracked vaporizer chamber,
which caused water to get into the fuel. One of the first years,
the rod bearing burned out, but they managed to get it repoured and
turned during the show. “We worked all night to get it repaired,
and the engine was up and running the next day,” Jim says.

Maintenance of the engine isn’t a big problem, Jim says. “Before
we enclosed the building, the engine needed quite a bit of cleaning
before each show, and we had to check the oil holes and such to
make sure they were open. There’s really not a lot of other
maintenance to it.” Called an oil engine, it will run on diesel
fuel or crude oil. Keven says, “If it’s crude oil from out east,
it’s good enough to burn the way it is, but if it’s from Texas or
California where they have thicker crude, it has to be preheated to
thin it out so it will pump through the injector nozzle.
Pennsylvania crude has a consistency of about 10-weight oil and is
very nice crude.”

Starting the Beast

Starting the De La Vergne was a problem for years, Jim says. For
many years, a WK-40 tractor and belt was used, but they worried
about the dangers of the belt to people who watched and weren’t
inclined to move away when it was starting. “We’d always had it in
the back of our heads that we wanted a separate way of starting it,
and when we finally enclosed the building about six years ago, a
good friend built a friction wheel for starting the engine. That
made a lot of difference. When we had the cracked vaporizer
chamber, we had a lot of trouble getting it started because the
water in the vaporizing chamber would cool everything down and mix
with the fuel and give us trouble. Now, though, it’s generally easy

At first, they were thinking of using an air starter, but a
friend talked them out of it because in the old days the heads blew
off of the engines when air was pumped in at 150 psi. And if the
flywheels didn’t move, the air worked as compression with the fuel
and caused an explosion. “If the piston and flywheels didn’t get
moving, you’d have a pretty good explosion and blow the head

The biggest danger with a hot head oil engine is, if it’s loaded
up with fuel when it’s started, it can have a tendency to run away,
Jim says. “So you have to be prepared. If you hold one of the
valves on a 4-cycle engine open, you can generally get it under
control. The head needs to be heated up for starting and ignition;
once the engine is started, the head will stay hot enough to keep
it running.

This big De La Vergne isn’t a true diesel engine, Keven says, as
the head has to be heated with a torch, so it’s called an “oil
vaporizing engine,” which takes the fuel and air mixture on the
intake stroke, while a true diesel has fuel injected right at
top-dead-center of the power stroke.

Gravity-fed cooling is accomplished via a 12-foot tall, 12-foot
diameter water barrel. “There’s a little sump tank in the floor,
and the sump pump pumps the water back into the barrel. The engine
will actually heat up all that water in the barrel.” The biggest
thing to remember with the De La Vergne in a climate like
Minnesota’s is to drain all the water before winter. It would just
be way too expensive to put that much antifreeze into the barrel.
After polishing the metal down with oil, the big machine weathers
well over the winter.

Keven says he enjoys the size of the engine most of all, “and it
runs good, too.” He says people will often say they had an engine
on the farm just like this one – or especially like one of the
smaller farm engines at WMSTR – but they are remembering it through
the eyes of a five- or six-year-old, and get it all out of
perspective. “They remember their 8 or 10 HP engine had 72-inch
wheels.” Every once in a while, somebody will talk about the steam
and gas engines of their youth, but that’s happening less and less
nowadays, Jim says.

People are pretty impressed with the engine when they see it,
Keven says. “A lot of people feel that it probably has more
horsepower than it does for its size, but mostly people want to
know what it did in its working years. It usually draws a big crowd
when we start it.”

Keven, who is now in charge of the big machine at the yearly
WMSTR show, says most of the literature on the 125 HP De La Vergne
shows the engine with only a single flywheel, “So this one is
probably the only one built with two wheels, because it was built
for the World’s Fair. At the W.F. Norman Co., it was used to make
those decorative tin ceiling tiles.”

Full Circle

Keven and his father returned to Nevada, Mo., six years ago to
find that the old building that housed the De La Vergne was still
there, and new tenants had started working with the old dies again,
making decorative tin for restoration purposes. “Funny how things
evolve,” he says. “They’re starting to make that tinwork again.”
The new owners were glad they stopped in, and were quite interested
in knowing about the old De La Vergne. They only had the old
photograph, the same as the one given to Jim in 1976 (at lower
left), of the big machine in its original engine room, so they were
anxious for more information.

Keven says nobody knew until after the big De La Vergne had been
purchased, moved and set up that it’s probably the only one of its
kind – the largest single-cylinder, dual flywheel, open crankcase,
4-cycle, internal combustion engine running in the world.

“There could be some bigger with only one flywheel, and lots of
steam engines are bigger, but no gas or diesel engine, that we know
of, that has two flywheels.”

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several
books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372,
400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414;

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