Decatur Owego Leader and Norm Westervelt.
5855 Lisle Road, Owego, New York 13827
Tioga County, New York, celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1991 with all the pomp and hoop-la befitting the occasion. I was serving as the County Historian and was dedicated to the success of all the programs and events; parades, dances, Old Home Days, history book, historical hikes and walks, video tapes, etc. Yet, something was missing that would appeal to some of the old-timers. We needed to show off special whatever of county history that had not been officially recognized before.
I decided to rummage through old artifacts stored in the carriage house behind the Tioga County Historical Society Museum. What is this? The rusted hunk of iron looked like an old engine. After removing a lot of stuff that had been piled on top of it, I could see what looked like a nameplate. I couldn't resist dragging it out to the light.
The nameplate was readable and it had our county seat, Owego, New York, shown as co-manufacturer. The plate read Leader Iron Works, Decatur, Illinois and Owego, New York, serial V124710,1 HP, 550 RPM. I looked up the donation card and found that it came from the Ackles farm at North Spencer, Tioga County.
After a little more digging in the miscellaneous artifact pile I found an old vegetable root cutter that was branded by Colmman and Horton of Nichols, New York.
I thought that the engine and cutter would make a nice duo for a piece of our county history if they could possibly be restored to running condition. A steam and gasoline show was scheduled as a part of the County's Old Home Day at Hickories Park. This event would provide an excellent opportunity to show the public another part of our history.
John Shumway of Nichols was a one longer gasoline engine buff. I asked him if he knew enough about this type of engine to get it running. He shook his head no, but said that he knew someone who might just have the smarts to do it.
The next day, John brought Norm Westervelt to the carriage house and introduced him as his friend, neighbor, and restorer of Silver King tractors. Norm just stood there, looking down at the pile of rust with flywheels and started grinning from ear to ear. He thought it would be quite a challenge to really get it to operate but was anxious to try, even if it meant losing John's friendship. We loaded both the engine and chopper on John's pickup.
Three months later John called me to meet Norm and him at the carriage house. Wow! What a surprise. They had the engine and root chopper off the truck onto the ground and belted together. The old rusted clunker of an engine looked brand new; shiny dark green still bolted to newly painted black 4x4's. As I stood looking dumbfounded, Norm reaches down, turns the gas on and spins a flywheel. That old/new Leader engine popped right off, running and purring like a kitten. Fantastic! We had our Tioga County originated, authentic, working, show entry for our county's Old Home Day celebration, thanks to John and Norm.
Norm said that the inside wasn't rusted nearly as bad as the outside and that the piston was easily freed to move. Naturally, everything had to be taken apart piece by piece. The cylinder wall was honed by hand and Ford 8N 3 3/16 inch rings cut down to 3 inches fit perfectly. Ford 8N valves were heated to soften the end for drilling a hole to fit a cotter pin. The valve seats were fairly good after some grinding.
A little ingenuity was necessary to set up a workable spark source. The original igniter was missing, so a plate was made to hold a spark plug. Another plate was made to hold regular automobile points that would make and break via the cam just opposite of its original intent. It took Norm two tryst to make this plate, ending up with oversize mounting holes to fit and to allow for proper timing adjustments. The gas supply tank was missing. A fruit cake tin was fashioned to replace the old pancake style tank.
Of course all the parts required a lot of sanding and polishing. Norm used a dark green paint that appeared to match the original paint. After he had painted it green, the armchair experts thought the original color may have been black.
When all the parts were back together, Norm found that he could not turn the engine over fast enough to have it start. Here again common sense prevailed to loosen up a tight engine. He hooked it up by belt to his 1 HP Hercules engine, made sure everything was well oiled, and let his engine run the Leader for a few minutes. After that, it has started up by hand and has done so ever since. In fact, this engine ran nonstop for six hours belted to the root chopper at the county show.
The history of this 1 HP Leader engine is quite interesting. During 1910, the Leader Iron Works, Decatur, Illinois, manufactured and sold pneumatic water supply systems and decided to expand sales by establishing a distribution center in northeast United States. They selected Owego, Tioga County, New York, primarily for the railroad connections. A modern warehouse was erected in 1912 and it included an outstanding showroom.
Leader was recognized for its reliable service, at and after installation, to their customers. Two men were on call at Owego for making repairs in the shop or in the field. Most of their service problems were with the water pump and gasoline engine. Leader took advantage of the situation, made the men full time employees, and sent extra parts for the engine to Owego. When these men were not working on repairs they actually assembled complete new engines that were added to their inventory. This kept the men busy, helped with engine production, but above all put these two men in experienced position for possible production line expansion of the 1 HP engine at Owego.
As far as we know, all the Leader's 1 HP engines used the Stover style 'V' casting as signified by the letter 'V' at the beginning of the serial number on the nameplate. If the plate had Owego, New York on it, that was where it was assembled. There may have been up to five hundred manufactured in Owego, New York.
Leader had good intentions of establishing a manufacturing plant for this engine in Owego by 1917. Instead, the United States economy was not good, causing the Leader Iron Works to close their distribution center in Owego and return it to Decatur, Illinois.