Nelson Engine One for the Ages

An early Nelson engine resurfaces as a family heirloom after several decades.


| December 2016/January 2017



Nelson Engine

This circa-1905 8 hp Nelson gas engine is one of approximately 18 known to the Barretts. Production figures no longer exist, but the line was known to stretch from 3 hp to 15 hp in hopper- and tank-cooled models.

Photo by Loretta Sorensen

Family treasures are seldom found at the bottom of a silt-filled ditch. But that’s exactly where Tim Barrett and his family discovered an early gas engine – an 8 hp Nelson – that has quickly become a treasured heirloom.

“It was manufactured in Harlan, Iowa, by Nelson Gas Engine & Automobile Co.,” Tim says. “My grandfather purchased the engine new somewhere around 1905 and used it to power various implements around the farm. I know it powered the cup elevator used to fill the corncrib. When electricity came to his area in the 1950s, Grandpa had no use for the engine. His solution was to toss it into a ditch.”

As far as the family knows, Tim’s grandfather unbolted the Nelson from its original cart and pushed the engine into a ditch along a creek that passed through the farm. The cart, however, still had functional value, so it was repurposed to hold a wagon box that remained in use for many years. “That’s why we still had the cart,” Tim says. “It was in the barn with the wagon box on it.”

The search begins

Tim had heard stories about the Nelson for years. His dad, John, was fairly young when the engine went into the ditch, but he had a good recollection of the spot where it was buried. “Around 1985 I started bugging him about where it was,” Tim says. “In 1988, on the 4th of July, I brought the skid loader home from work and we started looking for the engine.”

Tim’s brother Darrell (since deceased) had a gift for “witching,” using a metal rod to find water. As it turns out, the rod also led him to the engine. “Darrell went out in the area where Dad thought the engine might be and found something,” Tim says. “He took a rod and started probing in the area where he suspected the engine was buried. Finally he hit something. It turned out to be the engine.”

It took five hours for the family and several curious neighbors to excavate the weighty, unwieldy chunk of iron, first pushing dirt away and then pulling the engine out with a skid loader. “At the first sighting of a little bit of flywheel, Dad was thrilled,” Tim says. “I was too. We were really surprised the flywheel didn’t break when it was dumped in the ditch.”