James Johnson got interested in gas engines when he made the 1,600-mile trip from his home in Chehalis, Washington, to the WMSTR (Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion) show in Rollag, Minnesota, in 1980. Now 76, James had been there with his father in 1955, but that 1980 trip was different. “Since my dad had passed away, I spent a lot of time with my father’s brothers, and from that time until they passed on, my brother Jerry and I would go back and help them with their collection of engines at Rollag,” James says.
Those experiences urged James to start his own engine collection, beginning with a 1920s 2-1/2hp Faultless, which he bought at one of the first shows he attended in the Northwest in 1982. “I still have that engine. I got it from a friend of mine. It looked like an interesting engine, and at that event there wasn’t much else available, so I bought it. Over the years I’ve had a lot of fun with it,” James says. “Though the Faultless is not a popular brand of engine, and it’s not rare, either, but I still have it. I haven’t let go of almost any of my engines. I guess I’m a kind of hoarder,” he laughs.
Building a collection
One time sitting with his friend Chuck, a New Way engine collector, Chuck gave him a pencil and said James should put his name in the battery box of a New Way engine Chuck had that he especially liked. “I said, ‘What’s that for?’ And Chuck said, ‘It’s just a reminder to me.'” It’s an offshoot of people putting their business card in a battery box of an engine to show the owner that they are interested in buying it.
Chuck had one of the largest New Way engine collections in the United States, so from time to time James would ask when Chuck was going to sell him one out of his extensive collection. In 2000, James and Chuck were sitting together at a show in Mt. Vernon, Washington, when Chuck pointed at one of his New Way engines and asked James if he recognized it. “Sure,” James said, “That’s the one I put my name in the battery box.” “That’s right,” Chuck said.
“Well, I don’t want to take it home today.” And that’s how James started his New Way engine collection.
After that, Chuck would occasionally call James and ask him to come visit his place in Alger, Washington. “Another friend, Woody, would also be there, and we’d go out in his shop where he’d have a rip-roaring fire and sit there and tell lies. On one of the trips up there, he said to me and Woody, ‘Which one of the engines in my collection would you most like to have?’ So I mentioned the largest and the smallest ones in his collection, the 1915 New Way 12hp Twin, and the small 1-1/2hp Type M engine.”
Later, James bought those two engines, as well as a series of others, all New Ways, for his own collection, including a 1912 1hp New Way Little Giant pumping engine he found. Eventually, he and Woody bought all of Chuck’s New Way engines.
For James, the most distinctive feature of New Way engines compared to others is their quality. “They had enclosed crankcases very early on, and they’re very colorful. I get some very favorable comments about their color scheme and pin striping, and the daisies.”
Most New Way engines were used on farms, but the larger ones like the 12hp Twin were used in commercial or industrial applications. “I don’t believe that the New Way originally were sold as a competitive engine. I think they were sold to people who wanted quality, because they are of very high quality,” James says. He enjoys his New Way engines, and his other engines. “I try to see that the public gets to see what some of this stuff is. I enjoy talking with people about engines, and I thoroughly enjoy the younger generation that show interest in them.”
His favorite New Way engine is the 12hp Twin. “That is just such a beautiful running engine.” He’s found only five others in the United States, and he has two complete running engines.
His next favorite would be a New Way 6hp C vertical engine. “That’s a very nice running engine. I own three of them; two that are restored and one that’s just as it came from the farmstead.” James says it’s difficult to date New Way engines as most records have been lost or destroyed and there’s not much other information available, so his information on his own New Ways is limited. “The New Way are my favorites. So I’ve worked very hard at trying to get at least one New Way in all their different horsepowers, and I have pretty well done that.”
The Old Way
James has a few of the oddities in the New Way series, like diesel and kerosene models, and while New Ways are his favorites, his engine collection covers a broad spectrum, including larger gas engines like a 1925 25hp Superior oil field engine, a 60hp Superior Industrial kept at Rollag, and an 8hp and 21hp Otto. He also has an interest in a 35hp Ingeco as well as a couple of big Witts and a large Fairbanks-Morse.
James keeps his big engines at Rollag and the Pioneer Days Machinery and Threshing Show at Albany, Minnesota, has some of his smaller stuff in a space in one of the buildings. The show grounds for Puget Sound Antique Tractor and Machinery Assn. has a building dedicated to his New Ways. “That building was built with lumber they saw on the grounds, and in 2014 a new building was erected and the old one torn down.”
Most of the engines he buys are in good mechanical condition, so he doesn’t have to do much work on them. “I do have my share of derelicts and projects, though, and my hopes are that some day I’ll get to them all.”
He collects engines because of the mechanical challenge that he can see. “My father was very mechanical, and he always built us kids some kind of motorized little cart to run around on. I remember one that was powered with a Maytag engine that we had hours and hours of fun on. He passed away when I was 16, but he left my brother and me a legacy of appreciating mechanical things.”
James used to be interested in building cars for drag racing, but he felt it became too commercialized and he lost interest, and tractors have never really interested him. “So I’m just collecting engines,” he says.
James notes that there aren’t as many engine shows out in the Northwest as there are in the Midwest, doubtless because of agricultural differences. James says that in the Kent, Washington, area where he grew up “crops on the west side of the mountains are truck farming crops, vegetables and the like. In the southern part of the state there are grain products, and the west side of the state is known for timber.”
James makes sure to attend the shows at Brooks, Oregon, and Richfield and Shelton, Washington. “Then there’s the Puget Sound Antique Tractor and Machinery Assn. show at Lynden, Washington. These shows aren’t as big as the ones in Albany or Rollag that I attend in Minnesota. I haven’t visited any shows south of Albany, Minnesota, as I just don’t have the time.”
Perhaps that’s because almost every year he drives 1,750 miles to the Albany show, not to mention thousands of other miles to different shows that he’s become familiar with, trailering a collection of engines on a 24-foot trailer. “It’s worth it,” James says. “My travels have taken me to California, Oregon, Idaho, Canada, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and other places, so I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of this even though every one of those trips is hard work. I usually take something with me, so I’m pulling a 24-foot enclosed trailer everywhere I go.”
In 2010, James was inducted into the Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. Hall of Fame on June 26, 2010, in Paso Robles, California. James enjoys the wonderful people he’s met in the hobby from all over the world. “They are some of the most interesting people. It’s a wonderful hobby with wonderful people.”
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369 or via email.