After a Life Working In Montana, a Giant of the Oil Fields Retires In Iowa
Starting air tank on the Superior proudly lists the people who made the restoration possible.
Wilbur Swartzendruber of Wellman, Iowa, wants the story of his family's 1920 Superior gas engine on the record. 'It's a 40-60 Superior,' Wilbur says, 'with two 5-1/2-foot, cast-iron flywheels with spokes. It starts on air and runs on LP gas. At 300 revolutions, it produces 40 HP; at 350 revolutions, it produces 50 HP; and at 400 revolutions, it produces 60 HP.'
The engine, now permanently stored at the Old Threshers showgrounds in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, was manufactured in 1920 in Springfield, Ohio, by the Superior Gas Engine Co., and spent its working life in Montana, simultaneously pumping two oil wells. Wilbur says he thinks it was located near Cut Bank. He purchased the engine in 2001 from the late Ralph Wilson of Atkins, Iowa, who brought it to Iowa from Montana but never got it restored.
When Wilbur first saw the Superior at Atkins, it was in sad shape. It had no trucks and had been sitting directly on the ground for so long the flywheels were buried some eight inches deep. He and Ralph dug it out, and as they put it on a flatbed truck they saw the flywheels turn, signaling the engine wasn't stuck.
Wilbur, who is 77, hauled the Superior to Wellman, and as he drove into town on his way home with the engine Earl Werts spotted it and followed him home. 'Do you want to work on it,' Wilbur recalls asking Earl as they looked over the derelict engine. Earl, who is now 81, replied, 'I sure do.' More help came from local friends Jim Seward and George Miller Jr., who along with Earl pitched in to help Wilbur restore the Superior. Earl did the mechanical work; Seward, who is Wellman's fire chief, did the painting and lettering; and George made the sturdy 4- by 6-foot oak tongue for the engine's new trucks.
'We took it all apart and sandblasted a portion of it,' Wilbur says. 'We took mice nests out of the cylinder and oil sludge out of the back.' According to Wilbur, the original manual that came with the machine stated that the most important part of the engine was the oiler - and that was the piece in the worst condition. Earl had to make seven new parts to put the oiler back together again and make it functional.
The restored engine was started for the first time in 2001, and then displayed at the 2001 Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Wilbur had the engine running again at the 2002 Reunion. 'We just idle it,' Wilbur says, adding, 'I also have a 4 HP Sandwich engine and the Superior starts easier than the four-horse.' When the engine is running, he keeps a locked padlock on the air tank, because 'if somebody turned the air on, the engine would blow up.'
The Superior draws quite a crowd when it's running, the entire unit rocking back and forth with every fire of the engine - and Wilbur says he found out the hard way that it's got to rock. 'Last year, I drove a steel pin into the ground (to keep it from rocking), and it broke the casting on the truck.'
Another view of the Superior. A two-stroke design, the engine runs on propane. Crowds love watching it run, rocking back and forth as it fires.
Wilbur says his original plan was to restore and then sell the Superior, but when his sons saw the restored engine they decided it should stay in the family and proposed buying some shares. So now, Wilbur, his wife, Lois, and their sons, Doug of Castro Valley, Calif., and Jim of Wellman, own the engine jointly.
Contact engine enthusiast Wilbur Swartzendruber at: 1211 9th Ave., Wellman, IA 52356, (319)646-2216.