The amazing rescue and restoration of a 1912 2 hp Sparta engine from the bottom of a lake.
John Asmus' 1912 Sparta engine.
Manufacturer: Holm's Machine Manufacturing Co., Sparta, MI
Year: Circa 1912
Serial Number: NA
Horsepower: 2 hp @ 450rpm
Bore & stroke: 4in x 6in
Ignition: Igniter, coil and battery
It was getting late and I was busy unloading our vehicles, but they said they were sure about it. So, I put my goggles on and jumped off the raft. Imagine my surprise: “It” was an engine, and it appeared to be complete with the mixer, muffler and igniter!
Ever since I was a kid, our family vacations have usually brought us to the Finger Lakes region of New York state. This was the third year we had rented this particular house on Canandaigua Lake, the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes, and our 2014 vacation started off like many others.
We had helped out at our local Wyoming County (Pike) Fair the week before our trip to the lake, mostly with the antique and farm displays. On the day we arrived at the lake, my daughters and stepson headed to the lake while my wife, parents and I unloaded the vehicles. The kids went swimming out to the swim platform, which was about 100 feet from shore and in about 10 feet of water. As we were unpacking for the week, I heard my oldest daughter, Bella, shout for me to come out right away, that she found an engine “like the ones at Pike fair” – at the bottom of the lake.
I was skeptical – to say the least – and went about unpacking. By now, her younger sister and older stepbrother were also calling me out. The lake was clearer than in years past, and they were using goggles and swimming around the chain that held the platform to the lake bottom. They were quite adamant, so I went for a swim, and indeed, there was an engine.
The next day, I called our landlord and asked if he knew there was an old engine being used as an anchor. “Yes, I know, I put it there,” he said, telling me he found the engine on an abandoned farmstead in the early 1970s. The landowner was clearing the land and told him to take it if he wanted it. He brought it home and it sat in his garage for about a year. The following summer, with work and life keeping him busy, they decided to use it as an anchor for the raft at their lake house. They built a platform for it to sit on a row boat, and once it was on there rowed the boat out to the spot and gave it a shove! It landed belt pulley side down, and there it sat for the next 40-plus years.
He said he kind of felt bad about it, and if I thought I could do something with it, we could make a deal for it. After all, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” We eventually agreed on $75 and a replacement anchor, and to return for it at the end of the rental season for the rescue mission.
In late October of that year, I loaded up whatever I thought we would possibly need for the rescue. My good friends and steam show display partners, Mark and Jen, and Brad, came along for the two-hour trip to the lake. We had rough ideas of either floating it out by cinching it to a boat or dragging it out with the winch I had mounted on the stone shield of my 1-ton dump truck. While we were at the cabin that summer, I was able to pry the engine off the bottom of the lake and push it upright using an oak branch.
We backed my truck down close to the water and met with the owner. He had already removed the platform and the docks, but the chain was still attached to a buoy and floating. We decided to see if we could move it with the winch, agreeing not to force it if it was pulling hard.
We attached the chain to the engine, going through both flywheels, and we were concerned about damaging the engine or cracking a flywheel. It took all of my many straps, but slowly we were able to winch it to shallow water. From there the four of us carried it to shore, using some boards to winch it up the stairs leading to the lake. There were many creatures living in it, and lots of barnacles, but the engine didn’t look too bad and was very complete. We secured it and headed for home. Brad was looking it up on the way home, and decided it was an early Sparta, and he was right. There is no tag, but appears to be circa-1912 vintage.
Upon getting it home, I took as much apart as I could and began soaking the piston. Amazingly, all the nuts and bolts on the engine came loose, even smaller set screws. Through the winter and spring of 2015 my father, William Asmus, began taking parts of the engine to his shop – and taking an interest in the engine. He is a retired machinist and has a small shop of his own.
At his shop the piston was scientifically removed with a 12-pound sledge and a piece of wood (no heat required). The exposed bore was quite pitted, but pristine where the piston had been covering it, and this area used to line up for future machining.
At 11.5 inches the Sparta’s bore length was too long to be machined in my father’s mill. However, he had purchased a 1930s Storm boring bar at an auction for $20. It was in sad shape and missing the tooling, but it did have the 12 inches of travel needed, so bit by bit, he restored the boring bar.
This boring bar was designed to bore out car engines while still in the car, using the engine block as its mounting base. Since the Sparta block is not big enough to mount the boring bar, I found and stripped a large truck transmission to use as a base. Its perpendicular machined surfaces allowed us to securely mount the boring bar and the engine’s cylinder block.
The bore was cut to provide a slight press fit for a custom-made 1/8-inch-thick sleeve from Melling Cylinder Sleeves. After the sleeve was installed a further 0.020 inches of material was removed to bring the bore to the original 4 inches. New rings from Otto Gas Engine Works were installed on the old piston. Things were looking up!
The engine’s igniter was also badly corroded. Some parts of it were paper thin, and finding another proved hard and expensive, but with some welding and machine work it is again firing this engine. Incredibly, the original Lunkenheimer mixer just needed a cleaning and a new spring to be functional. I did buy a new governor assembly, as the original was seized tight. Unfortunately, when I received the replacement, it turned out to have been previously cracked and poorly repaired, so we used the weights from it on the original governor, and it works well. The springs are hardware store “guesstimates,” but we found the right ones. I also replaced the igniter trip arm, as the original was half rusted away.
Both valves and springs were replaced with used ones, along with the connecting rod, which we no longer trusted. The reassembly went fairly smooth. New oilers were added, and the engine was now turning over with compression. After some tinkering and my father setting the timing as best he could, it fired and ran for a couple minutes for the first time on the evening of Aug. 24, 2016!
After the initial run, dad continued to dial it in. I added a nice low-tension coil and it has become a very reliable engine, starting on the first or second tug on the flywheels. I have no plans to ever paint it. There are traces of the barnacles on it yet to this day, I like the story they tell, and I’m not into shiny things.
Unfortunately, the gentleman I purchased the engine from passed away before we were able to get it running. He was a nice guy; I had hoped he could see it run. We display it at the Western New York Gas and Steam Engine Assn. show. Dad and I have been life members since 1988 and have not missed a year since. I owe thanks to him for getting me into the hobby that has been so enjoyable for me and my family. Over the years, we have added four fellow friends and displayers to our “group” and look forward to our show each year, which is always held the weekend after Labor Day in September. Look for us there: We have the large Army tent and old campers!
It has been a great family project for us. We hope you enjoy the story it tells!
Special thanks to William Asmus for his machinist expertise, the engine cart and getting me into the hobby! Also to Mark Joachimiak, Jen Kempston and Brad Hennig for their help in the rescue mission (they are great friends and great helpers!), Mike Houlihan for the old cart we display the boring bar on and Bella Asmus for finding it on the bottom of the lake!