Starting from the Ground Up with Antique Engines

By Staff
article image
courtesy of Gas Engine Magazine Staff
Emil Knish’s 1920 6hp Sandwich engine, one of his daughter Emily’s favorites. Note the “tulip-shaped” water hopper.

When he got interested in antique stationary engines, Emil Knish started at the bottom – a pile of scrap at his dad’s scrapyard. There, he found a mud-covered mass. It turned out to be a Type 92 Maytag gas engine.

The engine had been buried in the mud for 50 years. “I didn’t know what it was,” Emil says. “When I got it out, a neighbor identified it for me.” Then 23, Emil took the engine apart and restored it. “I couldn’t believe it when it ran,” he says. “I’ve been hooked ever since. That first one is special, and I still have it.”

Thirty-some years later, the Montgomery, Minnesota, carpenter is knee-deep in antique engines. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You guys are nuts”

Emil’s first engine purchase was a red 3hp Fairbanks-Morse with a coil ignition dating to the 1920s. “Everybody said I was nuts to buy it because it was stuck and it had a hopper full of dirt,” he says. “But I figured nothing was broken, so why not buy it?” Within a week, he got the engine running. “That was pretty cool,” he says.

Rusty engine sitting in a yard with green grass

His second engine was a rare 1917 1-1/2hp, 2-cycle railroad Fairmont he bought in an auction. Emil and his dad (Emil II) often attended auctions together. “We were in the truck, waiting for the Fairmont to come up for sale,” Emil recalls. “I thought the pouring rain would dissuade some people, figuring they would leave rather than stand out in the rain.”

He figured wrong. “The other bidders poked holes in garbage bags, wore them as raincoats, and stood out in the rain,” he says. “My father looked at me and said, ‘You guys are nuts.'”

A neighbor commented on the Fairmont’s complicated wiring, but Emil was not discouraged. “He showed me how to wire it,” he says, “and we had it running that afternoon.”

An unusual original: Emerson-Brantingham Type U

Emil’s collection includes a pair of unusual engines: a circa-1916 Emerson-Brantingham 6hp Type U and a 1918 Emerson-Brantingham 1-1/2hp Type H.

Because it still has so much original paint, Emil says the Type U must have spent most of its life in a building, and Emil says he’s not aware of any other Emerson-Brantingham 6hp Type U engine with original paint like his. Interestingly, Emil says his engine has a clay primer under the paint, apparently applied as a filler to make the final finish smoother, perhaps for a sales expo or something similar. “It was probably red pottery clay, smoothed-out and maybe even baked,” Emil says. “I’m not sure. It might have been some kind of marketing deal to make the engine look better.”

Back side of the restored cast iron engine

The propane connection

In restoring the piece, Emil removed grease, oil, and dirt from the engine’s exterior, careful to protect the original paint, and reground the valves. Once he finished the mechanical restoration, he constructed a cart just like the original, using photos he found online.

An orange restored engine with a young lady in a plaid back and red jacket…

Emily and Emil with Emil’s 1920 7hp Rock Island engine. Emily says her younger sister, Kelsey, would attend shows too, if she lived nearby. “We were both around all this old stuff, growing up,” she says.

“I knew the flywheel size,” he explains, “so I measured the cart wheels on the picture and the flywheels and figured a ratio proportion.” He found a set of wheels and a shaft for the rear wheels, added clamps for the rear axle, and had the hubs tightened so they wouldn’t be too sloppy.

“I spent most of the spring of 2016 making that steel cart, then tore it apart and painted it, with the goal of finishing it in time for the Emerson-Brantingham Expo at the Rollag (Minnesota) show,” he says. “I got it running and converted it to propane just two weeks before the show.”

Cast iron engine in a garage or shed

Emil’s 1920 6hp Sandwich engine. Emil says the biggest challenge with gas engines is moving them around. “But we kind of figured that out now too,” he says. “One of my closest friends, Galen Holicky, hooked up an electric hoist on his trailer, and I did the same on my trailer.”

A friend, Jim Keats, taught him how to connect an engine to propane. “You have to find a sweet spot in the engine where the gas and air are just right, and each engine is a little different,” Emil says. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. I’m converting almost every engine I have to propane so they’ll run better. Then there’s no need to drain the gas tank after the show, and no varnish and sludge accumulation on the check balls in the gas line.”

Small orange engine on wheels to make it portable

Emil’s 1918 Emerson-Brantingham 1-1/2hp Type H gas engine, on a factory cart, runs off a battery and coil. “What’s unique about this engine is that it’s a competition, or ‘economy’ model (not to be confused with Sears, Roebuck & Co. Economy engines),” he says. “They cut corners on competition engines to keep the price low.” The engine also has a rotary magneto, a rarely-seen option.

In the old days, he says, engines were routinely connected to natural gas if there was a convenient supply. “If people had that option, living next to a factory or a power house, they did run engines off gas,” Emil says. “People claim the old engines were run only on gasoline or kerosene, but back then, they always tried to find the easiest way possible to do it, no different than today.”

In memory of a friend

Another pair of engines – a 1913 8hp Lauson and a 1920 7hp Rock Island – holds special meaning for Emil. “Lee Anderson completely restored the Lauson,” he says. “It has an original factory cart and original factory clutch pulley. There aren’t many that come that way.”

Small red, blue, and green engine. sitting in a yard with green grass with people…

The Rock Island is also from the Anderson collection. “These two engines hold a special place in my heart, because Lee was a friend,” Emil says. “I loved to sit with him as he talked about the old days. That guy could make anything. That’s the way he grew up: If you needed something done or made, you did it yourself.”

Name plate tag with manufacturer's name and serial number

A 1920 6hp Sandwich is another interesting piece in Emil’s collection. Designed by engine inventor Jacob Haish, the Sandwich features what collectors identify as a tulip-shaped hopper. “It was built in 1920, the year my dad was born, and is in its original work clothes, with a factory cart,” Emil says. “These aren’t super rare, but you don’t find many of them. Dad used to like to sit and watch it run. When you think about it, each engine is rare in its own way.”

A father-daughter partnership

Antique engines have forged a strong bond between Emil and his daughter, Emily. Now 31, Emily has fond memories of a childhood spent around old engines. “Dad had these little cool Maytag engines around,” she says, reminiscing. “When you got them running, they would shoot out smoke rings.”

A picture of a young lady in a blue and red plaid jacket with a…

When her father started collecting larger engines, Emily was quick to get on board. “Going to shows with Dad allows me to spend quality time with him,” she says. “We both look forward to the shows,” Emil adds. “She makes the arrangements, blocking out the days on her work calendar so she can make these shows. It’s a father-daughter relationship that makes us pretty close.”

Emily started by helping her dad do small things. “She’s my oiler,” Emil says, “and she makes all the signs.” Over time, she’s become more involved in the mechanical work. Soon, she plans to start her first big project: a complete restoration of a 1-1/2hp Associated Johnny Boy engine. “It will be fun to do something all by myself,” she says. “And I’ll keep helping Dad with the little things here and there.”

Realizing how far we’ve come

Emily enjoys interactions with the next generation of engine enthusiasts, but she keeps a careful watch over the youngest visitors. “You have to be concerned about safety around running engines,” she says. “I make sure kids are not wearing loose clothing, and help them understand that they have to stay back.”

rusty old red engine still intact

Emil created a cart for this 6hp Emerson-Brantingham Type U gas engine by measuring the flywheel, and then figuring a proportion between its size and the size of the wheels and flywheel on a cart shown in an old photo.

She also shares her hobby with her friends. “Many of them had no idea about these engines,” she says. “I’ve shown them pictures and videos, and even convinced some of them to come to the shows, so we’re spreading the history of these old engines.”

Emily hopes one day to have her own shed packed with relics of the past. “It would be nice if these younger generations coming to the shows would get involved in the hobby,” she says.

“People forget these engines are part of our history,” she adds. “It’s heartbreaking to think of all the engines that were scrapped out. That’s why it is so important to keep the hobby going and educate people. It’s humbling to see how it was on a farm back then and realize how far we’ve come. It’s a snapshot of the past, and the engines help us understand how it was back then.”

Multi-dimension hobby

Emil enjoys the opportunity to share his interest with people at shows. “People will say they’ve never seen one of these engines,” he says. “Or they ask about it running on propane. Young people ask how old an engine is, what I had to do to get it running, and what was the engine used for. It’s just a lot of fun talking to people.”

Front end of restored to the red green and yellow paint.

Emil’s hobby has many dimensions. There is the mechanical aspect, to be sure, and the time spent with his daughter is priceless. But he also enjoys digging into the history behind the engines. “I like to search out the history,” he says. “I like to find out what the engine did, where it came from, and anything else that I can learn about it and the company. That’s really interesting to me.”

And yet it always comes back to people. “Collectors are always willing to discuss problems and are willing to help you solve them,” he says. “And it’s always fun to try to figure out what other guys did on their engines. People really make this hobby.”

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