On February 19, 1917, a change came over the old Jake Reiff farm
in York County, Pa., where my parents were the tenants. Horse power
was finally giving into gasoline power. Not on a grand scale, but
just enough to give Papa and Mama a taste of what can be done with
just one or two turns of a crank, instead of hundreds of bone
breaking revolutions of the upper arm and elbow.
I remember the date because I was often reminded through the
years that Papa bought the Hercules gasoline engine the same month
I was born. I therefore claim a close kinship with the old chunk of
iron that played a very important role in our farm life.
It only produced three and one-half horsepower, but the weight
of the large flywheels, once they got rolling, made it seem like a
lot more. And the work it was destined to perform throughout its
nearly seventy years, gives it a claim to more dignity and respect
than Papa ever imagined.
The farm was located on a gravel and mud road, four miles from
town. Four or forty miles made no difference, because electric
power was still nearly twenty years away. The only modern equipment
was a Model T sedan, and we still kept a driving horse and
‘Jenny Lind’, in case the mud got too deep for the Ford. It
was kept on jacks for most of the winter anyway. The time was ripe
for some modern power for both barn and house.
Well, it didn’t take long for Mama to lay claim to the use
of the engine. She soon had Papa convinced that that Sears and
Roebuck double-tub washing machine was just what she needed to keep
Papa and three boys, two girls, and several hired men, all well
laundered. And the old Davis Swing churn that had to be swung
between two heavily muscled boys twice a week to make butter could
now be powered by gas instead of a couple of grumbling kids.
At first, the Hercules gas engine was permanently installed in
the basement of the house. A hole in the door accomodated the
exhaust pipe bent around the corner from the engine’s stall.
The drive pulley was belted to a large pulley on the stationary
line shaft. The shaft, mounted on leaded bearings that had to be
periodically re-poured, carried a variety of pulley sizes to
accommodate almost any speed- Almost, anyway. The butter churn was
limited to only 60 RPM on the pulley, while the slowest speed of
the engine was more than twice that. In order to avoid ending up
with whipped cream instead of butter, Papa hit on the idea of
wrapping the shaft with several layers of tar-rope to make a pulley
small enough to slow down the churn.
The double tub wash machine was Mama’s pride. It was firmly
bolted to the floor, and the Hercules turned it over at top speed.
It fairly knocked the farmers grime out of the clothes! It was a
far cry from the old hand clothes rubber that Mama had recently
discarded. She could now wash twice as many pairs of overalls in
half the time and with quarter the work!
Not For Che Big Jobs
Now, the big jobs like threshing grain and filling silo were
still done on a custom basis in our community. There was only one
threshing rig for about twenty farms. It was steam powered, with a
drag elevator instead of a blower to handle straw. It made the
rounds to all the farms, and usually got to our farm about
mid-September, to thresh the wheat, oats and rye. It took about
fifteen men to get the job done in one or two days. The other big
job was silo filling. That too, was done by the only custom rig in
our community. Manny Hertzler owned the blower-cutter, and powered
it with a Rumley Oil-Pull that burned kerosene. Later, he used an
early Case gasoline tractor to power the silo rig, but the whole
operation was much slower, and there were many shut-downs while the
filler pipe was disassembled and unclogged.
The little Hercules three and one-half horse power engine was
never expected to do the big jobs. But there were so many things
that it could do. The winter’s supply of firewood for example.
Our old farmhouse had a cookstove in the kitchen, and a large
‘chunk’ stove in the living room, both fueled with wood
that had to be cut, split, sawed, re-split, stacked, and hauled.
The biggest job was sawing it into stove lengths. A great job for
An important part of the forage for cattle in those days was
corn fodder, harvested by hand and stacked near
the bam. Papa liked to handle it shredded instead of whole. The
Hercules gas engine was just big enough to power the shredder, so
that became a regularly scheduled job in the winter. Shelling corn
for the mill was also a weekly job for the engine, providing Mama
would relinquish its use for a day!
Mama Called the Shots
Mama always had to be consulted before scheduling any job
requiring the use of the engine outdoors. She had top priority on
its use. Monday was always wash day, and the first of two weekly
butter-churnings could be done at the same time. The second
churning was done on Thursday, and there was no deviation from the
set times. Everything else had to be scheduled in between, or we
couldn’t use the engine.
When it was new, Papa always cranked the engine for Mama. It
wasn’t too hard to crank, but you had to know just how much to
choke, and exactly when to jerk the crank off of the shaft so it
wouldn’t kick or spin the crank. Mama was afraid of it, but her
request of ‘Jake, start the engine for me,’ always got the
desired results. Later, Papa taught my older brothers George and
Danny to crank it for Mama. No hired hand was ever allowed to fool
One Mule Power
The Hercules was mounted on a steel wheeled truck, with an iron
handle for pulling. It was not built for speed, either in action or
in transport. The house was 300 yards from the barn, and it was all
up hill. Two men (or boys) had a real struggle to tug it up the
grade, especially if the ground was a little soft. So, moving it
was a major chore. The answer was found in Old Henner, our steady
standby mule who was the favorite for single line work.
Old Henner was slow, but sure footed and easy tempered. He was
used mostly for cultivating the vegetable patch, because he would
walk straight, and seldom step on the row. He would whinney with
embarrassment if he accidentally stepped on a
single plant. So, with a narrow heavy iron hook, Old Henner made
easy work of hauling the 600 pounds of iron up the hill to the
Stake Her Down, Boys
Whatever appliance the engine was belted to had to be well
secured. The wood saw was permanently pinned to the ground with
eight iron pins, driven strategically around the bottom of the
frame. The fodder shredder was bolted to the barn floor, with heavy
bolts reaching through the four inch thick planking. Then the
pulleys were lined up, with much ado and some silent prayers (?). A
four-by-four and two stout iron pins kept the engine in place.
When working hard at top speed, the Hercules one-lung engine
could set up quite a dance. If the occasion demanded, it would fire
at every stroke of the piston, resulting in some movement up and
down, as well as sideways if no precautions were taken. A couple of
iron pipes driven beside each hind wheel usually kept it lined up,
at least until dinner time! After dinner, the belt needed
tightening, and the stakes re-driven.
One reason the old Hercules is still running after nearly
seventy years of use, is because we were always generous with
lubrication. The screw-down greasers ate up gallons of axle-grease,
and the main bearings were never replaced, to my knowledge. The
shims may have been removed to adjust them, but the bearings
remained as good as new. The cylinder oiler on top of the water
jacket functioned well for many years, but eventually developed a
leak in the shut-off cap valve. We paid no attention to it, because
the oil leaked down into the cylinder anyway, guaranteeing enough
lubrication at all times! It is impossible to over-lubricate the
cylinder, as any excess oil runs right out the open end into the
crank case. No harm done, except that it gets a little messy after
a while. Just don’t forget to fill the glass oiler before
cranking her up, by golly!
While electric lines finally reached our farm about 1933 (the
year I graduated from high school), we continued to use the
Hercules gas engine around the barn. Mama no longer needed it in
the house, as electric motors were much handier and quieter, and
never needed cranking. It began to gather more dust and oily grime,
sitting in its new station in the corn barn. We had to remember to
drain the water jacket in cold weather, but that was the only care
it got besides fuel and grease.
Well Earned Rest
My bride and I bought the farm from my parents in 1941. Papa
never had a tractor, and I too was convinced that the only way to
farm was with mules. So the old Hercules engine was also a
necessity for a little extra power. We bought two pairs of mules,
ten cows, and the Hercules gas engine, along with assorted harness,
belts, chains, an old harrow, and a Syracuse 2078 three horse plow.
We were in business to farm, just like Papa and Mama started,
nearly thirty years before! The War soon changed all that forever,
because the whole face of farming began to change, with no hired
labor available, and complete mechanization taking over the
We bought our first tractor in 1942. From then on, the John
Deere furnished all the farm power we needed. For over thirty
years, the old Hercules sat in the shed, collecting more dust. It
was seldom in the way, so we covered it up with a piece of canvas
and ignored it. At least, it was allowed to age gracefully, with no
danger of ending up in the junkyard.
Just like me, the old engine had begun its career at the Jake
Reiff farm, blossomed and grew up on the adjoining ‘Henny
Sloat’ place, and eventually returned to the place of our
birth, there to complete our farming experience together. Papa
bought the Sloat farm in 1921, and I bought it from him in
1941.Then, in 1952, we bought the Reiff farm where I was born. We
farmed there until 1967, when we sold the cows and machinery, and
moved on to other adventures. But the old Hercules remained a part
of the family, taken over now by our son Alan, who gives it the
respect and loving care that were missing for so many years.
Alan has given it a complete overhaul, disassembling every part
and carefully cleaning it. It has a new paint job, with carefully
selected and authenticated colors, professionally striped and
trimmed, and the authentic Hercules decals in their proper place.
Even before the overhaul, it ran quite well, but now it sounds like
new! It looks like new, and is raring to work like it once worked,
when it was new, and for many years following.
I only wish that I could be as well preserved, and as nicely
rejuvenated with the kind of spit and polish and affection that the
old Hercules gas engine now has. With its renewed good looks, and
its never-say-die heart of iron, it should live forever!