The Power of Hercules


| October/November 1985



Hercules gasoline engine

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.