At least two Walls engines were built but who was behind the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co.?
A strong current of discovery flows within the old iron hobby, pushing engine collectors and restorers in a hunt for previously unseen or unknown engines before they're forever lost to the ravages of time and the elements. While that's hardly a surprising observation, it is surprising how many engine discoveries continue to be made, especially considering how much time has passed since most of these engines we collect were designed and built - a lot can get lost in the course of 100 years. Engine collector Rick Kaufman of Danvers, Ill., has made an interesting engine discovery, but in this case he really wasn't looking for anything unique, he's just interested in old engines.
The circumstances surrounding Rick's discovery were really nothing special. About 10 years ago Rick met, through the normal course of events of engine collecting, a fellow in Illinois who had a collection of engines he wanted to sell. The man in question was more of a tractor collector than an engine collector, but even so he'd managed to accumulate about 30 different engines. Most of his engines were what we might call ordinary, but one stuck out in the crowd: A single flywheel, four-stroke, horizontal single-cylinder Walls engine. It was an engine Rick had never seen, let alone heard of - nor, it seems, has anyone else.
The only problem was, it was the only engine of the group that wasn't for sale. Undeterred, Rick made an offer on the entire collection, an offer that included the Walls as part of the deal. The seller turned him down at first, but finally agreed, so long as Rick would increase his offer. 'That determined my buying the collection,' Rick says. 'I wouldn't have bought the collection without the Walls.'
The previous owner never had the Walls running, but not for lack of trying. When he bought it, it came with a spare Walls engine. The second engine was mostly broken up, and the connecting rod on the first engine was broken, but between the two he was able to put together a mostly complete unit. The cylinder was in poor shape so he had it sleeved, but other than that it was mostly ready to run when Rick bought it. Well, almost. The Walls was originally equipped with hot tube ignition, but when Rick bought it, it was equipped with a cobbled-up mixer and lacked any kind of functioning ignition system. With no hot tube to use as a pattern, and no way to source one, Rick found a suitable Lunkenheimer carburetor and started work on converion of the engine to a working buzz coil and spark plug ignition.
Progress on the Walls stalled for a few years, but one day fellow engine collector Joe Winter, Richards, Mo., returning from the Portland, Ind., engine show, decided to check in on Rick and the Walls. Joe knew about the engine, and he knew Rick was hoping to get it running, so while Rick was still at work Joe finished setting up the Walls, making necessary adjustments to get it going, and by the time Rick got home the Walls was in his driveway, running for the first time.
There is no separate intake valve per se, the air intake is controlled by the Lunkenheimer carburetor. The exhaust valve runs directly off the camshaft along the pulley side of the engine. A horizontal fly-ball governor geared to the camshaft latches an actuating arm, which in turn holds the exhaust valve open during overrun. 'It's so simple it's unbelievable,' Rick says of the governor system. A spark plug ignites the fuel/air mixture, and ignition voltage is supplied from a Ford Model A buzz coil; a swipe off the back side of the camshaft contacts a brass rivet head to make the coil circuit. A single six-volt battery supplies the initial voltage.
With a bore and stroke of 5x6-1/2 inches, Rick estimates the engine to be somewhere between 1-1/2 HP and 2-1/2 HP, max. 'It's probably about a 2 HP,' Rick says. Since getting the Walls running, Rick says he's done very little to it. He's never pulled the head, but he has lapped the exhaust valve. 'Every year I lap the valve before Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.' As near as he knows, the engine's babbitt bearings are original.
An interesting part of the Walls is its single flywheel. While it is hardly a unique feature, the vast majority of U.S.-built stationary engines used dual flywheels, to enhance balance and kinetic energy, and the engine's single flywheel leads Rick to think it might have origins in a German or English design (heavy, single flywheels were quite common on early European engines, a great many of which were bolted down for permanent installation), but that's only speculation at this point.
The engine nameplate identifies the Walls as built by the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co., Decatur, Ill., and shows a patent date of April 9, 1895. Rick has researched both the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. and the Walls name in Decatur, Ill., but so far his research has produced precious little. He's found no mention of the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co., but he did find mention of the Walls name in connection with an unnamed Decatur newspaper published around the turn of the century. Interestingly, the engine's previous owner told Rick the Walls engine was used to run a printing press at a Decatur newspaper, but he didn't know what newspaper. This raises a number of possibilities, including the idea the engine was essentially a one-off, it and its twin built on special order by a small, local manufacturing concern. More than one company offered patterns and plans for engines (engine patterns supplied by Parsell & Weed come to mind), and it's always possible the Walls was one of these. That, however, fails to answer the question of the engine's serial number, number 306, which suggests quantity construction of some level, even if it was only six engines. It should be noted that small manufacturers commonly started with a multi-digit serial number, building their production numbers from there and in the process giving the impression of building more engines than they actually had.
Rick runs the engine regularly, most notably at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion held every year in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. 'I generally run it for 35 to 40 minutes, at most, at the show,' Rick says. 'There's no load, so it doesn't generate a lot of heat.'
The cooling tank is Rick's own design, sourced from a circa 1945 water sprinkler system - the cast iron water reservoir started life as a charging tank. 'I saw this cast iron funnel and bottle, and I thought it was perfect,' Rick says. The muffler is an old cannon shell, put on by the previous owner. The engine's heavy flywheel gives the engine a substantial weight bias on the left side of the engine, which prompted Rick to put the Walls on a lower cart so he wouldn't worry about it falling over at shows.
Rick would like to learn more about the Walls and the Decatur Gasoline Engine Co., and he'd like to learn more about the engine's original hot tube arrangement so he can eventually get the engine into original condition. 'You don't usually see a hot tube that small,' Rick says. 'I would love to find a hot tube unit or a pattern, it would be nice to know what it looks like.' He says the Walls is touchy to get running as it's currently set up, and wonders how it would run in its original form.
Given the engine's obvious rarity, it seems a stretch to think anyone might have the information Rick needs to return the Walls to its original state. But as we've all seen time and again in the old iron hobby, anything's possible.
Contact engine enthusiast Rick Kaufman at: 18383 N. 50 E. Road, Danvers, IL 61732.