Robert Geiken of Hastings, Minn., has always been intrigued with the thinking employed at the turn of the 20th century to create different designs to make an internal-combustion engine work. "You wonder if some guy didn't lay awake in bed all night, thinking about how he might build a better engine, the mechanics and actual thought that went into these different designs."
Or certainly different or unusual engines. The urge for uniqueness has led 55-year-old Robert on a quest to find oddball gas engines for his collection.
Engines like his L. E. Spear, a 1-1/2 HP horizontal engine; his Oshkosh 6 HP, which is extremely rare; his Ypsi engine, made as a school project; or any of his gearless engines, like a 4 HP Wogaman Sure-Go, (1908, serial no. 490); a Weber, (1901, serial no. 7960); or the St. Mary's gearless manufactured for Dean Electric Co. (circa-1910, serial no. 3948.) This accounting barely dents Robert's unique collection.
About 25 years ago, Robert's interest in gas engines was tweaked each time he visited one of his neighbors, a collector of antique gas engines. "They intrigued me, so I'd watch them running and talk to him. I used to play with restoring cars, and he kept telling me, 'You need to get into antique engines. Those cars take up too much space.' It piqued my interest. I thought the old gas engines were fascinating. They're simple enough that you can work on them if you ask a lot of questions from the people who know what they're doing - the older guys who have been around a while."
So in 1981, Robert succumbed, and bought three engines from the neighbor - a 1-1/2 HP Sattley, a 3 HP McCormick-Deering Μ and a 1-1/2 - 2-1/2 HP McCormick-Deering LA. The latter engine Robert gave to his dad as a Christmas present, which hooked his father. "He liked the idea of going to threshing shows with us, so he set up a little trailer to haul his engines with, too." Robert says it was a family affair, with his father, his wife and their children.
He has found engines in every possible way - through word of mouth, swap meets, farm auctions, other collectors, trading, buying or a little bit of both. Once, he and a friend even bought an entire estate from Wisconsin, selling everything except what he wanted, and ending up with some working capital. "I took that slush fund and bought some others," he says.
Getting engines from non-engine people can be a challenge. At the Central Hawkeye Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Swap Meet in Waukee, Iowa, a flea mart guy had an enclosed trailer with an unusual engine in it. "He had a fictitious price tag on it," Robert laughs. He and Robert negotiated off and on for a day, until finally the dealer called his wife and afterwards negotiated with Robert until they got together on a price. That was the unusual Ypsi engine, which was a high school shop project in Ypsilanti, Mich. Young machinists cast parts, machined them and put the parts together with machine screws - no bolts or nuts - to build the engine. This rarity is one of perhaps four engines built. Robert says he's come up with other oddball engines more than once at the Waukee show.
Most of the engines in Robert's collection are unique and different. One is the St. Mary's gearless engine marked for sale by Dean Electric of Elyria, Ohio. This gearless 2-1/2 HP machine, serial no. 3948, was built about 1910 by St. Mary's Machine Co. of St. Mary's, Ohio.
"I bought it from a Minnesota friend who was selling it at the Waukee show. I had told him to give me a last shot on it, and he did." Robert bested the other bids, and had the unusual engine. "One thing that makes it unusual is that part of the exhaust blows out the side of the engine and pushes the arm down to actuate the exhaust valve."
A 3 HP Victor engine was once used in what is now an old Colorado ghost town. It was manufactured by Alamo Mfg. Co. of Hillsdale, Mich., about 1912. Secondhand information that came along with the engine says his Victor (serial no. 10710) was kept in a building, which points to its good condition today. "It's got a lot of nice paint striping on it. It didn't deteriorate, and it looks good yet today." A lamppost was cut off to make a water cooler, but the engine and skid are original.
Of all the unusual engines Robert owns, his favorite is the L. E. Spears, made in Northfield, Minn., of which only one other one is known, "and we're not positive of that. We've just heard that there's another one in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) area somewhere, but I don't know who has it and I've never seen it."
"I've had hundreds of engines, and I've gotten the ones I've really wanted," Robert says. Other favorites include a 1/2 HP New Holland and a Stickney engine built in St. Paul, Minn. "It's a neat engine; not super rare, but just odd-looking."
Like any long-time collector, Robert harbors a few regrets about past engines. "I had a couple of 1-1/2 HP Associated gas engines I probably should have kept, a Johnny Boy and a Busy Boy." The Johnny Boy was hopper-cooled, the Busy Boy air-cooled.
"They were cute engines and good runners, but at the time, I was selling engines off to raise a little extra cash, working to buy another engine, because sometimes the engines you want get spendy." Four or five years later he realized he should have kept the Associated engines. "But when you're in the hunt, you have to part with something to pick up another one."
Though Robert didn't really intend to get heavily into New Holland engines, it just kind of happened. "The New Holland is a neat-looking engine that appeals to me, and I always liked the unique look of the 1-1/2 HP New Holland engine because it has the single flywheel, with either a high base or a low base. I always liked that unusual-shaped hopper."
Then he ran into a 2 HP for sale that he figured he should have, followed by a friend who asked if he was interested in a 5 HP New Holland, and when Robert heard how well it ran, he bought it. Then a friend got divorced and had to sell some engines, one of them a 1/2 HP New Holland. And so it went, so now he's only two short of a complete set, missing the 4 HP and the 3 HP. "The 3 HP is very hard to find because it was made very early, very few were made, and then the company changed and went to a 4 HP."
Robert says he has so many engines in different states of repair and restoration that he wonders if he'll ever get them finished. "They need to be gone through and rebuilt and fixed up. Some do run, but they need to be bored and have new rings put in. Some I've run with a temporary fuel tank just to see how they work. Then there are some lying around here in pieces, like a 1/2 HP inverted Elgin, which was running when the governor let go on it."
One of the most challenging parts of restoring engines, Robert says, is when you have to make your own parts, springs in particular. "Winding my own springs is challenging," he says. Sometimes it takes six, eight or even ten painful, time-consuming windings to get it just right. It requires creating a mandrel with grooves in it around which the wire will be wound. "I usually do that by hand, turning the chuck under the lathe slowly to wind the wire around it I always go more than you want, and when you release the spring it actually grows because it was been wound so tight. If you want a 1/2-inch inside diameter spring, you probably have to have the mandrel turned down to a 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch, depending on what diameter piano wire you use. You can't just go to the hardware store and buy this spring," he says.
One of Robert's joys is showing his engines, simply because it's fun and he meets so many people. "I like to visit with people. They ask a lot of questions, so it's fun to enlighten them when you can." Older folks come up misty-eyed and say they remember they had a certain engine on their farm when they were growing up. In fact, Robert says that's how he's gotten tips on where some engines are. "Somebody I've been talking with will say, 'You know, dad had one just like that. I think it's still in the grove behind the house, or maybe it's in the milk house because that's where we threw everything after we quit milking.'" In fact, Robert has a non-collector cousin who has six engines squirreled away in an old granary, but isn't ready to part with them.
Robert gets all kinds of reactions from the general public about his engines. "The biggest thing they say is, 'It doesn't fire all the time. How come it just sits there for a while, then goes "poof," and then there's no more noise?' They want to know why and how come and how does it do that, so I get to explain how a hit-and-miss engine works." To show how the engine has to fire more often when it's overcoming a load, Robert presses on the flywheel to provide some resistance.
So people can get a better idea of how the engines really work, Robert will shut them off and how all the mechanisms works so they can understand why and how it operates, including things like "why there is only one push rod and one rocker arm - because the intake is atmospheric. Sometimes I get in discussions with engineering-type guys who really understand things, and once they ask a question and I answer it, they immediately understand what's going on." But for most spectators, it's still a learning process about farm gas engines.
Today, Robert stores many of his engines in the cedar-lined engine house on the Little Log House grounds near Hastings, Minn. "A few friends and I used to show our engines at the Hastings Riverbend Auto Club Show, set off from the car show. One time a friend I grew up with, Steve Bauer, said he had the perfect place to have a threshing show out in the country." He held the event as an appreciation for farmers who patronize his John Deere dealership. With the engines out in that field, so many people came that bathroom lines were backed up for half an hour. From that, the rest of the area was built up, until today there is a building for engines among the many other buildings on the property.
"I've bought and sold hundreds of gas engines to refine my collection into one with unusual pieces. I like them because there probably weren't many made, sometimes because they probably weren't a very good engine, unlike McCormick-Deering, John Deere, Stover or Fairbanks-Morse, all of who built hundreds of thousands of each of their engines." He notes that none of the companies that made odd or unusual engines sought to copy other engines, so they have a different look to them.
"To the general public, our collection of farm engines is just a barn full of noisy engines. We collectors don't see it that way at all," he laughs.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org