A Collector and his gas engines from the land of 10,000 lakes.
Though Ken Ebnet of Long Prairie, Minn., likes to have fun with his gas engine collection — he tries to get spectators to guess what one of his engines' exhaust is made of, and queries them about what his Ingersoll-Rand engine might be. Ken takes his collecting seriously — he wants to know more about his engines than is found in the popular references, and wants to be set straight where he doesn't have the correct information.
Though Ken grew up on a farm, the only gas engines he encountered as a kid were a pair of Briggs & Stratton engines he rigged up to add some speed to his bicycle. “We moved to the farm I grew up on in 1947, and the only thing resembling a gas engine was the remnants of an old Delco light plant in one of the buildings. Some of them ran off wind chargers and some ran off gas engines, but we had regular electricity by the time we moved to the farm, so we never had any gas engines.” Today, Ken has a 32-volt Delco light plant as part of his collection.
About 20 years ago, Ken started attending farm shows and spotting gas engines for sale in the newspaper. “All of a sudden I decided it would be kind of nice to have one of those engines,” says Ken. He heard about a Sattley 1-3/4 HP engine, and decided that would be his first one. “It was for sale, the price was right, and it wasn't a real popular engine, which is probably why I could afford it. We still had kids in school at the time and I couldn't afford too much, so I started out with the cheaper caliber of engine I saw at an auction sale, or heard about, or advertised for sale.” The Sattley carries the Montgomery, Ward & Co. name, as they bought out Racine-Sattley Co. in 1918. This Sattley 1-3/4 HP engine carries serial no. TA-16215, and was manufactured in the 1920s.
The 61-year-old retiree's only engine with restored paint is a MacLeod, (serial no. TA18687), the Canadian sister to the Sattley. “I bought that one because of the Sattley,” Ken says. “It was missing a few parts, and I knew the Sattley parts were interchangeable, so I could copy the ones I needed off the Sattley for the MacLeod, and get them made cheaper.” The major differences between the two are that the Sattley has a solid flywheel and a wet head, while the MacLeod has a spoked flywheel and a dry head. Both machines were made by Nelson Bros. “My personal opinion, although I've also heard it from a few other guys, is this: Engines are only original when they're made the first time. If there's enough original paint showing on an engine, I prefer to keep it just as it is.” He says he doesn't care if other people repaint their engines, but he believes the collector needs to get the correct factory colors. “Farmers back then didn't have the money for paint, and when paint wore off, that was the way it stayed. Plus,” he laughs, “this way I don't have to worry about chipping anything.”
“But as far as filling in all the voids with fiberglass, liquid putty or whatever, some of the factory moulds were pretty crude when these engines were made 30, 40, 50 years ago, so I'd just as soon leave them that way.” He admits that the repainted ones really do look sharp, but he prefers to concentrate his efforts on making nice varnished wood carts for his engines.
The carts have made handling the engines much easier, and for years, Ken's wife, Ardis, helped. “A few years ago she surprised me with an engine hoist, because she said she was tired of having to come out and help me roll the engines in and out of the pickup. So now I can do it by myself.”
Ken has a couple of interesting engines, like his IHC LA.
1-1/2 — 2-1/2 HP with an oil bath air cleaner. “After I purchased it at a farm auction, I found cement splatter on the frame and engine from when it must have been used around cement mixers a lot, which is probably why the oil bath air cleaner was needed, because of the dusty conditions.” It sports serial no. A6314 and is probably a 1930s model, he figures. “But,” he says, “I'm hoping people will correct any misconceptions or misinformation I might have about some of these engines.”
Ken adds that there's another similar engine he would've really liked to have had. “I bought the LA from this guy, and he didn't think it would ever run again So after I fixed it up and got it going, I took it back and showed it to him, and he couldn't believe it was the same engine. His wife said he should give away the rest of his junk to somebody who would appreciate it.”
But the one engine he wouldn't give away or sell was an NOS LA 1-1/2 — 2-1/2 HP, bought new in the 1930s, but never taken out of its crate. He'd bought it brand new and never used it. “I tried to buy it from him, but he wasn't ready to sell it. He told me I'd have first dibs on it, but then his nephew wanted it, and I couldn't argue with his wanting to keep it in the family. If I had gotten it, I would never have taken it out of its crate. I would have put hinges on it so people could open it and look at it, and put it on display. It's never had gas or oil put in it. How do you put a price on something like that?”
The real star of Ken's line-up of 25 or so engines is his Ingersoll-Rand portable radial air compressor, which he found by pure luck. “We stopped in Glendive, Mont., on the way back from seeing my brother-in-law, and saw an antique store across the street, and there it was.” After Ken brought it home, he talked with a former salesman for Ingersoll-Rand, who checked with the company and reported that these portable air compressors were used for working railroad section crews, used back in the 1950s for anything that needed a jackhammer, tamping ties, loosening things, packing, etc. The serial number on this one is W-31837, although Ken can't find any horsepower listing for it.
“I've never seen another one like it, although I've talked to people at different shows who have. I saw one advertised for sale in a recent issue of Gas Engine Magazine, but that was the first one I'd ever seen for sale.”
When he bought it, Ken said he didn't know if it was complete or not. He dumped the old gas out, put new gas in, changed the oil, and it ran. Afterwards, he changed some of the rubber boots on the intake that were cracked and sucking air, and rebuilt the carburetor so it would run smoother.
“It draws a crowd at a show,” Ken says. “It sounds different because of its three cylinders, and people have a lot of questions as to what it might be from. Some people think it is a radial airplane engine set on end; others say it's a water pump, which is what most people guess.” At a distance, one particular writer surmised it might be out of an old washing machine.
Ken's 1-1/2 HP Rock Island (serial no. A70464), equipped with a Wizard magneto (made by the Hercules Electric Co.), was acquired when another collector near Halstad, Minn., decided to concentrate on just one brand of gas engine, and get rid of the rest. “He wanted to get strictly into Fairbanks-Morse engines. My son met him at a snowmobile meet and they got to talking, so I drove up there and came home with the Rock Island.” A good friend of Ken's is strictly into Stickneys, but Ken says he enjoys taking a shot at all of them. “The variety is more of a challenge for me, I think,” Ken says.
Ken's 1-3/4 HP United engine (serial no. 113826) caused him the most grief, as it was in such poor condition when he got it. “The cylinder needed to be bored and have a sleeve put in, it needed new rings, a couple of valves had to be made, and the carburetor was so bad that I had to get an aftermarket carburetor for it. So today it's basically a new-old engine. I've put more money into it than what the engine itself is worth, so it will stay with me as long as I'm in the collecting business. But then I don't think too many collectors buy engines in an attempt to make money. There are some people who buy engines just to sell them, as a business, just like there are people who buy cars and trucks and tractors and sell them.”
His 1-1/2 HP John Deere Type E (serial no. 362921) was once owned by his uncle, whose brother eventually got hold of the engine and asked Ken if he would like to have it for his collection and keep it in the family, so Ken bought it.
Ken also has a number of engines in different stages of repair, like his 1930s 4 HP Cushman binder engine, serial no. 33691, which had its own water pump and cooling screen. The cart it's on is the original, and was often called a “banjo” cart because it was shaped like a banjo, with a round part of the cast iron cart where the water tank set, then a neck. “It was basically a portable engine to pull around the yard and use wherever it was needed. If you used it in the field you needed one fewer horse. If you put the engine on the grain binder, the horses only had to pull the binder across the ground, and didn't have to operate the binder itself, which the Cushman did.
Another engine, a 2-1/2 HP Empire (serial no. 96778) from the 1920s, was half-buried in the ground when he found it. “A friend and I got to talking about old engines, and he said they had one around when he was a kid. He still lived on the old homestead, and he thought it was still there, so we went to the scrap pile and eventually found it, buried halfway up the flywheel. He said one thing he really remembered about that engine was that its magneto had really strong magnets, because he took it apart.”
Ken says he collects because it's a fun hobby. “It's something you can do in the wintertime or when it's nasty outside, just go out in the shop and work. You get to meet a lot of people at different shows where you can talk over your engine problems and exchange parts and ideas.”
There's one thing about the engine-collecting hobby that bothers him, though: “Something I've noticed is that I don't see many young people getting into the old engines. There are a few families that have younger generations into it, but most of the time young people just aren't there. Once the older generation is gone, I don't know who's going to take over, because the younger generation has so many other things going. I don't know if they'll pick up the old engine habit or not, but I hope they do. If not, who's going to continue the hobby?”
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org