More Than Machines: The Stories Behind the Iron

From gas engines to tractors to trucks, Bob Riebel’s relics tell colorful tales of the past

Bob Riebel with his 1931 REO Speedwagon truck

Bob Riebel with his 1931 REO Speedwagon truck.

Bill Vossler

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Rare pieces, tons of variety, flawless restorations: Those are the hallmarks of a great collection of old iron.

But Bob Riebel goes one step further with his collection – seemingly every piece in it tells a story. From gas engines to tractors to trucks, Bob’s relics tell colorful tales of the past.

Bob, who lives in Le Sueur, Minn., has spent a lifetime gathering unusual pieces. Take his collection of more than 80 gas engines. It includes at least half a dozen extremely rare pieces, like a tractor cut-away engine.

As a teenager, Bob attended the University of Minnesota Farm School in St. Paul. He learned about gasoline engines by way of a 1947 Minneapolis-Moline U tractor engine that had been cut apart to show the internal components working. “An electric motor ran that engine real slow,” he recalls. “The pistons and rings were exposed and the carburetor was partly exposed, so you could see the moving parts, and the instructor could explain what the parts were and what they did while the engine was running.”

Years later, after the farm school closed, Bob visited the campus. “I asked if they had any engines left over,” he recalls, “and they still had that Minneapolis-Moline U tractor cut-away engine.” Specially built for the farm school, it is a one-of-a-kind, and shortly after his visit, Bob added it to his collection.

Backward and forward

Then there’s his 5 hp 2-stroke Fairmont gas engine, circa 1925, that runs forward and backward. “These engines were designed for use on railroad tracks for those little doodlebug cars that went from one town to the next, checking the tracks,” Bob explains. “Flip a rod and the engine will go the other way and take the little cart back to where it started.”

Built in Fairmont, Minn., Bob’s engine was put to work in a different application. It was used in an attempt to aerate Clear Lake (near Lexington, Minn.) with the goal of providing oxygen to fish so they wouldn’t die during the winter when the lake was covered with ice and snow. The engine was dragged into place on runner skids over the ice and a pair of holes were chopped in the ice. A propeller pushed lake water across the ice, aerating it, then down the second hole back into the lake. “It was quite a patent,” Bob says, “but it didn’t work.”

After running for a while, the engine wore a hole through the ice. “They would have to drag it out of the water, get it started again, chop two more holes and start all over,” Bob says. “Doing and redoing all that work didn’t go over very good.”

The original hybrid

Another of Bob’s treasures features one of the most unusual gas engine designs of all time. The Edwards 2-cylinder engine was manufactured for just a few years in the 1920s by Edwards Motor Co., Springfield, Ohio. It could be run with both cylinders, or for lighter loads, just one, saving fuel. With one cylinder it ran at 1-1/2 hp; with both, 6 hp.

“Originally it ran a milk machine,” Bob says. “An old friend, Frank Boehne, found this engine about a mile from where I live. The owners had it hooked up somehow to run the vacuum pump to milk cows.”

Bob describes the Edwards as “kind of a goofy engine.” Not only did it offer the option of running one piston or both, it was started with a belt instead of a crank. “You had to turn it over the opposite way of almost all other engines,” Bob explains. “Most engines crank to your right, but this one goes to your left. You wind a belt up on a pulley and pull it to get it running. It doesn’t have a regular crank handle.”

Each piston has its own gas line to the carburetor, and each line can be turned off, like turning off the line on any other engine. “Screw in a fuel shutoff and one will keep on running and the other will shut off,” Bob says. Running on one piston, the engine was particularly fuel efficient; running on two, it delivered a big boost in horsepower.

Another very rare engine in Bob’s collection is a 1913 Lauson-Lawton Wisconsin 3 hp sideshaft manufactured in De Pere, Wis. “A few years ago I bought two engines out of a junkyard, and this was one of them,” Bob recalls. “It needed a rocker arm, gas tank and carburetor pieces made, as well as a crank. I borrowed someone else’s 3 hp engine to use to copy the pieces I needed. That was an all-winter project.”

With no magneto, the engine requires a battery and coil to start. The governing style operates off a trio of flywheel balls that rotate on a shaft. When the engine slows, the moving flywheel balls open up the governor so it will operate a little faster. “Same as on a steam engine,” Bob says.

REO pride and joy

A 1931 REO Speedwagon truck tells a few stories as well. Nearly one of a kind, it occupies a special place in Bob’s collection. “That one is pretty much my pride and joy,” he says. “The REO Club of America is aware of only two of these in America, this one and one in Florida.”

Bob got the REO from Henry Kruschke, a Le Sueur area farmer and fellow collector. The two have collaborated on restoration of more than a dozen tractors, trucks and gas engines. “Henry was a livestock hauler, and when he was finished with a machine, he just let it sit out on his farm,” Bob explains. Henry found the REO at a farm auction. “He drove it home,” Bob says, “and used it until he decided to buy another one. Then he let it sit.”

The truck is packed with special features. It’s equipped with a hot water heater, hydraulic brakes, and rear springs below the axle, lowering the bed for easier loading. Small driving lights on each side of the cab’s front were designed for use at dusk before turning on the main lights. “I have a 1931 Chevrolet truck and there’s no comparison to the REO,” Bob says. “The Chevy doesn’t have any of the features the REO does.”

The feature that leaves people scratching their heads is the truck’s chrome-and-nickel block. “I’ve asked a lot of mechanics about it,” Bob says, “but not a one has ever heard of such a thing. It’s so rare that, when I was fixing it up, I had to send the pistons and rings to California where they had originally been made. The walls of that motor were so strong that we couldn’t hone it out at all.”

Bob’s other REO trucks include a 1974 Diamond REO cab-over model with an 18-foot box for hauling livestock and an electronic ignition that makes the truck pretty rare. His 1954 REO fire equipment truck has only 7,000 miles on it. He also has REO lawn mowers in four styles.

A 1928 International Harvester truck is a sentimental favorite. “My mother bought that truck in 1946 for $110 (about $1,200 in today’s terms), and I told her it was foolishness to buy that thing,” he says, smiling at the memory. “We used it three years on the threshing run, and I had to shovel grain off it into the elevator as we were threshing. After that, we hauled grain, added a livestock box and hauled hogs and cattle, and I wouldn’t be afraid to drive it to Chicago yet today.”

Thresherman’s Special

A rare 1936 Allis-Chalmers Model E Thresherman’s Special is Bob’s favorite tractor, and one that tells a story of its own. As far as he knows, it’s the only one of the 90 made that’s still running and still on steel. The model was designed to pull threshers and provide belt power. “I’ve taken it to the Allis-Chalmers Orange Spectacular Tractor Show at Hutchinson, Minn.,” Bob says, “and have never run into anybody who has a tractor like that.” He also took it to a show at Marshalltown, Iowa, where 400 AC tractors were on display: There was not another like his. The tractor started on gas; after the engine heated up, it ran on kerosene. The tractor’s original gas tank remains on the fender.

A horse-drawn steam boiler once used in the South St. Paul, Minn., stockyards adds yet another facet to Bob’s collection. “It has wooden wheels with hard rubber tires,” Bob says. “They pulled it around the grounds with horses to thaw out drains and wash up pens.” On active duty from 1896 to the late 1990s, the boiler is likely one of a kind, Bob says. “And I don’t think there’s anything on it as to who made it.”

The stories can go on forever. But the collection is probably as big as it’s going to get. Bob says he might not be looking for any new machinery. “I’ve got enough to last a lifetime,” he says with a laugh. FC