Canadian Curiosity

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Dean Suhr's Canadian-made Desjardins engine

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Winding through the aisles of old iron displayed at the Pima County Fair's Power from the Past show in Tucson, Ariz., last April, visitors were treated to a veritable menagerie of engines and tractors. From Foos to Fairbanks-Morse, John Deere to Cockshutt, collectors proudly showed their polished-to-perfection wares under brilliant-blue Arizona skies. Yet, one farm relic stood out among the rest as unique: a Canadian-made Dejardins stationary engine.

Owned by Dean Suhr, Catalina, Ariz., the engine puttered and purred as he made minute adjustments. Dean's a member of the Power from the Past Association, a Tucson-based collector's club, and has collected and displayed engines for many years. He bought the Desjardins engine from a fellow club member in part, Dean says, because such machines are both rare and striking.

'I like to have something different,' the 64-year-old collector explains. Living differently should come as no surprise from Dean, considering that the Nebraska-raised collector left his family's wheat, cattle, corn and hay farm for a life-long career in the U.S. Army's Special Forces. He retired in 1995 and turned his attention to vintage engines instead of risky missions. Even though Dean was raised around stationary farm engines, he never worked on them as a youth. 'I guess Dad did all the repairs,' Dean recalls.

Yet, since purchasing the engine in 2000, Dean's learned a lot about the machine and company that manufactured it. Made by Desjardins, Ltd., the company built them in St. Andre de Kamouraska, Quebec, Canada, in the early 20th century, he says. The small company was founded in Quebec in 1865 by Charles A.R. Desjardins, Dean says, and produced farm equipment including threshers, shingle mills and saw mills, especially for small-acreage farmers. Desjardins applied for his first American patent in 1899. While the company never manufactured tractors, it built and sold engines to power the implements it produced, Dean adds.

Dean suspects his engine was made sometime in the early 1920s, although it's difficult to be certain. The company never assigned serial numbers to its engines, Dean says, thus the familiar brass tags affixed to most other stationary engines are conspicuously absent on his machine. Unlike most other turn-of-the-20th-century equipment producers, Desjardins is still in business and even operates in the same St. Andre de Kamouraska factory where his engine was built.

Literature obtained from Canadian Desjardins collectors shows that engines like Dean's were manufactured as early as the 1910s. Other collectors may recognize the engine's bulbous design since it's an exact copy of the famed Waterloo Boy engine, even down to the numbers cast on the individual components, Dean explains. As a result, the parts are also interchangeable. Such mimicry was common when gasoline engines were first introduced, he adds, because engineers were eager to incorporate designs from other producers in order to gain a competitive advantage. Many lawsuits resulted in those early days from such 'borrowed' ideas, but engine builders weren't easily deterred even by legal action, Dean says.

Even though the engine's designers copied the Waterloo Boy engine, the distinctive Desjardins name likely helped buyers distinguish it from engines manufactured by other companies. The engines were also marketed in Saskatchewan under the romantic-sounding name, 'Call of the West.'

The engine's hand-painted logo is striking. The company didn't utilize decals like other manufacturers, Dean says. Instead, designers chose a simple, but decorative, black-bordered label. The company's earliest engines were painted red, like Dean's, but models built in the late 1920s sported green paint. Because of the unusual motif, Dean chose not to repaint the engine since such original markings are both rare and difficult to reproduce. It's also never been restored internally, he adds, although the engine rests on a wheeled cart that Dean constructed.

The Desjardins uses a 5-inch bore and a 9-inch stroke to produce 5 hp, Dean says. Although comparatively smaller in horsepower than later engines, Dean's engine easily powered most smaller farm equipment produced during its heyday.

Even though the engine is technically portable on its steel wheels, it still weighs in at a hefty 1,200 pounds. Despite the engine's unwieldy size, Dean says he'll continue lugging it to shows in order to demonstrate how important power from the past was to American farmers. FC

-To learn more about Dean Suhr's Desjardins engine or the Power from the Past Association, write him at 3525 E. Hawser St., Tucson, Ariz., 85739; or call (520) 825-9244.