Antique Oldenburg Engine: 1928 Fairbanks-Morse 80 hp Diesel

An Indiana antique machinery club restores the powerhouse of a Catholic academy and motherhouse

Bob Kiefer, in plaid shirt, and Roger Pettit, in white cap with red bill, keep the restored Oldenburg engine fired up

Bob Kiefer, in plaid shirt, and Roger Pettit, in white cap with red bill, keep the restored Oldenburg engine fired up at last year's Franklin County (Ind.) Antique Machinery Club Show in Brookville.

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The 1928 Fairbanks-Morse 80 hp diesel engine spent its working life producing electricity for an Oldenburg, Ind., Catholic academy and motherhouse.

Then, idled by alternating current technology, the 80 hp diesel engine sat silent for 16 years mostly in a barn with only varmints for company.

Today, though, it’s restored and running again – thanks to members of the Franklin County (Ind.) Antique Machinery Club. They plan to have it fired up for their annual show, Sept. 26-29, at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in Brookville.

Back on April 12, 1928, the sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg signed the original contract to purchase the engine and its generator from Fairbanks, Morse & Company of Cleveland. The cost was $8,726 (nearly $92,000 in today’s terms).

The sisters planned to use the machinery to provide electricity to the Oldenburg academy, which they operated, and to their motherhouse.

The outfit they bought included the 80 hp VA diesel engine with an attached 50 kw DC generator. The engine had two cylinders, which ran at 300 rpm; a 12-inch bore and 15-inch stroke; and a type “H” two-stage air compressor belt, which ran at 3 hp. It also had a type “DH” 115-volt DC motor and a switchboard that met the National Electric Code. The gross weight was 21,175 pounds

Fairbanks-Morse company installed it and a 12,000-gallon fuel oil tank, which had a hand-operated gear pump to transfer oil from the storage tank to the engine’s fuel tank; FM engineers supervised the installation for $15 per day.

The sisters requested that the unit be tested two eight-hour days, after which the company was notified in writing of their approval of the purchase. They operated the engine on the fourth shift, which was at night; the sisters ran four 6-hour shifts daily and used coal-fired boilers in the daytime.

In 1928, according to their records, fuel oil produced 39,310 kilowatt-hours at 8 cents per gallon, with an additional $125 paid for a 250-gallon drum of lubricating oil. The cost per kwh worked out to 0.0123 cents, for a total of $484.87. Steam, on the other hand, had a cost of 0.05 cents per kwh, for a total of $1,965.50.

As the years passed, though, purchasing appliances that used direct current became more difficult, and eventually, the sisters had to switch to alternating current. By the early 1970s, the engine had been phased out – although it remained in its longtime location in the academy’s boiler room.

In December 1983, though, Dennis Schrank of Oldenburg purchased it, and before he moved it, he had it started “one last time.”

Then, with help from family and friends, he rolled the engine 30 feet on four treated, round poles to two steps and then used jacks to lift it up the steps and out of the building.

Two wheel tracks, 10 inches deep, were dug into the ground to lower the drag on the trailer, making it as easy as possible to load the engine for transport from that point.

The flywheel, 6 inches wide, 78 inches in diameter and weighing 2,600 pounds, was taken off for the move and rolled manually through a narrow passage way to the loader.

The old engine and its flywheel were then hauled to the Schrank farm and stored away in a barn until May 1998. That’s when the Franklin County Antique Machinery Club purchased it.

At that time, club members disassembled the engine and hauled it to Cincinnati for a complete restoration. They also contacted Gilbert Meyer, the academy’s former maintenance supervisor and head of electricity and refrigeration.

Gilbert shared his recollections of the engine, as well as a number of written documents, including the engine’s purchase contract, warranties, and repair and operational correspondence.

Club members Bud Kiefer and Roger Pettit began designing and constructing a trailer with heavy-duty axles on which the engine could be permanently mounted.

When the specially made trailer was ready, the engine was pulled onto a tilt-top trailer, moved alongside the new trailer and slid onto it.

Sixteen years in storage left its mark. Although the pistons remained in good shape, the supply lines and electrical wiring had to be either cleaned or replaced, the generator had to be reassembled, and the brushes set and remounted. A fuel tank had to be built and installed to the front of the engine, along with new piping to the pumps; an air filter had to be fabricated and installed, and the electronic board replaced. The new electronic board was mounted on the engine proper; at the academy, the board had been mounted on the wall.

After restoring the engine, the club used a special donation to purchase a type “H” two-stage compressor, just like the one that came with it in 1927, making the restoration complete.

Back home in Indiana, the spiffed-up engine required many trial starts and subsequent adjustments to fine-tune both the air pressure and the amount of fuel used by the injectors.

Once the fine-tuning was completed, the old engine took off on its own.

It was displayed and run in its restored state for the first time at the club’s 2001 show - the group’s seventh annual event. Members on hand report the engine ran well, “chucking” like a locomotive and bellowing black smoke from its 8-foot smokestack. Then, the generator obligingly produced a warm glow from light strands wound around the engine’s perimeter just for the occasion. For Gilbert, who witnessed the drama, it was almost like the old days at the academy. FC 

For more information about the Oldenburg engine, contact Barbara Kiefer, Franklin County Antique Machinery Club Inc., 8102 Golden Rd., Brookvitle, IN 47012; (513) 385-9033.