Collector Specializes in Ottawa Engines

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"You can always tell an Ottawa," Jerry Swanson says. "They just stand out."
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Jerry Swanson was fortunate to find this Ottawa with some original paint remaining. He clear-coated the lettering to preserve it. He was also able to preserve the original gas tank.
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The restoration did not require machine work, but the cam gear was loose and needed adjustment, and the timing had to be reworked.

For Jerry Swanson, family comes first – even when you’re talking engines.

Jerry began tinkering with engines as a grade school student.

“We had a couple of Maytags we bought for about $10,” he says. “We really thought we had something.”

As he grew older, the collection also grew: Lots of engines, lots of manufacturers. But about 15 years ago, when he discovered a family tie to a Kansas engine manufacturer, he sold the bulk of his collection and began to specialize in one line: Ottawa Engines.

“I had a distant relation by marriage,” he said, connecting him to the Warner family that founded the Ottawa Engine Company. “And, I grew up near Ottawa, Kan.”

The Ottawa line, he says, has a unique appeal.

“In the 40 I have, there’s something different about every one,” he says. “They kept changing them all the time. Some of the machine work is kind of crude, but you can always tell an Ottawa; they just stand out.”

Once he decided to specialize, he jumped in with both feet. He did extensive research on the Ottawa company, though his efforts were hampered by both fire and flood in the company’s early years.

“All the records are gone,” he says. “It’s been pretty hard to research.”

The hunt for engines was equally challenging. Today, Jerry has a collection of nearly 40 Ottawa’s, all different. One of his favorites is a single cylinder dating to about 1913. He found the engine at an auction in southeast Kansas.

“I called to make sure what it was,” he said. “It had been in the man’s family since he was a kid, and he was in his 80s when he had the sale.”

The engine had been stored in a barn, and later in a chicken house. It wasn’t stuck, but a small piece was missing.

“The boss that holds the cam gear was broken, and a piece of it was gone,” Jerry says. “I talked to the guy who’d sold it, and he said I could go look in the chicken house. So I dug through the layers of straw and hay and stuff, and I found it.

“The piece was just the size of a quarter, but it wasn’t a real big chicken house,” he says. “I found it in about 10 or 15 minutes.”

Restoration of the engine was not complicated.

“It didn’t require any machine work,” Jerry says. A sign craftsman by trade, he did the pin-striping and painting himself. But he was careful to preserve original paint on the front of the hopper.

“I just clear-coated the original lettering,” he says, “and painted the rest. If an engine has the original paint, I’m not going to repaint it. It’ll eventually be worth more, if you don’t cover up the original paint.”

He was able to salvage the original gas tank: all it required was a bit of straightening, sand-blasting, and an automotive acrylic enamel.

Once complete, the 1-cylinder engine has become one of Jerry’s favorites.

“It’s one of the earliest ones I have,” he says. “And it’s fairly rare. There’s not that many of these around.”

His collection includes other rare engines: He has a 5 hp Canadian Ottawa, complete with Canadian tag.

“It was bought new, and then sold, all in Canada,” he says.

And he’s building a solid collection of Ottawa literature.

“One of my earliest pieces I got in Tulsa, at a flea market,” he says. “This guy had boxes of paper from a hardware store in western Oklahoma, and they had saved every bit of paper they ever had.” After an hour spent digging, Jerry went away with two pieces of literature from the Warner Fence Company – Ottawa Engine’s forebear – dating to 1904, the year the company started. He also has an extensive collection of sales brochures, letters and catalogs.

The Ottawa company also manufactured filling station equipment, and Jerry has two pieces from that line: a compressor pump, and a gas pump. The only exception to his engine collection is a 25 hp Superior oil field engine that he keeps at a club showground at Pawnee. It’s not running, and needs to be – like some others in his collection – torn down and rebuilt. But a “to do” list won’t keep Jerry off the trail.

“I’d still like to get a 22 hp,” he says. “That’s the biggest one they made.”

Ottawa’s still turn up at swap meets, sales and other events with some regularity, he says.

“It’s just getting harder for me to find the ones I don’t have.” FC

For more information: Jerry Swanson, 12807 E. 14th St., Tulsa, OK 74128; (918) 438-6788.

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