As a kid growing up on a Wisconsin farm, Jim Keats saw gasoline engines in their element, powering cement mixers and pumping water. The relics left a lasting impression. “My attraction to the engines was to see something different mechanically,” he says. “So the first time I had a chance to acquire one – in 1962 – I did.”
On that occasion nearly 50 years ago, Jim, his dad and brother-in-law were at a farm sale when they saw a Lindsay-Alamo 2-1/2 hp engine. “My brother-in-law and I pooled our money to buy the thing,” Jim recalls with a laugh. “$7.50. The collection just blossomed from there.”
Jim focused initially on Wisconsin-built farm engines. Today, those engines are housed on his acreage near Hawley, Minn., and make up the bulk of his collection. “I kind of stuck with the Wisconsin-built engines like the C.P. & J. Lauson engines, the Lauson-Lawton and the Christensen line,” he explains.
What’s in a name?
The manufacturers of Jim’s Wisconsin-built farm engines share a complicated web of genealogy. C.P. & J. Lauson Co. dates to 1893; the Milwaukee company built Badger engines as early as 1903 and, later, Farmer’s Friend engines. The partners split in about 1908, with Lauson joining C.A. Lawton & Co., forming Lauson-Lawton Co.
Originally founded as Novelty Mfg. Co., in DePere, Wis., the Lawton organization went through two name changes (C.A. Lawton in 1886 and C.A. Lawton & Co. in 1903) before adding Lauson’s name to the shingle in 1908. Lauson-Lawton produced the Wisconsin line of engines; that company ceased engine production in about 1917.
Meanwhile, C.P. & J. Lauson Co. reorganized as Christensen Engineering Co. in Milwaukee, continuing production of Badger engines. That company also ceased engine production in about 1917.
Adding to the confusion was the presence of a third manufacturer with a similar name: John Lauson Mfg. Co., based in New Holstein, Wis. Organized in 1895 as a machine and boiler shop, the company built Lauson and Frost King engines and Lauson tractors. The company reorganized in 1935.
The engines built by C.P. & J. Lauson Co. are the hardest to find. “The smallest one I have is a 6 hp, and the largest a 12 hp,” Jim says. “Only three of these 12 hp engines are known to exist. I bought mine from another collector. Originally it was found in a gravel pit near Sussex, Wis. Another fellow bought it, had it for a few years and traded it for a Lauson tractor.” Next it was sold to another collector, from whom Jim bought it.
According to a company catalog, C.P. & J. Lauson horizontal engines ranged in size from 4-1/2 hp to 25 hp. Vertical engines were offered from 2 to 4 hp; marine engines ranged from 1 to 4 hp.
Engines with stories to tell
Other special engines in Jim’s collection include a 1902 10 hp Fairbanks-Morse once used to water the lawn at a Lake Geneva, Wis., mansion owned by family members of the Wrigley gum and candy empire. “It was a big pumping engine,” he says, “and because of its former owners, is one of the oddest I have.”
If Jim has a favorite engine, it would be a very rare (at least in the upper Midwest) 11 hp White & Middleton. “That’s an engine you don’t often find in this country,” he says. “They’re usually out East, because they were built in Baltimore, Md. It was one of the last ones built by the Charles White Gas Engine Co. I traded an Associated engine for it. I don’t know that I have any real favorite engines, but I do like that White. I have it here on the farm and run it quite often.” He also likes the older International engines and has a few in his collection.
Another of Jim’s unusual pieces is a 1906 National Engineering Co. engine built in Saginaw, Mich. “It’s a rare little pumping engine with a glass carburetor and pendulum governor on it. It doesn’t have any flyballs or anything on it. The weights swing back and forth with a pushrod, and when it comes up to speed, it locks the pushrod open. It has a few weird things about it. You don’t find too many of those engines around.”
Oilfield engines have also found a home in Jim’s collection. One is a Simplex 20 hp engine from western Pennsylvania. “It pumped five oil wells on a lease out there,” he says. Another is a 1930s-era 40 hp Bessemer, one of his newest engines. “It’s a pretty good-sized critter that spent its life pumping out 15 oil wells for Pennzoil,” he says.
While buying engines in the Bradford, Pa., area, Jim visited the Coolspring (Pa.) Power Museum, one of the premier engine museums in the country. The quest for treasure takes Jim all over the country: He and his father-in-law once trekked to North Dakota to look for engines.
A bid and a prayer
As any collector knows, some pieces come easy; others are more of a challenge. Three years ago, on the trail of a 1916 International Mogul 4 hp engine, Jim got into an unusual situation at an auction. “The owner had taken the engine apart 30 years ago, and parts were scattered all over his place, where they were holding a two-day auction.”
The biggest problem was that the auctioneer was selling the block on the second day, which meant Jim had to scope out the area, looking for the other parts of the engine. “A friend of mine had cast some parts for (the former owner) and said he delivered them to the guy 30 years ago, so I began by looking for those. The guy had quite a collection of tractors, engines, steam engines and piles of parts all over the yard and the junk wagon.”
Jim found the fuel pump in one pile of junk, covers for the engine in another, the igniter abandoned elsewhere, the lubricator in another area, and the rocker arms his friend had cast in yet another. Even though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to buy the block for the engine, he says, “I started buying parts, because you can always use parts.”
Luckily Jim’s was the winning bid and he ended up with the block. When he took everything home he discovered he had enough parts to set the engine together, although it took a bit of work. “Those rocker arms my friend had cast for the engine hadn’t been machined out,” he says. “A lot of the Madison-Kipp lubricator parts were busted, so I had to make a bunch of those parts. Cams for the fuel pump were bad, so I made them. It required new valves, and the raw castings of the rocker arms had to be machined and lined up. It took me a while, but I got it set together. Now it runs good.”
Always a collector
Jim has other farm-related collections besides the engines. “My great-great-grandfather was county surveyor in Walworth County, Wis., one of only four so far in the history of the place,” he says. “So I inherited his transit, which is a rather nice one, and that started me keeping a better eye out for that type of stuff.”
He also collects implement wrenches, adjustable wrenches and monkey-type wrenches. “I’ve been in that for many years,” he says. “I have a thousand or two of them. I just kept collecting them along with the engines, and nail them on the wall in the engine shed.” Eventually friends pressed him to join a wrench club, which led to another hobby: making miniature wrenches.
He builds the wrenches out of solid stock as close to the original as he can, and then works on them in what he calls his “little machine shop.” “I take a regular-size monkey wrench and scale it down to a miniature of the original,” he says. “It has to work, of course, and almost has to work better than the original.”
Jim also collects spark plugs through a friend who also collected engines. “I was into spark plugs for many years,” he says. “I don’t do much with that anymore, but once in a while I do find a plug. But I don’t go hunting like I used to.”
Other collections include anvils, vises, scales, measuring devices, surveying equipment, small lathes, and treadle powers like those once used by dentists and jewelers. “You name it,” he says. “You have to come up here to witness all of them. I call this place the Eclectic Collections because I have so many different ones.”
Professor of old iron
Because few of the oldsters who remember the heyday of stationary gas engines are still around, Jim says, the tenor of show conversations has changed. “Some people kind of like the old engines,” he says, “but most people don’t understand what they are or what they were used for.”
At the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion, Rollag, Minn., Jim generally volunteers as an operator of the 600 hp Snow gas engine. “Some people have asked if we are going to take that 140-ton engine to other shows,” he says with a laugh. “Many people have no concept of what these things are or what they did or anything about them.”
But that provides an opportunity to educate people. “I can give them the history of the engine and how it was used,” Jim says. “Occasionally an old timer will come around and say, ‘I used to saw wood with one of those,’ or something like that. But there aren’t many of those guys anymore.”
Jim’s son and grandson occasionally accompany him to tractor shows. “I got them interested in engines,” he says. “My son Andy grew up with them around all his life, and the last two years he’s started getting a few engines and fixing them up. My grandson, Cody Keats, is graduating from high school, and I’m hoping he’ll get more interested in them. Sometimes they get away from it and eventually come back.”
Camaraderie with other collectors is a special pleasure as he travels to shows throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. “I think that’s the neatest part of it for me anymore,” he says. But engines of a long-lost era remain the star attraction. Jim once used his engines to power grindstones, saws and other machines at shows. “But most of the time now we just have them running by themselves,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve gotten to a point where we just want to see how good you can make the engine run.” FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: email@example.com.