Preserving Pump Jacks

An Iowa man has collection of 60 unique pump jacks, including a walking beam pump jack.

| August 2010

Like football’s defensive line, the lowly pump jack gets little acclaim. But it would be a mistake to overlook the device that kept the water flowing on calm days when windmills became little more than yard art. Teamed with a stationary gas engine, the pump jack kept farms and rural homes in business.

Collector Don Hahn, Keota, Iowa, got interested in pump jacks when he saw one with a John Deere gas engine at an auction. “You don’t see too many engines with pump jacks at shows,” he reasoned. “So I decided I’d collect pump jack engines.”

He’s since gathered up 60 unique pump jack engines – any one of which would have brightened his day as a youth. “We never had a pump jack until I was in high school,” he recalls. Water for livestock was pumped by wind power, and the house had a well – but no gas engine to lighten the load. “It would have been nice if we’d had a milking machine,” he admits. “We had about 10 cows.”

One of his most unusual pump jacks displays particular ingenuity. Henry J. Kuhlman, Colesburg, Iowa, developed the innovative pump jack for a well 200 feet deep. Patented in 1922, the Kuhlman unit works through a novel succession of gears to deliver tremendous lift at 34 strokes per minute.

“Fairbanks-Morse had a little 1 hp Eclipse pump engine with a great big wheel,” Don explains, “and it runs at 800 rpm. For this gear ratio you’d need a wheel much bigger than that.” The Kuhlman gets the same result with a smaller wheel, running off a slower engine. “It only needs power to go up,” Don says. “It doesn’t take any power at all to go down; it’ll drop itself.”

Another unique piece in Don’s collection comes from an Iowa company with a rich heritage: the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. The pump jack with walking beam was found nearly buried along a creek. Don dates it to about 1900.