When Jerome Then was a 7-year-old kid living on the family farm about a mile from Sartell, Minn., he fell in love with farm engines.
'I recall seeing them run,' he says. 'One was used to mix concrete when my father built a new barn, and we had two we used regularly on the farm, one to run the vacuum pump for the milking machines, and the other to pump water to cool the milk and provide water for the livestock. Many, many times I was sent out late in the evening to shut this one off after it had pumped water long enough to cool the milk.'
The other one was difficult to start: he remembers his mother struggling with it when she went out to milk. 'That was during harvest time, when my dad was already working out in the field,' he says.
Both of these were Fairbanks-Morse engines, so it is no surprise that when Jerome started collecting and restoring farm engines a dozen years ago, he picked up three of them. 'They're not real collectible - they're little Model D's like we had on the farm - but two of the three are mounted on a channel iron frame that runs a little Fairbanks-Morse piston-type water pump, which does make them fairly collectible. Fairbanks also used the little D to run the air compressor to start the larger Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine.'
Despite Jerome's history with Fairbanks-Morse engines, the ones he has aren't his favorite farm engines.
'That would be the Mogul, manufactured by International Harvester back in 1915,' the 73-year-old rural St. Cloud, Minn., collector says. Jerome also has proof of that engine's age, making it probably the oldest in his collection of three dozen engines.
The Mogul is basically the same engine type used in International Harvester's Mogul tractors of that era, although Jerome's 4 hp engine is much smaller. 'This one is kind of rare and difficult to find. It's the kind of engine that attracts your attention. I like it because it's so well built. It seems like back then, they built the engines as good as they knew how.
'They didn't spare anything. This one is a Mogul sideshaft engine, meaning the shaft running along the side of the engine controls the opening and closing of the valves, and operates the magneto. It's a beautiful engine to watch run. I admire the craftsmanship and workmanship these people were capable of 85 years ago.'
Jerome exhibits the Mogul at threshing shows. But because it's a big engine, he's devised a special way to start it. 'I have a little bit of a heart problem, and the doctor didn't think it would be good for me to crank up that Mogul. It usually starts pretty good, but it can get fussy sometimes. So, to keep the doctor and my wife happy, I had to devise a method to start this big engine that would be a lot less strenuous.' The solution came in the form of a small International Harvester LB engine.
Jerome built a mechanism so he can clutch the little engine into the flywheel of the big one, using a piece of tire casing which he bolted to the pulley of the IH LB engine.
'I have a lever there to clutch it in,' he says, 'and it works out perfectly. In fact, a lot of people at these shows enjoy seeing the starting procedure as much as seeing it run.'
Jerome's collection includes an Associated (an air-cooled engine), Cushman, Economy, Hercules, John Deere, New Idea, Sandwich, Stover, Waterloo Boy, 'even a couple of lowly Maytags,' he laughs.
He started his collection with John Deere engines, purchased from a man from whom Jerome rented farmland. 'He was retired, and had collected engines, and when he suffered a stroke, he sold me three John Deere engines. From that time on, other engines just kind of kept following me home,' Jerome laughs.
Jerome doesn't collect engines to sell, but rather to restore.
'I've been a farmer all my life, and the mechanical skills that you need to keep your farm equipment up and operating is about the same as those needed to restore the old gas engines.'
About a year ago, he bought a 1 1/2 hp International Harvester engine, with the piston stuck in the bore. 'I couldn't turn the engine over, so I removed the cylinder head and flywheel, because otherwise when you hit the piston you're attempting to turn the flywheel too, which makes for pretty hard work.'
He set the engine up on end, and poured solvent into the cylinder. 'I had the engine setting in my shed for two months. Occasionally I'd go in there and add a little more solvent, and when it came time to restore that engine late that fall, I took a block of round wood almost the same diameter of the piston, and used a heavy mallet to tap this block of wood gently onto the piston until I freed it up. That's the kind of work on the engine that is a challenge to do.'
Jerome has developed his own tricks of the trade: One of those is plating bolts and nuts with nickel. 'When I'm working on an engine, I remove practically all the bolts and nuts, and take them to a shop here in Sauk Rapids that does nickel plating. That way, when you assemble the engine with nickel-plated bolts, you don't have to worry about chipping the paint. A lot of time when you paint the engine, you paint the bolts and nuts. When you have to remove something, as soon as you put a wrench to it, there goes the paint. But if you have the bolts and nuts nickel-plated, you don't have that trouble. And it makes the engine look attractive, too.'
The most fun Jerome has is taking his engines to shows and visiting with people who have the same hobby. He's made it easier for himself to take his machines around, too. Like the Mogul. 'These engines are quite heavy, and as you know, as you get older, they get heavier,' he laughs. 'I was first going to put it on a cart, but I put it on a trailer, and it's a lot easier to show. When the show is over, just hook up the trailer, and you're on your way. None of this loading and unloading.'
For each show, Jerome chooses from among his other 20 restored engines, and then loads four or five of them in his tandem trailer. 'It's just a total enjoyment to go to these shows and display and visit with other people that have the same hobby.'
He also enjoys educating the public on the farm engine hobby. 'People come along and ask, Are those steam engines? And I say, No, those are gasoline engines. Some of them were started on gas, and then switched over to kerosene. Then people will ask, What were they used for? So I will tell them. Some of the young people now are so distant from how things were back at the turn of the century that they can hardly comprehend. It seems like they think we always just reached onto the wall and threw the switch for electricity.'
When it comes to engines, collectors are accustomed to road trips.
Five years ago Jerome saw a Galloway Handy Andy at an auction, but it was in parts, practically in a bucket, and he didn't want something like that. A year or two later, at a show in Iowa, 'It was a hot day, and there was a little stand selling ice cream cones, so I got one and sat under a shade tree at a table with an older gentleman who was enjoying a cone.' Turns out the older gentleman had three engines he wanted to get rid of, the last three of his collection, and one of those was a Handy Andy. He lived south of Provo, Utah, so after ruminating on whether he should get the engine or not, Jerome finally decided to go out there to get the engine. 'Of course, it was more than that. I had a nephew in Wyoming to visit, and I took in an auction in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I purchased a couple more engines.' But finally he got to Provo, and paid about $1,700 for the Handy Andy.
A couple years later, Jerome decided to check out an auction east of Sturgis, S.D. 'I like to take a run out there once a year anyway, because I enjoy the western atmosphere,' he says. 'It was a big crowd, and one guy bought two unrestored Handy Andys, one for $2,800 and the other for $3,000.I told him about mine, and when I said it was already restored, he said he would give me $3,000 for it sight unseen. That made me want to hang on to it all the more. Every engine has a story.'
About two dozen of Jerome's engines are restored, he says. 'I'm in the process of doing one right now. I just finished one up a couple of days ago, so although I'm not actively searching for more engines, occasionally I'll come across something. My intent is not to have the most engines, but to restore and display them.'
The engines keep appreciating in value, Jerome says. 'Those first three John Deere engines I bought cost me $200. Today, one of them alone - the John Deere 1 1/2 hp - is worth $500-600.' Some engines can sell for thousands of dollars, he says. 'I tell my wife that I buy them for investment. And since 80 percent of all the farm engines have already been scrapped - I read that in a magazine - and it seems like more and more people are getting interested, the ones left are becoming more valuable. The prices keep getting bid up.'
Jerome collects and restores engines because of the enjoyment, but for other reasons as well. 'I just like to save a little of the past for the future generations. And then, it's a little bit of a challenge. Some people like to run away from problems, but I enjoy solving them. I just don't know any better.'
Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.
'My intent is not to have the most engines, but to restore and display them.' --Jerome Then
'This one is ... the kind of engine that attracts your attention. I like it because it's so well built. It seems like back then, they built the engines as good as they knew how.'
'Some of the young people now are so distant from how things were back at the turn of the century that they can hardly comprehend.'
For Jerome Then, the most important step in restoring an engine is buying one that is complete. 'If you buy one with parts missing,' he says, 'it usually becomes an expensive engine, because it's cheaper to buy the complete engine right away, than to be forced later to hunt up a magneto or flywheel or cylinder head that you discover is missing.'
The second-most-important step is taking a picture of the engine
'For two reasons: first, for 'before' and 'after' pictures; and second, if you have any doubts about the reassembly of the engine, you have a picture to look at. Sometimes you might have an engine of the same make, and then it's no problem. But if this is a one-of-a-kind engine, it's nice to have photos of it.'
Then, Jerome dismantles the engine. 'I take it to a fellow to have it sandblasted, and when 1 get it back, I prime it. That way you don't have to worry about rust setting up on it.'
Next, Jerome examines the engine's cylinder bore. 'Sometimes you can use original piston rings, but other times you have to buy new piston rings. Or sometimes the cylinder needs to be sleeved.'
Then he checks to see if the magneto has a spark. 'If it doesn't, I send it out to a guy up at Ottertail, Minn. Repairing them is a skill. When he gets done with the magnetos they not only look new, but they function new.'
Then Jerome checks the bearings. 'They often used Babbitt bearings at the time, and it requires some expertise to pour new Babbitt bearings. I've never attempted to do this.' Often he has to take shims out, and if he finds out the brass bushings are worn, he has a friend with a machine shop take care of making new bushings.
Jerome says you might find, at this point, that the cylinder head might need repair, or the water hopper might be cracked, and for that, he uses JB Weld.
'That's really good stuff,' he says. If that doesn't work, he may have to weld the broken piece, or braze it.
'When you get the engine checked out, and find out what you need, then you buy whatever you need in the way of new parts: rings, valves, and whatever. Then you slowly start to assemble it.'
Once that's done, then comes the most fun time of all, according to Jerome: starting it. 'Some of these engines haven't been run for 50 or 60 years, and the most satisfying part of the whole hobby is the day you start it up, and it runs,' he says. 'That's the reward: how easily they start, how they sound. Sometimes it takes a little bit of fine tuning, but I have a real good friend who lives up in Aiken, Minn. He's a genius with engines. Whenever I have a problem, or sometimes when startup day comes along, I'll throw the engine in the back of my pickup or trailer and we go up there, and in the matter of half an hour to an hour, we've got it sitting there running. It's kind of like hitting a hole-in-one.'