Antique Engine Gifts Plant the Seed

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Trent Peterson’s Fuller & Johnson engine and pump jack.
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Detail of casting on Trent’s Fuller & Johnson engine.
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Trent Peterson with his Fuller & Johnson pump engine. Photos courtesy Casey Peterson.
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The Peterson trio – (left to right) Trent, Jason and Tyler – with the 1923 Fairbanks-Morse 1-1/2 hp Type Z “dishpan” engine that once belonged to Jason’s grandfather. At front: the ledger Jason’s grandfather used to record engine operations.
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Serial number tag on Tyler’s Hired Man gas engine.
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Top view of the 1923 Fairbanks-Morse 1-1/2 hp Type Z.
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Jason Peterson’s grandfather used this 1923 Fairbanks-Morse 1-1/2 hp Type Z engine on his buzz saw.
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Top view of the 2-1/4 hp Hired Man engine.
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Tyler with his Hired Man engine.
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Tyler’s 1914 2-1/4 hp Associated Hired Man gas engine.

Fate has a funny way of bringing people together. Glen Sladek and Jason Peterson, for instance, might never have met. But when Glen got lost on trails near Markville, Minnesota, he stumbled onto Jason’s cabin. Jason was there that day and offered help.

“In conversation, we started talking about what we do for a hobby, and we discovered that we were both into old engines,” Jason says.

Glen had acquired an engine collection in an unusual way. “He had a friend who gave him his engines before he died. The man told Glen he could give the engines to people who were interested in the hobby and wanted to preserve it, but he didn’t want him to sell them and make a profit off them.”

As the two men talked, Jason – a tractor-trailer mechanic – learned that he and Glen had other interests in common besides engines, like hunting and fishing. “It developed into a good friendship over the years,” Jason says.

The gift of a Hired Man

Over time, that chance meeting has acted like a ripple in the water, helping expand the engine hobby to a new generation. When Jason visited Glen in Hutchinson, Minnesota, during the winter of 2004, Glen brought a gift: a 1914 2-1/4 hp Hired Man gasoline engine built by Associated Manufacturers Co., Waterloo, Iowa. But the engine wasn’t for Jason.

“My son, Tyler, was 4 at the time,” Jason says. “Glen said ‘Here you go. Here’s something to plant the seed and get your son involved in restoring old engines and preserving old machinery. I hope it sparks Tyler’s interest and keeps him interested.’”

Jason was flabbergasted. “I was humbled by his thought and his gift,” he says.

The engine needed work. Jason rebuilt the igniter and put in piston rings and new valves. He sandblasted and repainted the engine, and Glen repaired the Babbitt bearings. And sure enough, the engine got Tyler’s attention.

“When Tyler was young, he’d help with cleaning nuts and bolts, and tightening and loosening them,” Jason says. “He was always walking around with the oil can, squirting here and there while we were running the engine.”

Tyler hasn’t necessarily embraced antique engines. “But he still enjoys taking stuff out in the garage, welding and building things,” Jason says. “He’s still working with his hands. He’ll drag an old engine out and try to get it going. He also milks cows for a neighbor part time, so he’s got his hands into agriculture.”

Another son, another gift

A few years later, Glen visited Jason at his home in Boyceville. That time, he brought another gift: a 1-1/2 hp pump engine built by Fuller & Johnson Mfg. Co., Madison, Wisconsin, for Jason’s younger son, Trent, then 4 years old.

“We didn’t realize either of those engines were coming to us, either time,” Jason says. “Both times when we got those engines, it was a very humbling experience. They might be worth $500 or $600 each. To have someone give something like that to you as a gift is very humbling. When people find out that someone gave these engines to my kids, they are really amazed.”

Glen had already restored the Fuller & Johnson engine, so when it came to Trent, all it needed to go to work was a little tinkering, new valves and a new pump in the pump jack.

Since the flywheel had been replaced without transferring the serial number, Jason says, it’s impossible to know the engine’s build date. “They were built from 1909-33,” he says, “so I’m just guessing the 1920s.”

The Fuller & Johnson was a perfect match for Trent, now 13. “He’s interested in anything with motors – old snowmobiles, trucks, cars, tractors, any old engines,” Jason says. “He started by coming out and tinkering with me. I’d give him bolts to loosen and tighten. What he really likes doing at shows is grinding feed with the burr mill, making chicken food.”

Hobby wrapped in family ties

Jason got indoctrinated into the gas engine hobby in 1984 when he was 8 years old. “My dad took me to the Almelund (Minnesota) threshing show,” he says. “And a couple of years later my dad’s uncle, Ralph Anderson, gave me the hit-and-miss engine that my grandpa had used to buzz wood around the Taylor Falls area in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Jason wasn’t very interested in the engine at first. Things looked altogether different four years later, when he was 12. “That’s when I really took an interest in it, and things just blossomed from there,” he says. “I tinkered with that 1923 Fairbanks-Morse 1-1/2 hp Type Z, what they call a ‘dishpan’ engine. At that age I knew nothing about it.” Determined, he disassembled and cleaned the engine, but the ignition stumped him.

A neighbor who was a mechanic lent a hand. “He helped with the timing and hooking up the coil, getting a fuel tank, and that sort of thing,” Jason recalls. “That was all it took to get it running. I’ve been around engines ever since, and I enjoy tinkering and doing that mechanical stuff as a hobby.”

When Jason was 14, his father, Lee Peterson, bought him a 1944 Allis-Chalmers B to restore. After that, he tackled a couple more gas engines. “Also chainsaws, Briggs & Stratton engines, pretty much anything with a motor,” he says.

Creative problem solving

The first engine Jason bought is his rarest: a 3 hp Rock Island that he bought in 1996 at a farm auction. Like most antique engines, it needed a little work. “The igniter and fuel pump had to be rebuilt, and it needed new valves,” Jason says. “It was also seized tight.”

That required a bit of ingenuity. “We filled the water hopper with charcoal, lit it on fire and let it burn like a barbecue grill,” Jason says. “Once the cylinder was good and hot, I sprayed oil on it, and when it had cooled down a bit I slid a chunk of oak that I had whittled down just to the size to fit into the cylinder, the same size as the piston, put it in a press and popped the piston out of there.”

 Initially, Jason collected throttle-governed gas engines, but he later gravitated toward the earlier hit-and-miss and igniter-fired engines. He sold his throttle-governed engines to finance a new collection of hit-and-miss engines. “Brand wise, I’m not picky,” he says. “I like them all.”

Engine plus ledger adds up to heirloom

The Fairbanks-Morse dishpan remains Jason’s favorite piece. “It’s the one I started out with, and it had belonged to my grandpa,” he says. The fact that he also has his granddad’s ledger is icing on the cake. “My grandpa kept track of how much he charged to saw stove wood for people, how much gas was used, the time it took to do it, and other things,” Jason says. “So there’s really a history with that one and that’s really neat. I like that aspect of it.”

Like any collector, there are engines he’d love to own, if money were no object. But he still has his sights set on adding a Witte drag saw to his collection. “The Witte has a nice mechanical motion, with lots of commotion going on,” he says. “It’s almost a mechanical melody, I guess.”

The Witte would pair well with his love of northern Minnesota logging. “I enjoy everything about logging,” he says, “from reading the logging books, to finding out how the land was taken from forest, converted to farmland and is now being converted back.”

Jason likes showing engines, but he’s quick to say that it’s more complicated than loading them up on a trailer the day before the show opens. “You can fight with them all weekend long to get them ready, and each one has its own problem,” he says. “One doesn’t have a good engine spark. The next one will have a good spark but the check valve in the fuel line isn’t working. Some don’t work well if the temperature is too hot, or if there is moisture in the air, or whatever. They have their own temperaments. And gasoline doesn’t keep as well as it used to, so if you forgot to drain it from the engine you want to get ready for a show, that takes some work. Usually by the end of the show, that’s when they’re running the best!”

Friendly people, gratifying hobby

Technology a century ago continues to fascinate Jason. “The early engine builders had very little for reference on how to build what they were working on,” he says. “It was a new technology back then, and that’s the intriguing part of it. They just thought these engines up out of nothing. Sometimes they copied someone else’s work and improved on it. That’s what I enjoy.”

He also likes the people he’s met in the hobby. “Just about everybody involved in this hobby is more than willing to share their knowledge and strike up conversation and talk and talk,” he says. “That’s one reason that I bring things like old chainsaws along to shows. A lot of the old boys get a kick out of it. They’ll say, ‘I remember Dad had one of these’ or ‘I remember Granddad cutting wood with one of these’ and the conversation just takes off from there.

“These are really enjoyable, nice people to be around, and it’s just generally a nice community,” he says, “and that makes for a very gratifying hobby.” FC

For more information: Jason Peterson, NN 8747 Cty. Rd. J, Boyceville, WI 54725. 
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; email:

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