David Harder credits a buddy for his love of farm antique gas engines. “We were on a motorcycle trip when we passed a place in southern Manitoba that had a lot of engines just standing there,” he recalls. “We stopped in and each of us ended up buying McCormick-Deering 3 hp engines.”
A few weeks later, the friends returned with a pickup to retrieve the engines. At the time, David — who lives in Butterfield, Minn. — wasn’t especially interested in antique gas engines. Although he’d grown up on a Minnesota farm, he’d had no exposure to the old hit-and-miss engines. “So I’m not sure why I got interested in engines,” he says with a laugh. “Mostly because of the mechanical part, I guess. I’ve always been interested in mechanical things. When something is broken, I like to fix it so it will work again.”
That first McCormick-Deering gave him plenty of opportunity to tinker. The old engine was stuck and needed a lot of work. David took it apart, got it running and gave it a cosmetic restoration — and he was hooked.
While visiting California in 1981, David took a walk into the hills near San Bernardino. In a pasture there, he spotted an unfamiliar antique gas engine. “A fire had gone through the area,” he says, “and the paint was burned off the engine, which was lying on its side. Obviously nobody wanted it.”
He went to the nearest house and asked the homeowner about the old relic. Abandoned for years, the engine had long been used to pump water for cattle. “The homeowner said that small amounts of gasoline and oil would be put in and the engine was started and left unattended,” David says. “By the time the fuel ran out, the stock tank was full. Later, a bulldozer hit the engine, apparently breaking its flywheel.”
David made an offer of $50 for the engine. “The man scratched his head and said the guys from a local engine club had offered him more than that,” David recalls. “About that time, his wife, who was standing behind the screen door where I hadn’t noticed her, said, ‘You better take that. One night that engine could be gone and you’ll be left with nothing.’”
When David got the old engine back to Minnesota, he found out it wasn’t in as bad a shape as he’d first thought. “I took the cylinder head off, cleaned it up, put gas in, belted it up and it ran,” he says. “Only the cast pulley was busted, not the flywheel itself.”
Today, that 1923 Hercules 3 hp engine (manufactured by Hercules Gas Engine Co., Evansville, Ind.) is a regular performer at the Butterfield (Minn.) Steam & Gas Engine Show, where it provides power to a pair of 5-gallon White Mountain ice cream freezers. “We use a mix of powdered eggs, sugar, milk, cream, vanilla and salt. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to freeze a batch in a 5-gallon can,” David says. “We can make two batches at a time.”
Each year, David shows the largest of his more than two dozen engines at the Butterfield show, where they are permanently stored. One is a 1913 Waterloo Boy 9 hp engine built by Waterloo (Iowa) Gas Engine Co. that he bought from Raymond Peets, who once had his own threshing show near Truman, Minn. “He’d done some work on it and I did quite a bit more,” David says. “One year when I showed it at Butterfield an elderly woman examined that engine pretty close. I started talking with her and she said that her uncle, Louis Witry, had designed the fuel setup for Waterloo Boy. I could kick myself for not getting a picture of her standing next to that engine.”
He also shows a 1926 Fairbanks-Morse Model Z 15 hp engine (built by Fairbanks, Morse & Co., Beloit, Wis.) that he found in an unusual way. “Our electric cooperative’s monthly newsletter used to have a column called ‘The Hobby Exchange’ where you could list things in free ads,” he says. In one issue, David spotted a listing for a Fairbanks-Morse engine from a man near Blackduck, Minn., halfway across the state. He asked for pictures, and when they came, he was sold.
When David got to Blackduck, he found the engine in the seller’s front yard with a small roof built over it and open sides. “You could see it from the road,” he says. “The guy said he liked to have it there where people could see it and stop by. He would start it up for people, and did for me, and it ran fine.”
The engine is equipped with “electric” flywheels. “The standard flywheel diameter is 44 inches, but these are a foot larger in diameter,” David says. “I’m guessing that the extra weight and larger size kept it steady so when the lights were on they didn’t flicker.” The engine and an accompanying generator once provided power to a resort near Blackduck. The 125-volt DC generator works well for running light bulbs, David says, but can’t run most electric motors.
Another unusual engine in David’s collection is a British-made 1914 Lister 7 hp Model N. “I bought it from a collector who said it had been used in British Columbia or someplace in western Canada by a well-drilling outfit,” David says. “I didn’t have to do much on that engine except sandblast and paint it. I don’t think I repaired much of anything. Those British engines were pretty high-quality and this Lister is no exception.” According to C.H. Wendel in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, early Listers — those predating 1908 — were built in the U.S. by Stover Mfg. & Engine Co., Freeport, Ill.
At the Butterfield show, David is in charge of running a Kansas City Lightning engine owned by the show. Dating to about 1900, the opposed piston engine was manufactured by Kansas City (Mo.) Hay Press Co. The engine is rated at 5-6 hp. “It used to belong to my neighbor, Ole Lundberg, who died in 1995,” David says. “All his life he lived on the same place half a mile from where I farm. He found the engine half a mile down the road from us. He asked the owner if he could buy it and the owner said, ‘Well, I’m using that engine to anchor my fence, so if you can get something else to hold that fence up, you can have that engine.’”
Finding a replacement anchor didn’t take as long as gathering up stray parts did: The engine was partially disassembled when it was abandoned. Nor was reassembly a walk in the park. “It’s a unique design,” David says, “so trying to set it together was a challenge. But Ole did get it going.”
David says the Lightning is the most unusual engine he’s worked with. “Everything about that engine is different,” he says. “It has two pistons but only one cylinder, and the governor setup is fascinating to watch. I still don’t totally understand how it functions. People will watch it for a long time and ask about it, and I’ve never had a very good explanation. I think the Lightning engine was a little too complex and expensive in the long run. Not many were produced and very few survive today. I’ve only seen a couple others.”
Later, Ole saw another KC Lightning engine sold at an auction for $9. The buyer promptly took a sledgehammer to it. “Ole told me he could have bought it at the time but didn’t. A few years later, he realized he’d made a mistake,” David says. “That one had been in full running order.” Eventually, Ole donated his Lightning engine to the Butterfield show.
Although David’s collection includes a Galloway 6 hp engine (set up with a saw blade at Heritage Village Museum, Mountain Lake, Minn.) and a rare 1909 Stickney 3 hp engine, not all of his engines are exotic. His collection also includes common engines made by manufacturers like John Deere, Stover and Novo.
Common or rare, antique gas engines showcase a unique form of American ingenuity that David appreciates. The level of engineering incorporated in engines built a century ago never ceases to amaze him. “Modern is good,” he admits, “but when you look back at the ideas they had more than 100 years ago, they were also very good. The different ways they came up with building these old engines just fascinates me.” FC
For more information: David Harder, 40514 610th Ave., Butterfield, MN 56120; email: Davnoi@netscape.net
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.