Essential Engines

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Briggs & Stratton engine
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Lauson engine
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Little Bull tractor
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Lauson engines
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Harold Caskey

After Harold Caskey retired from the farm, he found his thoughts turning back to the farm machinery of days gone by, especially vintage tractors and farm engines. ‘I needed something to do, so I started thinking about getting some of the old farm engines,’ the Maple Lake, Minn., collector recalls. Harold was particularly fascinated by air-cooled engines as opposed to the liquid-cooled engines that are much more expensive.

Harold, now 77, grew up when farm engines provided most of the power for farm work before rural electricity arrived. ‘We had a couple of small farm engines as I was growing up,’ Harold remembers. ‘A McCormick-Deering and a John Deere 1 1/2-hp engine did the chores.’

Deere of many uses

One of those chores included pumping water from the well for cows. ‘We had a great big stock tank, and even though some of our pastures had sloughs, it seems like a lot of times the cattle came up and they all wanted to drink at the same time,’ Harold explains. ‘They’d drink that tank right down.’ The stock tank was refilled using the family’s John Deere 1 1/2-hp engine, he adds. Because the engine’s gasoline tank was small, Harold says, it frequently ran out of gas and had to be refilled.

That little Deere stationary engine also helped Harold’s mother wash clothes. The family washing machine was operated by a lever that was pulled back and forth to perform the washing action. The lever could either be hand operated – there were seven boys and five girls in the family, so there was no shortage of ‘volunteers’ – or powered by an engine. About half the time, Harold explains, his mother belted the Deere engine to the machine. ‘It would run all day,’ Harold says. ‘With 14 of us, there were a lot of clothes to wash.’

The little green engine also powered the family’s Letz burr mill and their uncommon two-hole corn sheller (most corn shellers built during the 1930s were one-holers). ‘Those little engines did a lot of things on the farm,’ Harold says.

With such a long history with Deere & Co. farm engines, Harold’s thoughts naturally turned to the John Deere 1 1/2- hp from his childhood. That’s when he decided to collect engines. The engine wasn’t difficult to locate, because his brother still owned it after all these years.

Big on Briggs & Stratton

After Harold got the Deere engine from his brother, the next engine he added to his collection was a Briggs & Stratton with a kick-starter. While some engines fetch astronomical prices, Harold bought the Briggs & Stratton for the handsome sum of 50 cents. The engine is probably a 1 1/2-hp Model WM – which stands for ‘washing machine’ – though it’s difficult to tell because there are few markings on it. ‘A lot of those old motors don’t have any numbers or identification of any kind on them, which makes it pretty difficult to find out what they are,’ Harold says.

One of the most difficult parts about collecting old engines is uncovering exact information on them, Harold says. In fact, only a couple of the 21 engines in his collection still have their identification tags, he adds, and without specific markings it’s often a crap-shoot trying to figure out what they are.

‘Different people will say different things to identify them,’ he admits. ‘I don’t know why people tore the tags off. Makes it real hard to tell what they are.’

Harold has several other Briggs & Stratton engines, including one with a hand crank that he bought for $40. Built in June 1940, this Model BR6 (ball-bearing, reduction-gear type), serial no. 300264, L-head engine has a 2.25-inch bore and stroke. The engine needed a breather and a gas tank to get it running. Harold added the parts needed in order to run the engine so he could check it while it operated. ‘I got it running,’ he says, ‘and the motor sounded good, but I needed to clean the carburetor and put a carburetor kit in it.’ Harold fabricated a new hand crank for the engine because it was missing in action, as well. The engine uses a 6-to-l gear-reduction ratio, which means the small engine produces power rather than speed. Harold knows about a similar engine that powered a cement mixer, and he says the gear-reduction models were always used for heavy work that required extra power.

Harold’s best-running engine is a 5-hp Briggs & Stratton that powers his 1/3-scale Rumely OilPull tractor. ‘It came from an Allis-Chalmers lawn mower – Simplicity – and it was such a good little motor that I figured I’d use that on the Rumely,’ Harold explains. The engine had always run reliably, and best of all, it fit the scale tractor easily.

REO and Lauson engines

Besides John Deere and Briggs & Stratton engines, Harold owns a small 1951 REO – Ransom E. Olds – engine that’s a Model 21 1F, 1 3/4-hp engine manufactured in Lansing, Mich., which originally powered a reel-type lawn-mower. ‘My older brother, Lawrence, said he used to push that reel-type lawnmower all over the place, until he got that REO motor,’ he recalls. ‘The 1 3/4-hp motor sat unused for years, and the condenser didn’t work and its flywheel cover was filled with mice.’ The engine runs now thanks to Harold’s stellar mechanical work. He cleaned out the mouse debris, replaced the condenser and polished it to a good shine.

Harold also owns a couple John Lauson Co. engines, manufactured in New Holstein, Wis. His first Lauson engine, Model H30H, serial no. 9525979, came packed with mouse nests as well, and the engine needed a new condenser from the infestation. Surprisingly, the Lauson’s original magneto was intact, which was unusual because mice can spell major magneto malfunction. ‘Mice get in, build their nests, live there and urinate over everything, and that ends up eating the magneto up,’ Harold explains. ‘Otherwise, I think some of those old magnetos last pretty good.’ The 2-hp Lauson engine once powered a garden tiller and came with an extra-heavy flywheel. ‘A lot of those little tiller motors have a little heavier flywheel to hold their rpm up and give them a little more power,’ Harold says.

Harold bought his second Lauson at an auction for $5 after other bidders showed no interest. Naturally, he found mice living in the engine, and the magneto didn’t work as a result. To repair the engine, Harold filed the points, replaced the condenser and added a coil and new battery. The gas tank was nearly too rusted to use, like gas tanks on many old engines. Yet, Harold has a solution to such a problem. First, he drops a handful of bolt nuts into the gas tank. Then Harold holds the tank between his legs and shakes it back and forth so the nuts can knock the rust loose. Next, he adds gasoline to wash out the interior. Finally, Harold uses a metal sealer to give the tank’s interior a protective coat. After all that tinkering, the Lauson now runs like it did long ago.

Harold wanted the Lauson engine to run especially well because he intended to mount it on his 1/3-scale Little Bull, a tractor he built from scratch to exhibit at steam shows and parades. Later, Harold changed his mind about the engine and removed it from the Little Bull because he didn’t want to damage it’s intricate parts.

The chicken coop coup

Rather than restore every engine to pristine condition, Harold prefers a utilitarian approach and just fixes his engines enough to run. The exception to that rule is a Model F J, serial no. 65546, Briggs & Stratton engine built in 1929 at Milwaukee, Wis., that Harold bought from a farmer who left it lying on its side in a chicken coop for many years. The engine was paintless and the magneto was shot, but the pistons weren’t locked because the engine was stored on its side. ‘Oil must have run up into the pistons,’ Harold explains as the reason the engine still spun freely.

Once Harold stripped the engine, he again discovered the magneto was destroyed by mouse urine. Yet, after Harold cleaned the engine – and added a condenser and coil to make it start easy – it ran smoothly. Harold originally intended to mount the engine on the Little Bull tractor – thus the new red paint job. Unfortunately, the engine on the Little Bull tractor rattled for an unknown reason. Harold didn’t want to ruin it, so he removed it from the scale tractor.

With so many engines to house, Harold hopes to move into a larger workspace. ‘My garage is packed so tightly I don’t have room to work on any of the engines,’ he says.

‘This hobby is a lot of fun,’ Harold declares. ‘I get to look for something new and different. I’m familiar with a lot of old stuff, but there’s also a lot of it that I’m not familiar with. I’m always going to junk piles and always looking for stuff. That old machinery and those old engines used to work really good on the farms.’

Harold may be retired from the farm, but he isn’t likely to lose his enthusiasm for old farm engines. ‘I was just always kind of interested, and I just kind of bought one here and there, you know, and monkeyed with them so I’d have something to do. Now I have plenty to do,’ Harold chuckles.

‘This hobby is a lot of fun. I get to look for something new and different. I’m familiar with a lot of old stuff, but there’s also a lot of it that I’m not familiar with. I’m always going to junk piles and always looking for stuff. That old machinery and those old engines used to work really good on the farms.’

– Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:

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