Connecting Through Antique Gas Engines

A father and his young son share a passion for antique gas engines, which has spread to his younger siblings.

| July 2019

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 Aaron Abey and his kids Wyatt, Winston and Violet, flanking his Chapman and Hummer engines. 

Like many engine collectors, Wyatt Abey likes nothing better than to tell people at shows about the gas engines he and his father display. Moving from engine to engine, he explains how each works, the principles of the engine and how the connecting rods work. He’ll pull the flywheel back and show the compression — anything a spectator might want to know. 

Wyatt also enjoys hunting for usable engine parts. When he makes a find, he does his best to sell it. One time when he recognized parts in a scrap barrel at an estate sale, he ended up with two ignitors: one from a Waterloo engine and one from an Associated.

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The Abey boys — Wyatt and Winston — with other toys. 

 
Another time, he called out, “Hey, look what I found!” From the scrap barrel, he dug out an engine oiler with the glass intact. He sells his finds, saving the proceeds to pay for his current dream engine: a 4hp Famous screen-cooled engine.

It’s pretty standard behavior for an engine collector — except for the fact that Wyatt is all of 6 years old.

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Aaron with young Wyatt, next to the 1913 International Harvester Titan 8hp engine his grandfather used when cutting wood.

Quality time in Dad’s shop

Wyatt’s dad, Aaron Abey of Forest, Manitoba, Canada, says he’s been taking Wyatt to engine shows since the boy was 1 year old. “He’s been kind of brainwashed to like engines,” he says. When he was asked at school why he likes antique gas engines, Wyatt didn’t hesitate. “I get to spend a lot of time with my dad in the shop,” he said. “That made me feel pretty good,” Aaron says.

Aaron’s heated shop is the site of more than engine restoration. Wyatt and his brother (Winston, 4) and sister (Violet, 3) enjoy riding pedal tractors and scooters there, keeping Dad company. Early on, Wyatt began tinkering with things.

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At far left, the man sitting on the wheel of the 1912 International Harvester Famous 25hp engine is Aaron’s great-grandfather. 

 
And that lead to his first engine. Family friend Gene Eggen, also known as “Grandpa,” has watched Wyatt grow up. After hearing the then 2-year-old say “engine, engine, engine” at shows, he decided to give Wyatt a 1-1/2hp Sta-Rite engine.

Today, Wyatt doesn’t miss a chance to talk about his engines. When he and his dad bought Wyatt’s Associated Johnny Boy engine and hauled it home, the border agent had plenty of questions. And Wyatt had plenty of answers, explaining every detail about the engine’s operation.

Wyatt’s younger siblings are also on board with old iron. Four-year-old Winston owns a pair of engines: a Waterloo and a Fairbanks-Morse. Three-year-old Violet is not about to be left behind: She wants an engine of her own and has specified that it be pink. 

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Young Wyatt with his first engine (a 1-1/2hp Sta-Rite), given to him by Gene Eggen. 

Engine hobby steeped in family ties

Aaron is the sixth generation on the farm near Chater, Manitoba. “I have that background in agriculture, and a love for it,” he says. “My dad wasn’t interested in mechanical things, but we did attend the Manitoba Threshermen’s Reunion show in Austin, Manitoba, showing Clydesdale horses.”

Longtime friend Doug Pigg told Aaron that horses were a waste of time, so Aaron would run to the engine shed with his friend. “I was 10 when I helped run an 8hp Titan that Grandpa cut wood with,” he recalls.

Aaron’s interest in gas engines is wrapped in family ties. He started out with his Grandpa Birmingham’s 1929 1-1/2hp John Deere and a 1916 Hercules 1-1/2hp that Aaron restored when he was 16. A 1908 Monitor 6hp balltop (or upright) was among the first engines he bought.

The fact that his family shares his interest is a bonus, one that allows Aaron the opportunity to travel and connect with other collectors. “It’s fun to get down to the states after a long winter and catch up with the engine guys,” he says, “and see what they have been up to over the winter.”

Engines are, simply, a lifelong passion for Aaron. “I ran a pair of gasoline engines between our wedding and reception,” he says. “I’m not sure my wife, Charmaine, knew what a real addiction engine collecting can be. I’ve eaten and slept gas engines since I was young.

He says Charmaine has helped him work on the engines, but with four kids (including 6-month-old Ivy), a lot of that has gone by the wayside. “She’s always known how important gas engines are in my life,” he says. “We have had fun times together on the hunt and at shows.”

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One of the engines Aaron ran during the interval between his wedding and the wedding reception was this 1929 1-1/2hp John Deere.

Engines built on contract

Aaron bought his circa-1915 Hummer 1hp engine in the U.S. and had it shipped to the Baraboo, Wisconsin, show, where he picked it up. “I cleaned it up, and it ran like it does now,“ he says.

The Hummer is a sought-after engine, he says, because it was built as a contract engine by engine manufacturers Termaat & Monahan Co., and sold through Harris Bros. Co., Chicago, which, like Sears, Roebuck & Co., was known for building package homes in the 1920s. “I’ve only heard of one other engine with the Hummer name on it,” Aaron says. “I’m drawn to those original-type engines; that’s why I was after it.“
 
Aaron sometimes shows another contract engine, a 1914 4-1/2hp John M. Smyth engine that belongs to a friend, Terry Wetch, Bismarck, N.D. “It’s a Waterloo contract hit-and-miss engine, which reminds me of a story Terry tells about our show in Austin,” he says. “There was a man holding a cup of coffee at a show who came close to examine this Smyth engine while it was running. Like hit-and-miss engines will, it made a big bang. The guy jumped and the coffee went all over his shirt. The guy returned to the show, laughing at his predicament.”

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Aaron’s Hummer engine is a fine original. Photo by Bill Vossler.

1913 8hp Titan back on the job

Aaron’s great-grandfather, Charles Abey, used the 8hp Titan on a saw rig to cut wood. The truck wheels under it now are original to a 25hp Famous engine they once threshed with. “It’s just a nice original family engine that reminds me of my grandfather,” Aaron says.

The late Doug Pigg, who was a great help to Aaron in his engine hobby, initially restored that Titan engine. In the process, he discovered the magneto was missing, so the engine had no ignition. After searching everywhere around the farm for days, Doug finally found the magneto atop a scrap pile, and returned it to running condition.
 
The engine also has the original clutch pulley on it used to cut wood. In 2016, Aaron’s dad, George Abey, got to watch the Titan work a hand-feed thresher attempting to set a world record for the most threshers running simultaneously. It brought back good memories of his dad threshing in the fields around the farm, Aaron says. 
 
Aaron’s 1909 5hp Sta-Rite engine spurs memories of the late Lee Anderson, a well-known engine collector. The 5hp engine was the first of Aaron’s nine Sta-Rites. Slight differences make the line unique. “I think the manufacturer was trying new ways to improve these machines,” Aaron says. Just three of the 5hp engines are known to exist. Aaron has two of them, with serial numbers only 30 spots apart. 

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Wyatt with his Johnny Boy engine.

 

1914 Chapman in rare condition

A 1914 Chapman 2hp Type C engine once used to run a pump house in a cottage on a small island near Bala, Ontario, is another nice piece in Aaron’s collection. After it was retired, it sat untouched from the 1940s until about 2011, when a collector found it and sold it to Aaron.
 
“It had very little wear,” Aaron says. “None on the cylinder, and the connecting rod and mains were tight with no valve guide wear. Nothing was broken. It was nice to be able to find one in this condition.” The Chapman was built by Chapman Engine & Mfg. Co., Dundas, Ontario, Canada. 
 
The Chapman has a unique carburetion system, which looks like an elephant’s trunk, Aaron says. “It’s a horrible design, and doesn’t work very well,” he says. “I’d guess that’s partly why they only built around 1,600 of the engines in all sizes. Getting this engine started for the first time in 80 years or so was exciting for me.”

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Wyatt, Violet and Winston Abey with their dad’s Chapman and Hummer gasoline engines. 

Digging into history with antique engines 

At 37, Aaron still dreams of getting into farming, but for now, he works in sales for Sysco Foods. “I hope my brother and I can keep the heritage of the family farm alive, as my extended family has lived on this land since 1883 and the farm has been owned by Abeys since 1883,” he says. “There’s a lot of history there, and I really value it.”
 
History is also at the heart of his interest in antique gas engines. “I keep wondering how the manufacturer was trying to figure out how to make a gas engine and make life easier in that era,” he says. “I really enjoy seeing the ingenuity behind them.”
 
Some of that comes to life in old pictures of the 25hp Famous threshing, old International Harvester equipment around the yard and two Titan 25hp engines. And then there is the history of his country. “Some engines reflect our Canadian history, like my Chapman engine that was built in 1914, which is a reminder of the first year of World War I,” Aaron says. “I‘m proud of our country, and its veterans."

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Aaron’s 1914 2hp Type C Chapman engine, before restoration. 

Losing the wisdom of elders

Some say young people are not interested in the old stationary engines. Aaron disagrees. “A lot of people in my age bracket, under 50 I would say, are into engines,” he says. The problem is, he says, that as the age of active collectors drops, invaluable expertise and experience also begin to disappear.
 
As time goes on, more and more of the men who helped Aaron grow in his hobby have passed. “I’d go to their shops and sit and chat with them,” he says. “They’d tell me how to time engines, and stuff like that. I still have Doug Pigg’s copy of American Gasoline Engines Since 1872 with his greasy fingerprints in it,” he says. “That’s kind of special.
 
“I could name a whole bunch of people, as far as collecting goes, who have passed on,” Aaron says. “That means the knowledge of that generation that worked on these engines is fading.”
The camaraderie is also changing. “I always liked it when a 90-year-old would walk by at a show and talk about how this or that engine was used on the farm when he was young,” he says. “That doesn’t happen so much anymore.” FC

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The Chapman, which has a unique carburetion system, was found in good original condition. 

For more information: Aaron Abey, Box 52, Forest, Manitoba R0K 0W0; phone (204) 721-3364; email: engineguy@hotmail.com.

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: bvossler@juno.com.


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