An impressive collection started with a 1928 John Deere gas engine.
When it comes to gas engines, if it’s rare and unusual, Morrie Robinson’s radar is up. The Sedro-Woolley, Washington, man has built a collection of very rare and exceptionally unusual engines. And it all started with an old clunker abandoned in a barn.
As a high school student in the 1970s, Morrie bought rural acreage in the community of Day Creek, Skagit County, Washington. When neighbors sold their farm, Morrie discovered a 1928 1-1/2 hp John Deere gas engine tucked away in the back of the barn. Once used to run a milking machine, the engine had not been used for years. Morrie was fascinated by the old relic and the neighbors were happy to find a good home for it. “That was the one that got me started,” he says.
At about the same time, he and a cousin started hunting for engines in the Edmonton area. “Suddenly you are hooked and it becomes a disease,” he says with a laugh. “Somehow the number of engines you have seems to multiply.”
Morrie and his wife, Charlene, joined the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota, as lifetime members in 1987. When he mentioned his interest in engines, he was shuttled along to the West Engine Building on the WMSTR grounds. “They asked if I would run the 12 hp 1917 Western winch engine and 1898 National Transit (Klein) engine,” he says. “That was a useful way for me to get to know everybody, too.”
Among the engines Morrie began operating at WMSTR was an 1893 2 hp Crossley-Otto. An exceptionally rare engine, the Crossley-Otto has only one single S-spoke flywheel (measuring 5 feet with a 4-inch face). Its air intake, located on the bottom of the engine, is constructed of baffles rather than valves. Its sideshaft runs on the center of the crankshaft (most are next to a flywheel), the belt pulley is also in the center of its crankshaft, and the crank throw and rod are on the outer end of the crankshaft opposite the flywheel.
Another feature setting the Crossley-Otto apart is its “piano” base. The engine sits on a vertical, one-piece casting that flares out to form a base. “It’s quite a beautiful engine,” Morrie says, “when you see how that base flares out.” That assessment was shared by a collector noteworthy in his own right: Henry Ford. The famed American industrialist added the Crossley-Otto to his personal collection in the 1920s.
“Henry Ford spent a lot of time in Europe,” Morrie says. “I assume at some point he decided he was going to have a collection of major significance. I’ve been told the Crossley-Otto was at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, until the mid-1970s.”
The Crossley-Otto was part of an offering of items pared from The Henry Ford collection in the mid-1970s. Jim Withers (since deceased) attended the auction, hoping to buy an engine. But when the one he’d set his sights on went too high, he settled for the Crossley-Otto through a trade with a friend who bought it at the auction. Once the Otto building was started at Rollag, the Osakis, Minnesota, man installed it there.
Shortly after, Jim asked Morrie if he’d be willing to take over that corner in the Otto building, operating four rare engines: the Crossley-Otto, a Schleicher, Schumm & Co. inverted engine and a pair of 5 hp Otto engines (one running a winch, the other running a water pump). Morrie had misgivings. “I was a little nervous because they’re very rare engines,” he recalls. “But Jim said not to worry about that. ‘Do what you have to do to make them run,’ he said. That’s how I learned about these engines.”
In the 1880s, Nikolaus Otto, inventor of the 4-cycle engine, granted licenses to various entities around the world, allowing them to produce engines using his patent. In England, he partnered with Crossley Bros. Ltd., Manchester, to produce the Crossley-Otto.
Built on July 7, 1893, Morrie’s Crossley-Otto was first used in a boot factory, possibly to drive a line shaft. “The documentation suggests it was not a big operation,” he says, “but some small factory that produced shoes.”
Probably tank-cooled originally, the engine is now run on a continuous water flow system with a hot tube igniter. The fuel system has three valves. The first valve is operated by a pendulum governor that allows gas into a chamber. When the second valve opens, fuel is allowed to go into the hot tube, where ignition occurs. The third valve purges any remaining gas. This is the only one of that configuration that is 100 percent original and in running condition. There is a similar Crossley-Otto in Australia, Morrie says, but it is missing its entire valve system.
Morrie’s longtime friend, Ron Knight, helped him learn the intricacies of antique engines. “He took me around to see various engines and showed me what to look for,” Morrie says. “On the Crossley-Otto, he showed me the pendulum governor. Little did I realize, I would eventually own the engine.”
When he began working with the Crossley-Otto, Morrie almost immediately encountered problems with its fuel system. “We found that propane was not igniting in the engine,” he says. “It was either not getting fuel or it was flooding. Once we put a flame on the purge outlet, we had a pretty good burn going, so we knew it wasn’t getting any air.”
The intake baffles are, well, baffling. “I can’t tell you how they work,” Morrie says, “but they do work. We found out they were plugged with carbon, probably from running the engine as slow as possible. ... when you get it running too slow, things carbon up, maybe because we end up putting more oil in than necessary. We’re a little overprotective, you might say.”
In the weeks before the Rollag show, Morrie put in long hours, getting the engines ready. During one late night work session, as he and Jim discussed the engines, Morrie said that if the opportunity ever arose to buy the Crossley-Otto, he’d be interested. “That would be a good engine for you,” Jim said. After Jim’s death, his family honored that commitment. In 2012, Morrie bought the Crossley-Otto.
Another unusual engine in Morrie’s collection is a 20 hp St. Mary’s dating to about 1915. Aside from its rarity, the engine had special appeal for Morrie: It was once owned by the city of Sedro-Woolley, Washington. “Not too many people can say they have an engine that was owned by their city,” he says. “It’s one of my more unique pieces.”
Built by St. Mary’s Machine Co., St. Marys, Ohio, the engine was once used to run a water pump on the Skagit River that supplied water to the city. Later it was used as a standby engine in the in the city’s sewer treatment plant. “Eventually, it was probably dragged to where I found it,” Morrie says, “as it has huge flat spots on the flywheels. But since it has a counter-balanced crank, the flat spots don’t affect how it runs.”
Buying the engine was no easy matter. The owner, a local industrialist, had agreed to the sale, but he died before Morrie took delivery. At that point, the transaction became complicated. “I tried to buy the engine from the estate, but they wouldn’t sell it,” Morrie says. “When a fellow bought the building where it was stored, I asked him if I could buy the engine, but he wanted me to restore it and get it running for him. When I told him how much it would cost, he put it outside as an advertising piece.” There, the engine was vandalized. “Before that, the engine had always been inside,” Morrie says. “It was a beautiful, pin-striped original piece.”
10 years later, the building sold again and Morrie got the opportunity to buy the engine. “I got down there instantly and made a deal,” he says. The St. Mary’s was stuck when he got it home, but through sheer determination he eventually got the 165-pound piston and rod free – single-handed. “The adrenaline pumping must have helped me get it out,” he says with a laugh. “But I had to have two friends help me get it back in.” He brought the engine home in April; by July 4, he had it running.
The St. Louis Exposition of 1902 comes to life through another of Morrie’s unusual engines. His 1903 3 hp Stickney Jr. – the second-oldest Stickney in the U.S., according to a registry maintained by Buzz Stotler, Stockton, California – was purchased at the exposition and shipped to Saturna Island, British Columbia. Many years later it was found there, with shipping tags stenciled on the water hopper still visible.
The engine’s design is unique; it has only one valve for both intake and exhaust. “On the intake stroke, the valve opens a little and lets fuel in,” Morrie explains. “On the exhaust stroke, the valve opens more and a weight inside the engine lifts to let exhaust gasses escape. It’s a goofy-running engine, with a tall water tank. It was in pretty good shape when I got it, more than 20 years ago.”
The Junior has a 5- by 8-inch bore and stroke. The same engine was marketed by Sears, Roebuck & Co. as the Harvard. The Stickney Junior was built by Charles A. Stickney, St. Paul, Minnesota. According to C.H. Wendel in American Gas Engines Since 1872, production of the Stickney Junior vertical engine likely ended in 1904.
Over the years, Morrie has seen changing tides in the old engine hobby. “Good engines are desirable and maintain value, but you can’t give common engines away,” he says. “It all changed in about 2008. Prior to that, people were interested in fixing an engine. Now, I’ll say that most don’t want to spend the time or effort to search for parts. So the common stuff is difficult to get rid of.”
With that in mind, Morrie gave two Canadian Fairbanks, Morse & Co. engines – a 1-1/2 and a 3 hp – to a 14-year-old boy he knows. “I asked him to write a letter to me that explained why he wanted the engines and what he planned to do with them.”
The boy also had to agree to get the engines running and display them at two shows a year for two years. “That’s what I’m doing with the common engines now,” he says. “The value of the engines isn’t what’s really important. That doesn’t matter, because we’re into it for the fun and camaraderie.
“We need to encourage young people to get involved in this hobby,” he adds. “It’s a great group of people. The Crossley-Otto has opened doors in my life I would never have expected. I’ve even been invited to take it to Coolspring Power Museum (in Coolspring, Pennsylvania) in June 2015, with the ultimate best engines in the world, and take part as an exhibitor. That’s what the hobby has done for me. I took the opportunity to buy the engine without knowing what would transpire. It's nice to have an engine there is only one of.” FC
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— Morrie Robinson, 31445 Barven Rd., Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284-9160.
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.