Local Gas Engine Favorites

An Iowa man is partial to gas engines built close to his home.

| September 2017

Steve Alt of West Liberty, Iowa, could be called a homebody – at least when it comes to gasoline engines. Not only because his family is involved in them, but also because some of his favorite engines were manufactured in his area of the country, like the O.S. Kelly line of Iowa City, Waterloo (Waterloo, Iowa), John Deere (Moline, Illinois) – and his circa-1920 5 hp Rock Island, Rock Island, Illinois.

Thanks to his granddad, who took him to see the steam engines, Steve grew up attending the Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers show in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. On one such trip, a light bulb turned on. “We were studying résumés in eighth grade English,” he says, “so I told my teacher that I wanted to write a real résumé, for a real job – working with steam engines at Mt. Pleasant.”

As a Mt. Pleasant resident, Steve’s teacher knew exactly who to send his résumé to. Soon, Steve received a letter requesting he show up at the show grounds to meet a certain person – who had a steam engine. “The owner of that steam engine taught me a lot and got me involved with old iron,” Steve says. “From there, my dad and I moved into gas engines, restoring a late 1930s 1-1/2 hp hit-and-miss John Deere gas engine. That started me in the gas engines.”

Steve loves anything mechanical. “Watching or working on any old gas engine … there’s a lot of funky motion going on,” he says. “This arm goes this way and that arm goes that way. It’s like looking at a monkey in a cage. I call it ‘monkey motion.’”

Intrigued by Unique Operation

In 1986, he became interested in a 5 hp Rock Island engine. Manufactured just over half an hour away in Rock Island, Illinois, it met his “local engine” criteria, but it also had appeal all its own. “I had seen one running, and I just loved the way the wheel was free before it fired again,” he says. “Because the flywheel is so thick, there’s a lot of energy stored in the flywheel, so it can run real slow, which is nice for shows.”

By chance, he found a 5 hp Rock Island that had just been traded to a collector at the Mt. Pleasant show. “He wasn’t interested in selling it,” Steve says. “He wanted to restore it.”