Local Gas Engine Favorites

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

| September 2017

  • Front view of Steve Alt’s 5 hp Rock Island.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Steve’s 5 hp Rock Island gas engine. “A lot of people don’t realize that Rock Island was a main distribution house type of business,” he says. “They utilized the Rock Island Railroad to help transport their products around the U.S.”
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Steve with another favorite engine, a rare 3 hp Stickney.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The interior mechanism of Steve’s Rock Island is visible as it works, showing the piston. The disadvantage is that dirt can get inside easily. Bolts for the Rock Island are larger than normal, so Steve made his own, as the nut shown on the far side of the engine near the toothed gear.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The flywheel on the Rock Island is thick, which means it stores a lot of energy, Steve says, and that allows the machine to run slowly at shows.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Side view of Steve’s 5 hp Rock Island gasoline engine built in about 1920. It took Steve seven years to find the original cart.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • The Rock Island’s flywheels before restoration.
    Photo by Steve Alt
  • The logo from Steve’s 5 hp Rock Island gasoline engine dates the piece to about 1920.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Condition of the water hopper before restoration. Steve attended an auto body school, so painting, refinishing, welding and sandblasting is comparatively easy for him.
    Photo by Steve Alt
  • This ad for Rock Island engines appeared in a 1918 issue of Implement & Tractor Trade Journal.
    Photo by Bill Vossler

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.”