An Iowa man is partial to gas engines built close to his home.
Front view of Steve Alt’s 5 hp Rock Island.
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.’”
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.”
A few years later, though, the man called Steve. The Rock Island had turned out to be too big a project for him. “By that time, it was a pile of parts,” Steve says. “He’d sandblasted it with the intention of restoring it, but never got around to it, so by that time, all those parts had a light sheen of rust.”
Restoration took a full winter. “There was no rocker arm,” Steve says. “All that was left was a post where the rocker arm was supposed to go.”
Which shouldn’t have proved to be too big a problem. But Steve couldn’t find anybody who would lend him a rocker arm for recasting, or anyone who’d already made casts of one. “So I took a piece of paper and made a bunch of measurements with a protractor, figuring out the angle,” he says. “I sat down with a piece of steel, a welder and a grinder, and shaped it. It might be the only steel rocker arm out there. I think only a true Rock Island collector would look at it and realize that it’s not original.”
The gas tank also needed to be redone. Steve hired that out, a decision he would come to regret. “It was very expensive, and I later realized I should have tried to repair it myself,” he says. “The biggest thing with any of those parts is time and patience.”
Steve needed to find a muffler and a magneto, as both parts were missing, and the head was cracked, so he had to repair it. “It’s just the standard stuff you find with these old engines,” he says. He does all the restoration himself, including making bolts and nuts. “The Rock Island has bolts with a high crown,” he says. “I sit down at a lathe and mill to turn out the bolts I need.”
A restoration purist, Steve’s been trying to determine the original color of Rock Island engines. “The first thing Rock Island people start talking about when they get together is that nobody knows the true color,” he says. “All the Rock Island guys are arm wrestling over that.”
Generally, shades of mustard brown, medium brown and dark brown were considered correct. “Over the years, some people removed the paint guard and found the original paint,” Steve says, “so the latest thinking is there were only two colors, light and dark, and none in between.” He thinks it’s possible that smaller engines, like the 3 hp and 1 hp, were dark brown, and the larger ones, like his, were mustard brown.
When he got his engine, it was not on the original cart, but seven years later, an original cart showed up just a few miles from his house. “Now the entire machine looks very original, like it just came from the factory,” Steve says. “But no matter how good an engine looks, the best-looking one is the one that’s running. Once this engine was running I felt a lot of pride, and as time has passed, it means even more to me.”
One unusual feature of Steve’s Rock Island engine is the ability to change the engine’s speed without shutting it off. “You can actually adjust the engine while it’s running, and that was unique in that timeframe. Other engines of that era, like the Novo and Gilson, had to be completely shut down to change the speed, and then you had to start it up again to see if it’s running at the speed you want it to. On the Rock Island, the farmer could easily go between jobs and adjust the speed,” he says.
Steve’s Rock Island was built during the years when engines had open parts. “Any time you have an open crankcase, you can accidentally get your hand stuck in it,” Steve notes. “Or if you’re hooked up to a cement mixer, and constantly throwing sand and Portland mix, stuff is flying in the air, and if you’ve done your maintenance properly, with grease, all the dust will stick to the grease, and wears the engine out quicker.” It’s the same with shelling corn, he adds. Dust and chaff get in and make a thick paste that eventually impacts engine operation.
The open water hopper presents the same problem. “Depending on the environment, corn shucks, grain dust or whatever catches in the water and settles down, so sediment builds up and the engine doesn’t cool as well,” he says. “If it’s never cleaned out, sometimes there can be sediment halfway up the side of the cylinder.”
For Steve, the Rock Island has endless appeal. “This 5 hp has all the features a collector would want in a gas engine: hit-and-miss, water-cooled, head igniter with mag, an open crankcase where you can see the piston, a flywheel with six spokes instead of a solid flywheel, and it’s decorative when it’s set up, a light color with dark accents,” he says. “It has all the stuff hobbyists like. This is pretty much a standard cookie-cutter engine, and like all Rock Islands – and John Deere and International Harvester engines – it is a very strong-running, very good engine.”
It’s a definite crowd-pleaser. “People love to see it,” he says. “Then I can tell them the story about hit-and-miss engines. I can show them all kinds of stuff, like how a hit-and-miss governor works, how the magneto makes the spark and the timing of that spark, and everybody loves to see the piston going in and out while they’re watching. It’s a good engine to talk about. That can lead to teaching people in general about gasoline engines.”
And that’s helpful, because not everyone has had opportunity to learn about stationary gas engines. “People will see the steam coming out of the top of the water hopper, and say, ‘Oh, look at the steam engine!’ I explain to them that that’s part of the cooling process.”
Although Steve has other engines, including a 3 hp Stickney, 1-1/2 John Deere and a 6 hp Gilson, the 5 hp Rock Island is a particular favorite. Sometimes, when he’s feeling nostalgic about his old engines, he visits the West Liberty depot and gazes at the tracks that carried freight cars of Rock Island engines across the U.S. “For me, it all started as a love of the gas engine, and still is,” Steve says, adding, “I really enjoy it, showing them how the engines run, getting to know people, and teaching them what an old gas engine is.” FC
For more information: Steve Alt, 614 N. Calhoun St., West Liberty, IA 52776; (319) 330-9446; email@example.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: firstname.lastname@example.org.