A South Dakota collector prizes old iron from the Sunflower State.
Leon Becker has spent the last 35 years hunting for stationary gas engines at auctions, in junk piles and on leads from friends. Today, the Yankton, S.D., man has a 50-piece collection.
Leon’s interest in hit-and-miss engines dates to the 1-3/4 hp Associated engine his father once used to provide power for a cement mixer. After the engine sat abandoned for many years, Leon asked his father for permission to tinker with it and get it running.
Later, after purchasing and restoring a few other hit-and-miss engines, Leon began collecting Delco light plants. They were less costly and, at the time, he was working in the electric power industry. “I started collecting Delco light plants 32 years ago, when I worked for the Nebraska Public Power District,” he says. “The Delco electric generators were really cheap when I started collecting them. Now it could cost as much as $400 to purchase and restore one.”
Leon has enjoyed hearing the personal remembrances of people he encounters who recall how their family used the light plants. “Some people set them up in their basement or an outside building on the farm,” he says. “It’s always fun to hear those stories.”
Two of Leon’s prized pieces – an Ottawa 5 hp throttle-governed engine on a 5-foot log saw, and a Jensen Bros. pump jack – were discovered in rather unlikely locations.
“Lucille and Frank Wysuph ran an appliance store on Main Street in Yankton, South Dakota, for many years,” Leon explains. “Frank, a bit of an engine collector, learned that an Ottawa engine was stored at Yankton’s icehouse.” He was told the 4-cycle, water-cooled engine was once used to saw ice on the Missouri River, just a few steps from the icehouse.
“Frank bought the engine and halfway restored it,” Leon says. “That type of engine was pretty rare in this area. It was more often used in states like Washington, where logging was popular.” Leon’s first task was getting the engine to run. He searched for brochures to identify the engine’s original colors before painting it.
Ottawa (Kansas) Mfg. Co. was the outgrowth of Warner Mfg. Co., an early Ottawa firm. Brothers Charles E. and William H. Warner, along with Charles’ son Eugene, established a fence manufacturing firm in Melvern, Kansas, and Waverly, Kansas, in about 1890. Six years later, Eugene and his father perfected their first machines designed to manufacture woven wire fence. In a few years they sold the machines and their patents to the Steel Trust, Joliet, Illinois, and then immediately set about inventing newer and better fence-making machines.
Even by 1903, communities across the U.S. were actively pursuing industry. The Ottawa Business Men’s group paid the Warners $3,000 to relocate to their city. The Warners soon leased land in north Ottawa. Within two months, their new factory was producing 22 miles of woven fencing there per day.
In 1904, Warner Mfg. branched out into manufacture of small engines and power equipment. In the years leading up to World War I, the company’s varied implement line included post-hole diggers, weed and grass cutters, a one-man self-propelled power saw and windmills.
According to archival documents, the Warners sold gas engines under the name Union Foundry & Machine Co. as early as 1913. But after about 1915, the Warner brand name largely disappeared, replaced by Ottawa. In 1915, 1-1/2 and 2 hp air-cooled gas engines were being manufactured. Priced at $24.75 (about $591 today), the 1-1/2 hp size was considered affordable.
By 1917, the Ottawa engine line included 15 models ranging in size from 1-1/2 to 22 hp. Air-cooled models remained virtually unchanged from their original design, but the larger engines were modified and streamlined, complete with extensive pinstriping over the engine’s red enamel.
Later that year, the plant was destroyed by fire. The owners rallied and within six months, the plant had been rebuilt and the firm’s 200 employees were back at work.
According to an ad in a 1923 issue of Popular Mechanics, the 1923 Ottawa log saw was considered, “The standard by which all log saws are judged.” It was said to be fast and easy to move, and was capable of making 350 saw cuts per minute. The timing was right for the Kansas company: In 1923, a nationwide coal shortage drove sudden growth in woodcutting-related industries.
In later years, the Warners offered a full line of service station equipment, including power lifts, pumps, air compressors and lubrication equipment. Their equipment line encompassed both domestic and commercial refrigeration equipment, log saws and feed mills. The Warners also built a garden tractor, the Ottawa Mule Team.
In 1951, the company’s factory was inundated by 8 feet of water by flooding that struck the entire Midwest. Almost nothing remained of the company by the time E.L. Warner died later that year. The factory that once hummed with the activity of manufacturing crosscut saws and other Warner products was sold to Comfort Equipment Co. Warner Fence, Warner Mfg., Ottawa Mfg., Union Foundry and Ottawa Steel Products were dissolved.
Because Leon’s Ottawa was said to have been used to saw ice blocks on the Missouri River, he wanted to pair the restored engine with a saw blade. Identifying the correct blade and finding one for sale took some time.
“On the Internet I looked at a lot of different saw blade styles and pictures of Ottawas with a saw blade,” Leon says. “Eventually I came across a government site that illustrated how to sharpen saws and listed saws used for various purposes.”
A connection with a Washington man put Leon on the right track. “Through Internet research I connected with this young man who collects saws,” Leon says. “He helped me track one down.”
Leon is unable to verify the exact age of his engine, but he believes it dates to about 1928. The engine is a real eye-catcher at shows, he says. “Since it was in fairly reasonable condition when I bought it,” he says, “restoring it wasn’t a big chore, not like some engines that were pieces in a box when I found them.”
The other jewel in Leon’s collection is a Jensen Bros. pump jack. Leon’s Model 13w is about as small as oil field pump jacks come. It was designed for use in shallow oil fields and water wells. The piece was manufactured in Coffeyville, Kansas (about 120 miles south of Ottawa), where brothers Bill and Ray Jensen began manufacturing pump jacks of all sizes in about 1920.
Leon was offered the opportunity to rescue the pump jack from a junk pile when he picked up a Delco light plant for his collection. “The owner offered to sell me that piece,” he says, “and asked if I’d take a look at the pump jack while I was at his place.” The pump jack was in pieces, but the owner assured Leon that he had all the pieces and parted with it for just a few dollars.
Popular among old iron enthusiasts, the Jensen 13w was built from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The 13w measures roughly 3 feet by 3 feet and weighs about 160 pounds.
Leon is pleased with the unique addition to his collection. “Once I cleaned the pump jack, I knew I had a rare piece,” he says. “Kids especially like to see the water pump working at a show. If I hadn’t brought it home, it would probably have been sold for scrap iron.
“There’s something about finding a hit-and-miss engine that doesn’t work and figuring out how to make it run,” he says. “That’s always a thrill for me.” FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.