Before and After: Rare Witte Engine, circa-1915, was rescued from a salvage yard in Oklahoma.
In its prime, this circa-1915 Witte 30 hp “sideshaft” portable gas engine was used to power a thresher.
But by the time Harold Ottaway, Wichita, Kan., got hold of it, the engine had fallen on hard times indeed.
The engine had spent much of its life on a small farm in southwestern Oklahoma. The owner, though, wouldn’t part with it. A friend of Harold’s kept an eye on the engine as he passed through that area each year. In 1961, the call came: The owner had died, and the engine had been sold to a salvage yard, where it was being scrapped. Harold immediately contacted Harold Jones, owner of the Duncan, Okla., salvage yard. His source was right: Jones said that the engine had been cut up, and much of it had already been loaded onto a rail car. But Ottaway could have what was there, for 3 cents a pound (about $180). The vintage engine was in sorry shape.
The engine’s steel parts had already been removed from the cast iron: the portable truck wheels, crankshaft, sideshaft and connecting rod had all been torched off and shipped out. The brass had been stripped off and was long gone. To most, it looked like an uphill battle. Even Harold’s brother – an accomplished machinist and welder – scowled at the prospect of restoration. “I don’t know why he’s messing with that,” he said. “He’ll never put it together anyway.”
That was all the challenge Jerry Abplanalp needed. Harold had asked Jerry, owner of Jerry’s Welding and Machine, Wichita, for his help in rebuilding the Witte.
“It did look kind of impossible when we first looked at it,” Jerry said. “It had been laying out in the open for a while, and it was half in pieces.
But Jerry – with more than 40 years’ experience in welding – knew the Witte could be restored. “I’ve gotten into a lot worse projects,” he said. “This turned out to be pretty simple.”
And so began what would become a 20-year process of rebuilding parts for the vintage engine. Actual shop time was backed up by extensive research. Harold, for instance, used 4 hp, 6 hp and 9 hp Wittes from his collection to determine the engine’s stroke, and then set out to find the crankshaft meeting that specification. He found a close match in a 25 hp Superior crankshaft owned by Bill Hey, Baldwin, Kan. Harmon Machine Shop, Wichita, machined it to fit the Witte.
Using a 15 hp Witte in his collection, Jim Withers, Osakis, Minn., scaled up bearings for the engine. Withers also crafted the connecting rod and brass rod bearings. Meanwhile, Jerry was at work on a new intake valve and exhaust elbow. The part of the head where the exhaust elbow and fuel metering valve were was broken off and gone, so, working from illustrations in decades-old manuals, and scaling smaller Witte parts from his collection, Jerry refabricated that entire area. The cylinder bolts had been torched off in the scrapping process, so Harold made new cap screws from one-inch stock.
Charles Clupny, also from Wichita, produced a new gas tank and wood seat, and he and Jerry teamed up on the cooling tank and put in line fittings. Harold made a battery box and footrest. Exterior brass pieces came from Harold’s collection, as did a set of Witte trucks, providing the wheels and axles. (The I-beam rails and axle cast hangers are the originals.) New piston rings were made by Joe Sykes, Lockport, N.Y. Harold used the one surviving governor weight to make a pattern for the other, and had it cast. He also made a pattern for the governor weight disk holder (which was broken and half gone) and had it cast.
The project came together in the late eighties. Painting and reassembly were left to Jerry (striping was done by Shire Signs in Wichita).
As Jerry’s collection grew, and Harold’s began to change, the Witte found a new home – when Jerry bought the fully restored engine in 1994. It joined a set that included a 4 hp (hopper), 6 hp (hopper), 9 hp (one hopper and one tank-cooled), 15 hp (hopper) and 20 hp, as well as a full set of Witte headless engines. FC
Witte Iron Works was established in 1870 in Kansas City, Mo., by August Witte. Although early production focused on steam engines, the company’s specialty soon became gasoline engines. Entry into that field came in about 1886, when Witte’s son, Ed H. Witte, produced a “crude but workable” gas engine using hot tube ignition, according to a history of the firm published in American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, by C.H. Wendel. Production of the Witte standard and Star sideshaft engines began several years before the turn of the century, continuing until 1914.
Simplicity was a hallmark of Witte engines. The company emphasized that “anyone could be his own mechanic.” Despite their simplicity, Witte engines contained unique features that set them apart from the pack: single rocker side lever valve operating mechanisms (also know as a walking beam system), and juniors, hit-and-miss governing, along with spark plug ignition. Later, the company’s diesel engines were highly regarded, particularly for use on railroad refrigerator cars. At its peak, the company operated out of facilities in Kansas City and Chicago. The company moved south of Kansas City in 1970; no subsequent records of the company’s operations have been found. – Leslie C. McDaniel