Collector buys a mystery engine that turns out to be a one-of-a-kind Virtue and Pound
Gene DeCamp was stumped.
He'd bought a unique engine from a friend. The seller – Harold Ottoway, Wichita, Kan. – didn't know anything about the engine, and the man he'd bought it from years earlier hadn't had any information either. All Gene knew was what he could see: The engine was complete except for the mixer and a lever that operated the mixer from the governor weight; it was stuck; and the engine had been converted from a hot tube ignition to spark plug.
He even ran photographs and a plea for help in Gas Engine Magazine, but to no avail. One day, a friend – also an engine collector – was looking over Gene's iron pile.
"Gene," said George Carbonneau of Bottineau, N.D., "I have an engine just like that one."
George was sure that Gene's engine was, like his, a Virtue and Pound, made in Owatonna, Minn. To make sure, though, he came up with photos of his engine. The photos confirmed George's identification, but they also pointed up some differences.
"George's engine is a hit-and-miss, has doughnut flywheels, and the name and location of manufacture are cast in the base," Gene said. "My engine is throttle governed, the flywheels are conventional large diameter, and narrow; and – other than the number 1 – there's no name or identifying marks cast in the base."
"They're the only two I've heard of," he said. "There's no others known of anywhere. I've checked around and advertised, looking for leads."
Still, he had enough to run with. Gene set out to research Virtue and Pound.
"James J. Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, Minn.: No information," Gene recounted. "Minnesota Historical Library, St. Paul: No information. Todd County Historical Library, Long Prairie, Minn: No information."
Finally, he got a bite at the Owatonna Public Library.
"In 1887, D.E. Virtue and C.L. Pound started the company called Virtue and Pound," he said. "According to an advertisement in the paper, the company was wholesalers and retailers, selling wood and iron pumps, pipe and tubular well supplies. The company also sold windmills, carriages and carts."
In 1901 another name was added to the partnership: E.T. Winship. The three organized an automobile plant and actually produced three automobiles (selling for $1,250 each). In March 1903, they demonstrated that their 10 hp motorcar could pull through six inches of sticky mud on North Cedar Street in Owatonna.
The final reference Gene found to Virtue and Pound was dated March 10, 1937, when the firm marked its 50th anniversary. All area farmers were invited to celebrate the occasion with free lunch and movies. "They expected 1,000 people to attend," reported the People's Press of Owatonna. After that mention, the company seemingly disappeared.
Gene speculates that the partners gave up their interest in the manufacture of farm engines, focusing instead on automobiles.
"If they sold their interests in the farm engine," he said, "that explains why my engine does not have a name cast on the base."
The new owner, he reasons, may have retained the patterns but made modifications to convert the engine from hit-and-miss to throttle-governed.
And then there's the matter of that tantalizing number "1" cast on the base of Gene's engine.
"It would lead me to believe that this engine was the first, and perhaps the only, one manufactured," he said.
Finding information on the Virtue and Pound was but the first challenge. Restoration of the hundred-year-old engine was no cakewalk.
"The piston was not rusted, but it was seized," Gene said. "It took me over a year to get it out. It was kind of nasty.
"And the bottom ... somebody earlier had to tried to free it up, and they broke the bottom off, so we made a new one. And we made new valves, and a hot tube. The carb was missing; so we replaced it with a Kingston sideshaft."
When the work was complete, the couple held their breath.
"We were sure elated when I turned it over and it popped right off," Gene said. "For a hot tube engine, it starts very easily; hot tubes normally don't start easily."
Gene has yet to find any literature on the Virtue and Pound, so the restored engine's paint job was the result of study of engines of the era.
"The engine had just a speck of black paint on it," he said. "I looked at some old books from 1896, and I had the pin-striper come in and look at it. I told him to make it look very pretty, but not like a French whorehouse."
Once numbering more than 50 engines, Gene's collection has decreased to about 25.
"I only wanted one engine, so I could join the club," he said. "But then that one turned in to about 50."
His collection includes an Allan hot tube made in Aberdeen, Scotland; a Fairbanks vertical 50 hp hot tube, and 12 sideshaft engines: Columbus, Ohio, Brown and Cochran, Witte, National and more. His first engine was a 5 hp Simplicity.
"I bought it for $8 in 1943," he said. For a time, he also collected tractors.
"But there's just not enough time to do tractors and engines," he said. "My wife and I work together: We make our own parts. We do everything but the pinstriping and nickel plating." FC
For more information: Gene DeCamp, 646 N. Ocotillo St., Cottonwood, AZ 86326; (520) 634-2740.