Rare and Early: Casey Jones, Dazzle Patch and Downes’ Special

Wisconsin collector counts three rare engines at the heart of his collection.

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by Bill Vossler
Rod Pletan with one of his rare engines, a Dazzle Patch, named for the offspring of the highly successful harness-racing horse, Dan Patch.

Rod Pletan grew up in the gas engine hobby, but he didn’t become a collector until he was in his thirties. “I had a coworker who knew that my dad, Kenneth, had a penchant for finding good deals at auctions,” he says. “He told me if we found any gas engines, we should buy them. He said he would pay for them, no matter how much they cost.”

In late August 1970, Rod and his father went to a farm auction in St. Francis, Minnesota. “Along the garage were five gas engines, which surprised us, because they hadn’t been advertised,” he says. “So Dad bought all five.”

At home, Kenneth had second thoughts about selling the engines to Rod’s coworker and decided to keep them for himself. “Today, three of those engines are the prizes of our collection,” Rod says. “Well, two, because I sold one of them.”

Taking the labor out of show displays

For the next 10 years, Kenneth continued to buy engines, and he and Rod displayed them at shows. “We also planned to take them apart, get a sandblaster and start working on them,” Rod says. “But instead, to do any painting, we simply wire-brushed them first.” Kenneth enjoyed restoration work, and Rod liked painting and cleaning engines for shows.

As Kenneth aged, he decided to sell his farm machinery and the engine collection. “Dad figured out how much he had invested in the 100-plus engines he’d bought over the years, and wrote a check for that amount to my two siblings, who were not interested in engines,” Rod says. “Because I was interested in the engines, we transported all of them to my shed. I ended up owning them instead of getting a check. That’s how Dad took care of being equal.” And that’s how Rod became a collector.

After Kenneth died, Rod realized that loading and unloading engines during show season was too much work for one person, so he mounted a dozen permanently on a trailer that he can conveniently access at his home in Forest Lake, Wisconsin. Among the 12 are three rare models.

“I appreciate the trailer, because I can just hook onto it and pull it any place I want,” he says. It has 4-foot sides and a custom-made canvas top front and back. I put the top on at the end of the show or after I get home.”

Casey Jones engine is one of a kind

Rod says his Casey Jones engine, which he estimates dates to 1926, makes a unique display. “I can shut the current off, and get it down to the last revolution,” he says, “and then it backfires and runs the other way. It’s really unique.”

And loud. “It doesn’t have a muffler,” he says, “because I chose not to put a hole in the floorboard of my trailer to dissipate the exhaust down below, like it is supposed to, into the rocks below the railroad carrier.” Instead, the exhaust points down, above the trailer.

Section railroad cars were used to transport labor crews along the tracks. Those built by Northwestern Motor Co., Eau Claire, Wisconsin, were called “Casey Jones” cars in honor of the famed railroad engineer. Later, Northwest added a Casey Jones gas engine to their line to provide power to the section cars. Very little is known about the Casey Jones gas engine. Rod visited the plant and asked for copies of their records, but none were known to exist.

Rod has never seen a photo or advertisement for his engine. “As far as I know, mine is the only one that exists,” he says, though a 2014 issue of Gas Engine Magazine reported on a collector who had one and was looking for information on it.

And the engine has no tag. “Tags do disappear,” he admits, “but it could be that the Casey Jones didn’t have a tag at all, because Casey Jones and Northwestern Motor Co. are embossed in the cast.”

Rod says refueling the Casey Jones required a 50-1 mixture of gasoline and oil, and hooking it up to the electric battery to get it running. “I think it would take a lot of monkey-work to get it started and get it running,” he says, “but it is as good an engine as I have.”

Engine with race horse ties

Kenneth once went to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to look at an engine the owners claimed was a Dazzle Patch engine, manufactured by contract builder Nelson Bros. Co., Saginaw, Michigan. It was advertised in the M.W. Savage catalog of the time. The Savage mail order catalog operation was a competitor of Montgomery Ward & Co., and Sears, Roebuck & Co., selling apparel, household goods, farm materials and more.

“After M.W. Savage became interested in race horses, he bought Dan Patch, the fastest harness racing horse ever,” Rod says. “When he added gasoline engines to his catalog, he named one the Dan Patch gasoline engine (see Farm Collector, July 2019), and another the Dazzle Patch gasoline engine, after Dan Patch’s offspring.”

When Kenneth got the engine, the carburetor and other parts were missing. “But Dad got it running,” Rod says. “He used a soup can filled with gasoline as a fuel tank. Back then, farmers made do with what they had.”

Sure enough, it’s a Dazzle Patch

With no identifying information, Rod remained unsure whether the engine was truly a Dazzle Patch. But then he found a Dazzle Patch in a period advertisement. “Lo and behold, they looked the same,” he says. “It showed how the connecting rod was unique. But I think what is also unique and dates it as a pretty early engine is the felt wick oilers in the two crankshafts. You put felt in as opposed to grease cups.”

He questions whether the Dazzle Patch ever had a serial number tag, as there are no holes for one on the engine. “Maybe it was a piece simply glued on,” he muses. “I believe the Downes’ Special is the same way. I am led to believe that this feature dates the engines quite early, possibly to the 1910s.”

The connecting rod on the Dazzle Patch is hollowed out. “I assume this means that lubricating oil can travel between the connecting rod ends,” Rod says. “The connecting rod (crankshaft end) does not have a grease cup like the newer ones do. Otherwise, I have no source to tell me how old the engines are.”

He does know that the Dazzle Patch engine is very rare. Gas Engine Magazine mentions the 1-1/2hp Dazzle Patch engines just twice, including one by the former owner of Rod’s Dazzle Patch. One owner said his engine didn’t have a tag; the other didn’t say.

Downes’ Special is a survivor

Another of Rod’s unusual engines is an early 1910’s 1-3/4hp Downes’ Special. For years, Rod never saw another, but that changed in 2019, when he discovered another 1-3/4hp Downes’ Special engine at a tractor show in Almelund, Minnesota.

Rod’s engine is not in running condition. “It needs to be unstuck and restored,” he says. “The engine has to be run out of a hot coil or the Webster magneto that comes with it, which needs to be checked, and probably recharged.”

In hopes of getting the Downes’ Special running again, Rod said he would sell it to a restorer who wants to be a collector. “I don’t think it’s stuck really bad. My dad and I unstuck some engines using grease gun pressure, and I don’t know if that’s exactly what I need to jump to as a solution for this,” he says. “I can set it on end and put penetrating oil in, but I haven’t pounded it or heated it yet. I don’t expect to restore it myself, not with my tools.”

He judges the age of the Downes’ Special and the Dazzle Patch as “quite old,” because each has an open crankcase, with an old-fashioned oiler to put grease on the crankshaft. “They are probably the only ones I have in my collection of 100 that have that kind of felt oiler,” he says. “The newest one is the Casey Jones, because it is all enclosed.”

Building memories along the way

The three rare engines keep their secrets. “I’d be very interested in getting more information on all of them,” Rod says. “All three are unique as far as I’m concerned. I’d probably say the Casey Jones is my favorite, because I’ve run that one. The Dazzle Patch has the most unique background. For those who remember the Savage catalog, I would be really interested in hearing about the Dazzle Patch.”

At 79, Rod’s ready to hang up his hat and plans to begin liquidating his collection. But he’s holding tight to the memories of boyhood adventures with his dad. “We took those engines on the road to threshing shows across the region,” he says. “We built a lot of memories that way.”

One was of nights spent at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion in Rollag. “We’d wait until after dark, and find where they had the hayracks with bundles,” he recalls, chuckling, “and crawl up there and sleep in the bundles. FC

For more information: Rod Pletan, 7414 West Broadway, Forest Lake, WI 55025-8474; phone: (651) 464-6636.

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: bvossler@juno.com.

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