Gas engines built foundation for industrial power

By John Butters, Mt. Pleasant News


The millennials have Steve Jobs. The boomers have Larry Raid.

A tool and die man, Raid belongs to that class of machinists capable of making dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools and almost anything needed in a manufacturing process. A true American craftsman, he can fix anything but a broken heart and the crack of dawn.

What Jobs did for the computer age, Raid and his counterparts did for the machine age. Inventive and often self-taught, they created the machines that powered America?s industrial revolution. Their work was on display on the grounds at the Old Threshers Reunion this past weekend.

Raid brought a miniature working press and a few of his many small gas-powered engines to the Old Threshers Reunion for display, discussion and explanation. He can tell you more than you might want to know about each of the machines in his display. ?I started out at Bluffton College in Ohio. I went there to play football and become an industrial arts teacher,? he said.

But the coursework didn?t hold his interest. After researching other schools, he found what he wanted at Northeast Missouri State, now Truman, in Kirksville, Mo. ?I walked into their industrial arts building and I saw drills, lathes and other equipment. It was right down my alley,? he said.

Raid proved an adept student and was given an independent study course. His first assignment was given to him by the college administrator. ?He came up to me and handed me a wooden golf tee. He told me I didn?t have to come to any classes and I could work in the building as late as I wanted. My assignment was to produce a plastic tee,? he said.

He designed and built a plastic injection mold capable of producing three tees at a time. Later, he said, he built a mold that could produce a metal tee. His experience started him on a lifetime of metal work that built his own business and led him to continue his work into retirement.

Along the way, he built a standard gauge train track at his worksite and brought in a locomotive, freight car, baggage car and caboose cars to run on them. ?My father was in the quarry business, so we had a truck capable of hauling a 30-ton locomotive to my plant. For the other cars, we put rubber tires on them and pulled them in with a tractor,? he said.

From the beginning, he collected tools, gas engines and Linotypes. Once common in the newspaper business, Linotypes looked like giant typewriters. The operator used typewriter-style keys to cast lead type to put on the newspaper presses. ?At one time, I probable had 72 Linotypes. I just didn?t want to see them go to the junkman,? he said.

His family is also interested in small engines and brought their displays to the Old Threshers Reunion.

Beneath his awning, Raid had set up a miniature press using lead type to make impressions. Of special interest to passing children, Raid would make a business card with an imprint of their name on the tiny press.

Patiently, he let the child select the letters of his name and a symbol from his type case for reproduction. Raid would then use a key to secure the type in a chase and then mount it on the miniature press. With a little pressure on a lever, the rollers would ink the forme and transfer the image to the paper.

Raid says he enjoys the contact with not only the kids, but the other mechanics who come back to the threshers reunion each year. ?I wouldn?t miss it,? he said.

Not far away, sitting amid the pop, sputter, hit and miss of the hundreds of engines on display, Rick Kaufman talks about the only remaining Walls engine in the world. ?When my wife found it, I knew it was something special. It wasn?t running, but I was certain I could restore it,? he said.

The Walls Engine is an example of the many small, gas engines that replaced arm, leg and horsepower in the performance of hundreds of tasks. The small engines, some as small as 1 horsepower, pumped water, shelled corn and ground feed on farms. They ran washing machines in homes and in the factories, lathes and drill presses.

The Walls engines were just a few of the many hundreds of motors entering the market for U.S. industry.

The Decatur Gasoline Engine Company was founded by Cicero Walls in 1893. His engines were made in several places, including Ft. Madison. The engine Kaufman owns was manufactured in 1895. Some of the parts were missing, some needed replacement. It wasn?t an easy fix. Kaufman said he searched the internet and went to auctions and old-time machinery festivals to find parts and substitutes for the original pieces. Some of the work required machining by friends of his.

After several years of work, he had the Walls engine running smoothly. As with many of the exhibitors at the Reunion, Kaufman knows his engines from the inside out.

As Kaufman discuss the work involved in getting his engine running, it?s clear that there is no such thing as a simple gas engine. He describes intake systems and valve spaces, governors, gears ratios, flywheels and counter-balancers.

Each engine, described in detail by a clever and creative machinist, is revealed as a marvel of 20th Century engineering.

Ron VanSant, of Oskaloosa, is the proud owner of a Waterloo Boy engine. The Waterloo Gas Engine Company not only made small engines, but was successful in building some of the first tractors. It was purchased by John Deere in 1918, adding another chapter to the history of America?s march to industrial might.

Van Sant?s father was interested in engines, and Ron started out by tearing down and rebuilding a John Deere 1938A when he was 14. He started attending the Old Threshers Reunion with his father, and then quit going in his teen years. Later in life, he thought back to the time he spent with his father on the grounds and made a decision to begin showing in 1994. He has been coming back every year since. ?I missed it. I wanted to come back and be a part of it all,? he said.

Van Sant could be speaking for the hundreds of exhibitors who take the time and spend the money to not only preserve these machines, but transport and display them for the education of the public.

The Larrys, Rons and Ricks provide a valuable service to those of us who don?t know a magneto from an armature. They show us where we were and how far we have come. They merit our appreciation for their skill and energy in the ongoing preservation of a key period in America?s march to industrial power.