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Old gas engines fascinate at fair

POSTED July 11, 2012 3:13 p.m.

The old time, stationary gasoline engines that putter away at the Stanislaus County Fair each year sound like music to the ears of Dean and Sandy Abbott, who have organized the exhibit for many years.
"They were used to grind corn to feed cattle, pump water for irrigation, run other equipment off a belt," said Abbott. "One of them used to run a dozen sewing machines in a San Francisco factory. They also were used by blacksmiths to trip a hammer for banging out metal or operate a drill press."
Ranging from one to about 15 horsepower, they date to the early 1900s though he's come across one as old as 1890.
"People bought them, found them in no man's land after a fire, picked them up at a swap meet," he said, adding many got broken up in the 1940s and became scrap metal to make armaments for the war effort.
The Western Heritage Engines Antiques and Tractor (WHEAT) Exhibit, as the fair's show is called, also used to feature tractors and other farm equipment but Abbott is not expecting any to appear this year. The early gas powered tractors, running on two or four cylinders, first appeared in 1910 to 1920, supplanting their steam powered predecessors of 1810 onward. They could pull one or two plows but were clumsy and required so much space to turn, they were useless on small farms.
The Abbott's exhibit used to be located by the main gate but this year has been relegated to a much smaller space near the 4-H barn, which will limit the number and size of its engines.
Lacking a radiator like that on a vehicle, the stationary gas engines are cooled by a water hopper that sits on top of the cylinder and has pipes running around it.
"The water in the hopper gets hot enough to boil eggs. We've often done that," said Abbott.
Over the years, he has seen some very large engines "of 150 to 200 horsepower with six feet diameter flywheels" placed in the exhibit, "machines so large and heavy they needed a semi to bring them in." He especially remembers one engine of 120 horsepower that once powered a cotton gin in Arizona.
But the exhibit nowadays is limited to much smaller engines of 15 or 20 HP at the most.
"I grew up on a farm with the engines that worked it and grew fascinated by the equipment, Abbott said. "I own a few smaller engines, of two to three horsepower. My largest is 7.5."
Most of the visitors to the exhibit are in their 50s and 60s, people who remember seeing the old gas engines hard at work in their youth. But he does get some of the younger crowd fascinated by the old time machinery.
All the engines at this year's fair will be gas-powered said Abbott. California has very few of the earlier steam engines left. They only go on show at larger fairs like Tulare County's because they are expensive to insure due to the chance of boiler explosions and similar accidents.


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