Earl Leighton Jr. has been collecting old “one-lunger” gasoline engines. (Roger Amsden/Laconia Daily Sun)
By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
SANBORNTON — Earl Leighton Jr. has been collecting old "one-lunger" gasoline engines, which were used on American farms in the early 20th century, for about six years now and has nearly 20 of them at his farm on Lower Bay Road.
Several of them will be on display at this weekend's Belknap County 4-H Fair in Belmont and Leighton will demonstrate how they were used on farms.
He has his own memories of restoring one of them to working condition while in high school. He still has one of those engines used on the farm in his collection, one which he found by an apple tree and which had been modified by his grandfather to be used as a water pump during dry times during the summer.
He said that his grandfather modified the engine by affixing a Model T carburetor to it and used to put the engine in the back of a truck which carried a 300 gallon wooden water tank down to Lake Winnisquam where it was filled and brought back to the farm as water for the cattle which were raised at the farm.
Leighton said that it is difficult today for many people to understand how important these engines were for farmers, who said that almost every New England farm had at least one used for sawing wood, filling silo, threshing grain and pressing hay. Others were employed on farms to operate water pumps, cream separators, milling machines, butter churns, washing machines, electric light plants, and any other use where wheels had to be turned.
“These were big lifesavers for farms. Don't forget this was before there was widespread rural electrification. They came along and replaced many of the heavy steam engines, which took a long time to warm up and build up pressure before you could use them. And they were so small that two men could pick them up carry them wherever they were needed,” said Leighton.
He recalls that one of the one-lunger engines was used at the Leighton farm to bale hay, which had been loosely piled into the barn, in order to ship the hay by rail to the Boston area for use on horse farms.
Included in his collection is a corn milling machine, which would strip kernels from the cobs, and another which powered a corn grinder which turned the kernels into corn meal. He said that anything which didn't make it into the grinder was used to feed poultry.
And there's another one-lunger with a built-in vacuum pump inside the fly wheel, which allowed it to be used for milking cows. One even runs an ice cream maker, which was converted from a hand cranked White Mountain ice cream maker.
Many of the engines date back to the 1912-1920 era, when some of the largest engine manufacturers were Stover, Hercules, International Harvester (McCormick Deering), John Deere and Fairbanks Morse.
One-lungers were one-cylinder engines that produce a distinct “pop, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, pop” sound and were also known as hit-or-miss engines, which are controlled by a governor to operate a set speed. The name comes from the speed control on these engines: they are designed to fire or "hit" only when operating at or below a set speed, and to cycle without firing, "miss", when they exceed their set speed.
They feature a flywheel which maintains engine speed during engine cycles that do not produce driving mechanical forces. The flywheels store energy on the combustion stroke and supply the stored energy to the mechanical load on the other three strokes of the piston.
Rather than being powered by batteries the engines were equipped with magnetos that produce an electric spark which bridges the gap on the spark plug and ignites the fuel.
Leighton's collection also includes an engine which was used to power a Maytag washer, as well as one of the early washing machines. There's even a hand cranked washing machine with wooden staves.
Leighton stores his collection, along with many farm tractors, in a barn across the road from the original Leighton farm. He acquired that property six years ago from the Knapp family and notes that the main house on the property dates to around 1770 and has the exact dimensions, 18 feet by 30 feet, which the King's Grant of 100 acres of land required be built on the property within a year of the grant.
“One-lunger” on wheels. (Roger Amsden/Laconia Daily Sun)