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January 1, 2020

A Life in Old Iron: C.H. Wendel, 1939-2019

C.H. “Chuck” Wendel in 2008. Wendel researched and recorded the products of the myriad gas engine manufacturers in the early days of industry.

If there’s one name everyone in the old iron community knows, it’s C.H. Wendel. The author of some three dozen books covering the vast landscape of agricultural technology of yore, Charles Harry Wendel, or Chuck, as he would introduce himself, is best known in our corner of the world for his landmark 1983 publication, American Gasoline Engines Since 1872.

Today, we can look up any patent ever issued in the U.S. simply by going to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. When Wendel compiled his seminal work on gas engines that resource didn’t exist. Instead, he conducted thorough and time-consuming research scouring the pages of the Patent Office Gazette, of which he had a complete collection covering the years 1872 to 1975.


Wendel at work in Printers’ hall at Midwest Old Threshers.

The result was an encyclopedia of gas engines that owners of vintage gas engines, and individuals interested in the history of American gas engine technology, have been turning to for almost 40 years. Although occasionally criticized for omissions discovered years after its publication, criticisms that bit Wendel just a bit considering the incredible time he spent researching the book, it remains the most important publication of its type and a critical resource for anyone interested in early gas engines, particularly those used on the farm.

Born in 1939, Wendel was introduced to the old ways growing up on his family’s farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In a 2008 interview with Farm Collector’s Leslie C. McManus, Wendel recounted how his father farmed with horses while his great-uncles still used steam engines. “They threshed and ran sawmills and drilled wells,” he recalled.

Wendel’s interest in early engine technology is credited to his grandfather, who gave a young Wendel a copy of Gardner D. Hiscox’s Gas, Gasoline, and Oil-Engines, which was first published in 1897. And Wendel’s focus didn’t end with gasoline engines. As he learned more his interest expanded to include almost every facet of early agricultural technology. Among his published works are books on circular sawmills and antique tools, and an encyclopedia of vintage American farm implements. His interest in early American tractor manufacturers led to comprehensive histories of Oliver Hart-Parr, J.I. Case, International Harvester and more.


Wendel autographs a copy of his seminal work, American Gasoline Engines Since 1872.

His interests also ran to printing, and he was a motivating force behind the establishment of Printers’ Hall at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion show grounds in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. A museum of vintage printing equipment, much of it from Wendel’s personal collection, the presses collected and displayed there have been used since 2006 to print the Threshers Bee Newspaper for the annual reunion. “It’s just another aspect of mechanics,” Wendel told McManus. “The printer’s craft involves complicated machinery and precision work … And the printed page is not nearly as hard to move around as a 10hp engine.”

He would know. At one time Wendel had “a couple hundred engines,” starting with the 6hp John Deere that he bought in 1959 for $5. His first book on engines, in fact his first book period, was Power in the Past: A History of Gasoline Engine and Tractor Builders in Iowa, 1890-1930. Published in 1971, the book was supposedly inspired by a conversation Wendel had with the late Harold Ottaway, a well-known collector of vintage American tractors, motorcycles and cars. According to Wendel, the book was written simply because nobody could answer the question of precisely who built many of the engines that came out of Waterloo, Iowa, which was a hotbed of engine manufacturing — particularly farm engines — in the early days of gas engine technology.

C.H. Wendel’s American Gasoline Engines Since 1872. The first edition was yellow. This was followed by a red cover edition, and a soft cover edition was also produced. The final printing returned to yellow, along with the publication of Volume II.

Beyond his books, Gas Engine Magazine readers benefited directly from Wendel’s knowledge through his participation in the magazine. For 18 years, Wendel authored Reflections, a regular question and answer column on everything from paint codes to serial numbers, and his work is still regularly referenced.

Over the past years Wendel suffered several strokes, which compromised his health and his ability to engage in the hobby as he would have wanted. Yet he continued researching and writing, publishing American Industrial Machinery, 1870-1920, in 2008, and finally The Illustrated History of the Steam Locomotive, in 2013. Unfortunately, Wendel fell victim to kidney failure and acute pneumonia and passed away Aug. 12, 2019.

With Wendel’s passing, the old engine community lost the most prolific and productive researcher of early gas engine and agricultural technology yet to grace this planet. Charles Harry Wendel will be missed, but as long as there are people with vintage gas engines flowing in their blood, he’ll never be forgotten.

Aumann Auctions will conduct an online auction of Wendel’s personal literature archive, including sales catalogs, research notes, period publications and more on April 9, 2020.

By Richard Backus | Jan 7, 2020


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