Grit Blogs > A Farm Boy Remembers

What Is a Zerk?

Larry ScheckelSeveral people have commented about my use of term “Zerk” in our book Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. A Zerk is a grease fitting on machinery that needs oiling or lubricating so as to reduce friction or wear on moving metal parts.

The Zerk is installed on machines by a threaded connection, with a nipple connection that attaches to a grease gun. The grease gun forces a ball bearing in the nipple fitting to move back against the push of a retaining spring. The Zerk is really a valve that opens under the force of the grease lubricant, then closes again when the grease gun is removed. The ball returns to its closed position, preventing grease from escaping and not allowing dirt and debris into the bearing. The Zerk is actually a one way valve, or check valve. That idea of a check valve should not seem strange. Our heart has four such check valves.

zerk 

Growing up as a kid on the Seneca farm, we used the work “Zerk” a gazillion times. But I had no idea of the origin of the name until I was in high school and would browse through the encyclopedias in the library

Oscar U. Zerk was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1878, came in America in 1946, and lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Quite the inventor, he held patents on quick-freezing ice cube trays, special brakes on trolley cars, leg-slimming hosiery, oil well recovery systems, and over 300 other inventions. In 1900, Zerk helped design the first ever six-cylinder car engine. A patent for the Zerk fitting was awarded to Oscar U. Zerk in 1929, and assigned to the Alemite Manufacturing Corporation.

Zerk was very much in the news in February 1954. Robbers broke into his Kenosha mansion “Dunmovin”, tied him to a chair, stole dozens of valuable paintings valued at $200,000, and escaped in Zerk’s own car.

A year later, a career criminal, Nick Montos, was arrested in Chicago, and given seven years for the robbery. He spent a good amount of time in Alcatraz, and died at age 92 in November 2008. Montos was the oldest criminal in Massachusetts history. Zerk died at age 90 and is buried in historic Green Ridge Cemetery in Kenosha.

Our machinery on the Oak Grove Ridge Seneca farm got a grease job before starting out and several times during the day. A hay mower might have three or four Zerks. Our McCormick-Deering threshing machine had as many as 16 Zerks. We would fit the grease gun spout over the nipple, pump the handle three or four times, or until you saw grease oozing out of the bearing area.

These days, the Zerk is still around, but has been replaced by sealed bearings in many cases. Sealed bearings are lubricated for life at the factory. No oil or grease is lost and no dirt and debris gets in.

nebraskadave
2/15/2015 7:27:35 AM

Larry, ha, I never really thought about the lowly zerk would having such an interesting history. Cars used to have zerks as well. Back when I did my own oil changes, greasing the tie rods and ball joints were part of the oil change. It's been many years .... maybe decades since I've changed my own oil and yes the rods and joints have all become sealed. Even the wheel bearing are sealed. I'm familiar with farm machinery any more. It seems that they have become so automated that perhaps they too have sealed bearings. ***** Have a great zerk greasing day.