Spark Plug: The Woman Mechanic

Meet the beauty shop operator who is also a crackerjack woman mechanic.


Hazel Ertle in the more effeminate role of beautician in herfront room "Abbie Lee" Beauty Shop in Winchester, Indiana. But don't be fooled. One minute she's working on making Mrs.Christina Sisk more beautiful. The next minute she's liable tobe out in the shop with hubby and Spark Plug, Marion Ertle,beautifying an ancient gas engine. "Permanent wave solutionsare often harder on hands than engine sludge and buffing old metaltoys and lamps," opines Hazel. Notice Hazel's bowlingtrophies, right background.


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Not always can ye Spark Plug don overalls, grab a monkey wrench, and saunter off down to the barn to belabor himself on his pet antique gas engine as a thin excuse for getting out of drying the dinner dishes or doing oilier household chores.

For, like "Everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go," so wherever Marion Ertle sallies forth, along goes Hazel too.

Thus it is that whenever "Spark Plug" Ertle of Winchester, IN gets that faraway "gas engine" glint in his eye, wife Hazel, doing a take-off on Rosie the Riveter, drops her beauty shoppe comb and scissors, jumps into dungarees, and strides along at his side.

All of which puts our hero Ertle both "on" and "off" the proverbial horns of a dilemma: should he ever complain that he can't get away with the boys, he at least can't complain that the good wife doesn't tag along like a good wife should. (I hope, dear reader, you're following me as well as Hazel follows Ertle).

In fact it's become so routine that it takes but a moment, the transformation from the petite beauty shoppe operator Hazel to that of Hazel the woman mechanic and gas engine bug—just a few steps' stride from her front room "Abbie Lee" Beauty Emporium and out the back door to the Ertle-owned shop the next lot over.

"You know, helping Marion to clean the sludge out of some old motor, fit piston rings, grind valves, or unstick a rusted cylinder isn't nearly as hard on the hands as some of that beauty shop goo," muses Hazel. "I can remember when some of the older kinds of permanent wave solutions almost look some of the skin off my fingers."

"But what really digs into my fingers and makes them sore is when I happen to be buffing a cast-iron toy train or polishing up, say, an antique lamp or railroad lantern for my collection, and my hand slips onto that metal brush," pines "Madame Hazel," in one corner of the Ertle gas engine "beauty shop," while in the other corner Marion and friend, Dave Foster, beautify an old one-and-a-half horse John Deere. 

Stuck Piston

One of the Ertle twain's real challenges, however, looms up in the form of an ancient Fairbanks Morse with a stuck piston, mounted on a portable saw frame, outside one of the several Ertle engine storage buildings, across the way. It's down in the Ertle garage, hard behind the Ertle residence and beauty shop.

"This old 6 horsepower Fairbanks-Morse weighs about 600 pounds," says Marion. "Dave Foster, from up Ontario, Canada-way, visiting a relative of ours, helped me lug it home on a trailer from out in the country twenty miles. We hope to have it ready for the shows next summer, along with these two Internationals over by my car. So far I've always been successful in unsticking pistons by using only penetrating oil." Ertle's many years as maintainer of the intricate glass-blowing machinery at Anchor-Hocking Glass Corporation in Winchester, Indiana, has come in mighty handy. (But in case penetrating oil just doesn't do the trick, a brother Spark Plug once told me that Iodine crystals dissolved in alcohol will unstick any piston—just don't immerse it too long.)

On With the Show

"Our first gas engine show was in 1966 when we took, a few old engines on our pick-up truck to the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Reunion at Fort Recovery, Ohio," explains Marion Ertle. "But that got to he so cumbersome that we mounted fourteen of our pet engines on a larger trailer so we could exhibit at both the Darke County Threshers and at Portland, Indiana, this year."

At first our trailer was off-balance, so we worked a week to chisel about two inches of concrete off an old Empire 2 horsepower engine to replace a lighter one on the front end to balance things up," added Hazel. "That can be hard on the hands of a woman, too."

Along with the some fourteen historic engines that make up the Marion-Hazel Ertle exhibit are ancient names such as International Famous, DeLaval, McCormick-Deering, John Deere, Economy, Empire, Alamo, Ingeco, Fairbanks Morse, Associated, Maytag and others, including their two pet engines, a one and three-quarter Stickney and a three horsepower Airmotor with fluted water-roller.

"Just wait till we get our second trailer of early Americana outfitted for exhibit," added Hazel. "We'll mount an old gas-powered water pump, a barrel churn, and barrel wash machine, and a corn sheller like they used to be run off a lineshaft out on the farm."

"You haven't seen everything yet," snapped Marion. "I've got another barn over on another street. But you haven't got time to see them now."

It all made early America so alive again, talking to Marion and Hazel Ertle in their parlor, lavishly decorated with dozens of old railroad lanterns, ancient ceiling lamps, antique crank telephones, brightly-polished brass bells, and an old Edison cylinder phonograph with tin horn and Uncle Josh records. Glad you can't sneak off without Hazel, Marion - for the one without the other couldn't be doing such a good job of thus preserving our beloved Americana (could you Marion?).