Where Did You Get All This Stuff?

7 HP Witte engine

7 HP Witte with rebar and chain to add more weight for a buoy anchor in Flathead Lake off Wild Horse Island.

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Pres. . Miracle of America Museum 58176 Highway 93 Poison, Montana 59860

In the heart of God's country in northwest Montana, lies beautiful Flathead Lake. Poison is at its foot and Glacier Park is just 40 miles from its head. Its claim to fame, other than its purity, is that it is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Its other claim to fame is that it is situated only one mile north of the Miracle of America Museum, which has the largest and most diversified permanent public display of artifacts in the state. At the museum, which is nicknamed 'The Smithsonian of the West,' the most frequently asked question is, 'Where did you get all this stuff?'

Gil Mangels, founder and president of the Board of Directors of this nonprofit museum, responds, 'It wasn't sitting around watching TV, drinking suds or eating chocolates!'

Flathead Lake was a key to the acquisition of some very nice 'stuff and old iron that would be of interest to Gas Engine Magazine readers. Wild Horse Island at 2200 acres is the largest island in the lake. To make a long story short (for the long story, visit the area, the museum, and take a boat tour around the island), a Dr. Burnett purchased the island during World War II. His wife was Cora Timken, heiress to the Timken Roller Bearing fortune.

He wanted to breed an improved strain of western saddle horses on the island and live a self-sufficient life style as well. It was common for him to go into a hardware store and buy a case of identical tools or a whole shelf of supplies. Among the larger new items he purchased and had ferried over to his island were an Ottawa log saw, a 7 HP Witte engine, a 1910 Oliver two-way sulky plow, a large Buffalo forge, a Case stationary baler, and tons of other new tools. Poor Dr. Burnett didn't get to realize his dream; his wife died a short time later and he just lost interest. Over the years, the island changed hands and some of it reverted to the state.

I grew up in Poison, but had never been to the island, although I had heard some rumors of old machinery there. About eight years ago, as I met a summer visitor at church, I learned he was a forest ranger assigned to Wild Horse Island. I remembered the rumors and asked him if there was any truth in them. He asserted that they were true and that he would let the MacDonald family, who now owned part of the island, know of my interest. About the middle of the week, a family member called and said, 'Your interest in the machinery was very timely, as the family has been discussing what to do with it.' After accepting an invitation to visit the museum and then inviting me to visit the island, they agreed to donate the items if I would pay the ferrying charges to get the machinery back to the mainland and haul some items for them, too.

I located a barge for under $ 1,000 and the excitement and work began in earnest. Getting the machinery out of the sheds and down to the lake shore was in itself a daunting task. The '59 Ford 4x4 (the only vehicle known to have been on the island) hadn't run in about a dozen years. The brakes were non-existent and the starter was stuck. Mice had crawled into the bell housing, and crud, corruption and urine had not only rusted the starter bendix solid, but also rusted the clutch to the flywheel as well. The starter and carburetor were pulled and rebuilt, then it actually ran. We had to start it in neutral until it warmed up and then start it in gear to get moving. Dodging trees and rocks up a hill to the barn, we had to shut it off every time we wanted to stop. However, we were finally successful towing and hauling the machinery down to the lake shore without any damage except shattered nerves.

The forge, a LeRoi winch unit, etc., were in a garage about fifty yards from the shore, so moving them just took lots of leg work. Also, there was a set of flywheels, rod and piston, large brass oiler and a gas tank from a stationary engine, but the family knew nothing about the rest of it. However, one calm day, I noticed a glob of iron off shore in about 30 feet of water. It had been used to anchor a buoy. The barge's diver investigated and, even with my trying to describe what it would look like, he doubted it was what I was looking for. I had them pull it up anyhow and, sure enough, it was the 7 HP Witte engine. There had been several lengths of very large rebar pushed into the cylinder and through the crankshaft bearings to add more weight. I later steam-cleaned all the grime off it, and remarkably all the linkages and carburetor parts freed up. I haven't had time to restore it yet, though.

Near the house and garage were the trucks and handles of an Ottawa log saw, without the engine. I located the cylinder head down the beach where it had been used to hold underwater a suction hose for a water pump. The blade, from the garage, was still wrapped in the factory shipping paper. Even though I never could find the rest of that engine it was exciting to find the NOS complete tree felling attachment for the log saw.

The Buffalo forge was first fired up July 1997 at the museum's annual Live History Day approximately 60 years after it had been purchased.

The next most exciting, though unwelcome, find came as I was checking shelves of the garage and found a half-gallon milk carton full of what looked like safety flares. I was suspicious, though, seeing some little droplets on them. After carefully cutting away the side of the carton I verified that the 'flares' were really sticks of aged dynamite with the little droplets being nitro-glycerin. The family disposed of it, but finding stuff like that is sure hard on a person's heart.

All of the other above mentioned items are on permanent public display at the Miracle of America Museum. We hope you can stop by for a visit. Guests are welcome to demonstrate their own antiques or, on Live History Day, the third Saturday in July each year, run some of our engines or equipment. We are offering our fully equipped blacksmith shop to a clean living and talking smith to earn his own living while exhibiting his skills year 'round or seasonally. For more information see our web page at www.cyberport.net/museum, e-mail us at museum@cyberport.net, call (406) 883-6804 or 883-6264, or write Miracle of America Museum, 58176 Highway 93, Poison, MT59860.