Amador County Fair

Tinkering with one of his engines

Mike Dune

Content Tools

Publicist P. O. Box 26 Plymouth, CA 95669

R. L. Bottimore tinkering with one of his engines, one of the larger models exhibited at the fair

Someone forgot to tell the bright little mechanical men that they were supposed to be put out to pasture, abandoned to the California sun, black widow nests and the corrosive rust of winter rains.

But there they were, some 200 ancient gasoline engines, whirling, popping and trembling in excited, if seemingly pointless, agitation. They spun and coughed aimlessly, no longer pumping water from Mother Lode gold mines or into San Joaquin Valley irrigation ditches.

The pumping and grinding and baling and sawing that they once did is now being done by more economical and efficient electric motors and modernized engines.

But they continue to spin and sputter and backfire, reeking of gasoline and oil, spitting gray mists of exhaust which nonetheless cannot hide their shiny new coats of orange and blue and green and yellow paint.

They may no longer be needed in the fields and mines, but there is no reason why they cannot be aesthetic anachronisms from an earlier age, bringing pride to the men and women who patiently restored them and a touch of the past to Northern California residents who wandered appreciatively among them at the Amador County Fair in the historic Mother Lode community of Plymouth in August.

The engines were uncovered, rebuilt and polished to renewed grandeur by members of Branch 13 of the Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association, which after the fair was presented the fair's Blue Ribbon Award, given annually to a person or organization which performs 'a most outstanding public service' for the fair.

Branch 13, founded four years ago with 40 members, has grown to more than 200 members who own hundreds of the ancient gas engines. One member alone has more than 100 of the engines.

Most of the organization's members are Central California farmers, mechanics and equipment salesmen and repairmen. The branch also boasts, however, insurance agents, engineers, government officials and one Stanford University psychologist.

No one has been able to total up just how many gas engines the branch members own because they delight in surprising each other with newly restored equipment whenever they get together at a fair or meet.

Aim of the organization, said one member, is to educate the public about the engines, preserve them for historical posterity and simply enjoy them as a recreational pasttime. 'We want to foster kids getting involved in this,' said branch president Louis Chapo of Sacramento, echoing a sentiment shared by several others.

The engines, which formerly performed such chores as pumping water, running rock crushers and fans in mines, operating milking machines and washing machines and grinding and mulching farm products, have been found abandoned in barns, closed miners, fields and 'the middle of the Sacramento River.'

Often, replacement parts to get the engines running again cannot be found and have to be Specially cast and hand filed.

'To start, some of the engines are just a mass of junk,' said one member. 'First you get a putty knife and start scraping, but anybody can sit there and polish one of them. The real idea is to get them running again.'

Harvey Brown of Knight's Landing, known in the group as 'The Pumpkin Boy' because he paints each of his restored engines a bright orange, said it sometimes takes him four to five months of steady spare-time work to get an engine fired up again.

A few of the engines are used for more than exhibition. A Rio Linda truck driver has hooked up one of his to a buzz saw to ease the task of cutting firewood. Another man uses one of his restored engines to grind chicken feed.

One club member suspects that the horsepower rating used for the ancient gas engines, most of which date from the early 1900's, was a higher caliber than the rating used for contemporary engines.

'In those days their horsepower rating was stallions and today it's ponies,' he remarked.

Many of the operating parts of the older engines are exposed. 'I get a kick out of seeing them run and seeing the infinite variety of solutions these oldtimers came up with for the problems they faced,' said one member.

R.L. Bottimore and his son Tib, both of Gait, own around 100 of the ancient gas engines, including a rare side-shaft Christensen engine formerly used at the Eastern Star Mine in northern Trinity County, California. Until they rebuilt the engine after dismantling much of it and hauling it some five miles out of the Trinity wilds, it had not been run for about 40 years and had been covered by some 30 feet of snow each winter.

An overview of a few of the vintage gasoline engines at the Amador County Fair.

Pictured is an IHC wire-tie baler that we hope to have ready for the show next year. Shown beside the baler is Harold Doebler of Clarkston, who is helping to get the machine back in shape. We have not been able to locate a 6 HP IHC engine for the baler yet. G.E.M. is great, we really enjoy every page.

Central Michigan Antique Tractor & Engine Club had a fine three day show on the Labor Day weekend. I was so impressed that I joined the club.

Cliff Hardy, a heavy equipment merchant in Woodland, has restored 65 of the engines over the past 15 years. His engines range from a one-sixth-horsepower model to a 40-horse power giant.

'I like to see the enjoyment on peoples' faces,' he remarked. Some male fairgoers, he wryly added, 'point to this and that and actually convince their wives that they know what they're talking about.'

Concerning restoration of the engines, he remarked, 'It's a pure challenge, the worse they are, the older they are. Once you get them going again it sure gives you a good feeling.'

This was the fourth year that the engines were exhibited at the Amador County Fair, where they have firmly established themselves as exceptionally popular crowd pleasers.

This year, the wives of branch members got into the act by setting up an old-time country kitchen next to the engines where they used vintage utensils to bake biscuits and cook up batches of beans.

Although branch members have more requests to display the engines than they are able to fulfill, they make a point of including the Amador County Fair on their yearly itinerary. 'It's one event we all try to attend,' said Chapo. 'The accommodations are good; there's a nice grassy area to display the engines-it's a good place for a family gathering and to relax and really enjoy the hobby.

Naturally, the group will be returning to next year's fair, to be held Aug. 12 through 15.