The two men bent to their task with a determination that matched that of the cantankerous old engine they were trying to start.
While Larry MacClintock opened the choke and depressed the valve on the antique Witte gasoline engine, burly Jim Whitaker grasped one side of the flywheel and yanked it into motion, pulling hard, around and around.
Coughing, sputtering, belching puffs of exhaust, the engine almost started, but then backfired, and the men began their efforts anew. This happened time and again. 'Can't understand why she doesn't want to start,' Whitaker said, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. 'Is it just this particular one that's so stubborn, or is the whole species like this?' he asked MacClintock, who is old enough to remember when engines such as the old Witte were used to do almost every farm chore imaginable.
Eventually Whitaker, MacClin-tock, and a few others who got into the act coaxed the engine into turning over and demonstrating to the crowd at Hanford Mills Museum's Antique Engine Jamboree its prowess at running a saw at the other end of a 20 foot belt.
The Witte, donated to Hanford Mills by the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, was just one of many old engines that gasped, popped and chugged their way through the two-day September event. Museum director Jim Williams said that 30 exhibitors from antique engine clubs throughout the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and central and southern New York had brought restored equipment to the jamboree, which attracted hundreds of visitors.
Daniel Rion of Prattsville was one of those who shared his passion for gasoline engines with Hanford Mills fairgoers. He brought seven engines and a fully restored 1936 John Deere tractor to the jamboree, leaving most of his collection of '100-plus' engines and 50-odd tractors at home.
'It's a disease,' Rion said of his mechanical hobby. He tinkered with a small part he held in his hand 'igniter trouble,' he explained and then continued. 'I'm just a collector, I never sell any of my engines. I'm not in it for the money, just the enjoyment of bringing back the old days.'
Among his engines on display was a 1903 Gilson, once used to operate a wooden laundry machine on somebody's front porch in Windham, a 3 horsepower United that ran a water pump and generator in a Durham theater, and a John Deere engine bought by an Ashland farmer in the 1930's to buzz wood, run a milking machine, and do other farm chores.
Rion's pride and joy, however, is that big green and yellow Deere tractor. It is in original condition, minus the spikes on the wheels, and it runs like a top.
'I found this up in Fuera Bush,' Rion related. 'Had to buy four junkers to get it. Paid $ 100 for the lot of 'em, but since then I've been offered $5,000 for this one.'
Restoring such equipment is not easy, but some of the parts for the tractor, such as the muffler and exhaust pipe, are still available from John Deere.
A contractor by profession, Rion obviously takes great pleasure in bringing these once-common workhorses back to sputtering life. 'I like showing them to people', he says. 'Lots of old folks want their picture taken with my tractor. Most of them used to have one like this.'
Cros Sheeley, a gasoline engine enthusiast from Kingston, is another whose interest lies in preserving the past. Sheeley brought a 1907 three-horsepower Majestic to Hanford Mills. Beautifully painted and mounted on its original cart, the engine is now connected to a grindstoneit had been used to cut wood before Sheeley bought it.
A retired school teacher and administrator, Shelley devotes untold hours to restoring his 35 engines. And when he's not tinkering, he's reading Gas Engine Magazine or other trade publications.
'A lot of research goes into this,' Sheeley explained. 'You're never quite satisfied, always changing something about this or that engine according to new information coming out.'
Carl Williams of Binghamton is a newcomer to the engine hobby, the proud owner of a 1923 Economy model that once sold for $50 out of a Sears & Roebuck catalogue. 'I bought it for $25,' Williams said. 'Must have 300 hours into it by now.'
Toure were conducted through the Hanford Mills sawmill. Onlookers gaped in wonder as a four-foot circular saw whined through a pine log, driven by the 1926 Fitz water wheel located beneath the wide-plank floor.
Water was the earliest source of power for the mill, which dates from about 1820, but it was not the only one. A 1908 Fairbanks gasoline engine was used by the Hanfords to run a dynamo which generated electricity. The same 8 HP engine, recently restored, can still be seen in operation at the mill.
A 16 HP engine, believed to be the last Sta-Rite of its size in the country, was restored last winter, says museum director Williams as he gazes across the mill yard at a little girl climbing onto Daniel Rion's green and yellow tractor. The youngster sits triumphantly at the wheel while a few yards away Jim Whitaker, Larry Mac-Clintock, and a small crowd of other engine lovers continue to fuss over the obstinate Witte.
At long last the engine cranks into motion, the frayed belt begins to roll and slap, and the saw comes to life with a rumble. All about are similar sounds, sounds that are music to the ears of antique engine fans.
History in stereo
(Article reprinted with permission of the Mountain Arts News. The Hanford Mills Museum, which consists of seven buildings and a mill pond on ten acres, is open seven days a week, 10 to 5, from May 15 through October 15. A tour of the facilities includes its most recent development, a nineteenth-century woodworking and griting complex operated by water power. During the off season the facilities are open to visitors by appointment. For information call (607) 278-5744.