Hanford Mills Museum Rehabilitates 'Incredible Hulk'

Shingle mill

The shingle mill at Hanford Mills Museum

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The job was too big even for 'Ghostbusters.' Besides, the 'Incredible Hulk' that haunted Hanford Mills Museum wasn't quite a ghost.

It was a pink and green heap of metal, wrapped around more than 5,800 pounds of rust. For more than a decade, it had been sitting defiantly on the museum's lawn, perched atop railroad ties now rotting into the ground.

A 16 HP Sta-Rite gasoline engine dating from the turn of the century, it had been brought from a former sawmill near Oneonta, New York to Hanford Mills in the late '60 's by the individual owner of the site then. And, there it sat ever since, not fooling even the youngest of museum visitors that it was a piece of environmental sculpture.

But when Jim Williams became director of Hanford Mills in 1981, he also became determined to get the Sta-Rite engine running. Faced with more immediate tasks, he gave the mission to the museum's Collection Manager, Keith Bott, who readily admits he '...knew practically nothing about gas engines, much less single cylinder antique engines.'

Thus, Bott began an odyssey akin to Jason seeking the golden fleece. He began by going to all the major libraries and museums that might have special collections of this type. Curators at both the Smithsonian and the Hagley Museum, an industrial museum in Delaware, told him his best bet was to get in touch with Gas Engine Magazine subscribers 'a wide-ranging group of amateurs who really know their stuff.'

Fortunately, Bott's circle of friends included one gas engine hobbyist, Herb Von Kluge, who agreed to look at the engine in the Spring of '82.

'Herb went very eagerly at it,' says Bott. He figured it would be easy.

It took him an entire day, however, to get the piston out because it was rusted to the cylinder walls. Von Kluge went off and the valves were put in storage.

Now, the 'Incredible Hulk' was headless and needing a piston transplant, but it lingered on the lawn. A number of other people came by and looked at it, but were unwilling to undertake the project because it looked like an overwhelming task, Bott says.

Bott continued to send out distress signals to Von Kluge in the form of phone calls and notes. That summer, Von Kluge came back with an 80-year-old man, Ed Payne, a retired yacht broker who had just adopted gas engines as his new hobby. Von Kluge talked him into getting interested in the 'Incredible Hulk' of Hanford Mills.

Payne asked Bott to get a price on restoring the Sta-Rite. Meanwhile, he also found Emory Campbell of Roscoe, N.Y., a man 'whose reputation is wide-ranging for being an expert restorer of gas engines,' according to Bott.

Campbell spent the winter of '82-'83 restoring the Sta-Rite, returning it to the museum that Spring. 'Remarkably, it was in running condition,' says Bott.

Since then several refinements have been made which 'greatly improved the running,' he says. A museum volunteer, Don Lane of Oneonta, improved the timing mechanism, and a gas engine hobbyist from Deposit, N.Y., Glen Fox, made a new exhaust valve and carburetor. But, it was not as simple as it sounds.

Parts no longer still exist for the turn-of-the-century engine, plus, Campbell had not even been able to find reliable models. Sta-Rites are rare on the East Coast. Most are found in Wisconsin, where they were manufactured.

Since the restoration project began, Bott had been carrying on an extensive correspondence with one Wisconsin Sta-Rite collector, Jerry Johnson. Besides answering dozens of questions, Johnson also provided Bott with information from Sta-Rite catalogues and photos from his own collection of engines.

With Johnson's information and the original valve as a pattern, Fox was able to make a new two-foot long exhaust valve using modern pipe fitting. The original valve was so rusted, Fox had to extrapolate the dimensions. Nevertheless, along with other original parts, it will be kept as a model for the future.

One photo sent by Johnson, answered the mystery of a rod protruding from the magneto on the museum's Sta-Rite. Staring at the photo one day, Bott's attention became riveted on the rod, so he wrote to Johnson to find out its function. Bott learned from Johnson that it connected to the spark advance.

'We had it set up in a way that you could not advance it or retard it while the engine was running, which defeated the purpose of a spark advance,' says Bott. He found out a lot of 'esoteric details' about gas engines from Johnson, who also told him that Hanford Mills' Sta-Rite 'is possibly the last of its kind in the country.'

Finally, the 'Incredible Hulk' was restored and running smoothly, thanks to a cash donation from Paine and hours of donated time and labor.

'Now, we asked ourselves, what are we going to do with this thing!' says Bott.

It was 'somewhat beyond' the scope of the museum's collection because such a machine had never been used during the years 1820-1867 when Hanford Mills was a saw, woodworking, grist and feed mill. But, the machine is 'extremely rare' and the museum has the responsibility to take care of historic objects, reasoned Williams and Bott.

Besides, it gave the museum a really 'good capability.' With the Sta-Rite engine, it could run something like a shingle mill outside and demonstrate a process that did occur at the Mills from 1889-1900shinglemaking.

And, Bott just happened to have a Chase Shingle Mill, the object of another two-year odyssey, arrive on the site.

So on a sunny day in August of '84, the once ugly 'Incredible Hulk', now glowing with youth from a facelift, was wed to the automatic Chase Shingle Mill. Housed together under a shed, they can be seen operating during regular tours of Hanford Mills Museum, open daily 10 .a.m.5 p.m., May 15October 15. The pair will also be a feature attraction at Hanford Mills Fourth Annual Antique Engine Jamboree, September 21-22.

According to Bott, the marriage is working out great. And, he now has a whole network of gas engine friends.

For more information contact Keith Bott, Hanford Mills Museum, East Meredith, New York 13757, (607) 278-5744.