Rt. #1, Box 68, Buna, Texas 77612
It was a hot and humid day in East Texas when my search for an 'Old Timey' gasoline engine finally paid off. I did not know these engines even existed prior to the summer of 1968. I was on vacation to my hometown of Sandy Lake, Pennsylvania, and attended a steam and gas engine show near Butler. That's when I got the bug! Most of my life I had fooled around with cars, motorcycles and anything else that had a motor and wheels. But the financial responsibilities of being a newlywed had curtailed the hobby, at least for the time being. However, at that show near Butler, I had found something that was right up my alley. It had a motor and wheels, but it didn't need a license or insurance to operate. And let's see, how many of them could I get in a 20 by 20 garage?? I just had to find one!!! Little did I know at the time that my part of the country had given up most of its gas and steam engines years ago to the scrap piles. So for several years thereafter, I asked and searched for a clue to the whereabouts of an old gasoline engine. No luck. Even though it began to seem very remote, I still held onto the dream that someday, somewhere I would finally find what I was looking for.
I continued my vacations to the Western Pennsylvania area and every summer left the area with renewed faith that I could find one. The Meadville show was near my hometown so this is where I spent the high point of my vacations. I had met a lot of people there, and had asked a lot of questions about different engines, and it was after the 1979 show, after returning to Texas that the day finally arrived. I was helping a friend from Morehead, Minnesota load his bee hives for the trip North. We had just picked up a load from the farm of Marvin Dowden, an old timer here in the town of Buna where I live, and were preparing to leave. As we drove past an old shed, which we had done several times that summer, my attention was drawn to what appeared to be a spoked flywheel barely visible above the grass. Closer inspection revealed my search was finally over. It was indeed an 'Old Timey' engine.
I returned later that afternoon to talk to Mr. Dowden about the possibility of buying the old engine. He was a widower, and had suffered a stroke several years before, but at the age of 73, he still seemed very alert. He figured the engine was good only as scrap as there was 'No Way' it could ever run again. He set his price at $7.00 cash. I wasted no time giving him his money and loaded it into a friend's truck, and headed for home with my 'Old Timey' engine.
After getting it home, I discovered that it was a 2HP Witte...badly deteriorated...but all the parts seemed to be there. I soon found out, though, that both valves and springs were only a ghost of what they once had been, and the piston was frozen tight.
The next couple of weeks were spent scraping, cleaning, sanding, painting, making new parts, and fitting the engine back together with new bolts and nuts. I scrounged up a Model 'T' coil and a gas tank, and everything appeared ready for a trial run.
I called the family together in the garage to witness the event. The smell of fresh paint and gasoline filled the air. I gave the fuel mixer a shot of gas and moved around to the flywheels. I rotated them until the piston came up on compression. It kicked back!! The adrenalin was racing through my veins then as I gave the flywheels a hard pull. It fired!! The flywheels kept turning and the exhaust began barking. I had just re-invented the gasoline engine...or so I thought at that moment.
This is the part of your first restoration, the feeling, that is so very hard to describe to another person. Just seeing the flywheels turning that first time after being idle for so many years, makes all the time and effort involved well worth it!
Now, I don't believe in ghosts, mind you, but maybe, just maybe, this feeling that each one of us gets when the intake shrieks and the exhaust barks on an engine that has been dead for 30 years or more, comes from without and not from within. Could it be that the spirits of Otto, Lenoir, Diesel, Reed, Witte, and all the other pioneers of the internal combustion engine, are looking over our shoulders, saying, 'Congratulations!'? Who can say for sure?
Well, I spent most of the rest of that night starting, stopping, and tuning the' once-again breathing machine. I wonder who it was that first made her breathe? The next day I went to see the old man I had bought the engine from and asked him to come and see the scrap iron he had sold me. He had a look of amazement, to be sure, when he first saw it. And after he heard it run a few minutes, he wiped his eyes and started telling me the history of the engine, as he knew it. He recalled it was purchased about 1919 by a mattress factory in Jasper, Texas to run the cotton gin. Mr. Dowden had bought it from the original owners in 1940, long after the mattress factory had ceased operations. He used it to power the family washing machine. He added that his wife had washed many loads of clothes using it for power. It was replaced in 1945 with an electric motor and the old Witte was dragged out to the field to spend the rest of its days rusting away. He suspected that the engine now probably looked and ran better than when it was new. And he wished his wife could have been there to see it running again.
Mr. Dowden died about a year later but he said something to me that day that I'll always remember. 'Wouldn't life be so much better if it still ran at three hundred RPM instead of four thousand?' I'd like to think we all gained from 'The Resurrection.'