A Tale of Two Ohios

Ohio Engine

Content Tools

R.R. 1, Box 280 W, Chilmark, Massachusetts 02535

In 1993, while exhibiting engines at a museum show in Amherst, Nova Scotia, I was handed a message, by a staff member, which said Ohio engine for sale, with the name Marion Tuttle and a telephone number. 'Why me?' I asked. Miss Tuttle, the elderly owner, called the museum when she learned of the engine show, I was told, and asked if there were any exhibitors from far away. My Massachusetts off-season address on the registration card was the long distance winner; Miss Tuttle asked that the message be given to me. I wondered why she wanted someone from away. She must have thought that a collector from the States or Ontario would be a more qualified buyer.

When I called the number, a frail voice told me that the engine was an 8 HP Ohio that had belonged to her father. I asked about its condition. It was in good condition, she said, but it had been dragged out of the barn after a hurricane blew the roof off the building and her father decided to tear it down. The engine had been resting where he left it ever since. Searching my memory, I asked what year the hurricane occurred. She said she thought it was in 1954.

A week later I went to inspect the engine. Miss Tuttle's directions led to an abandoned farm. I drove back to the last landmark, then, following the directions a second time, ended up back at the farm. I drove in the overgrown driveway to the house. A dozen cats retreated into holes in the tumbled fieldstone foundation as I followed a path to the door. A small, hunched woman opened the door a few inches and with a gentle smile invited me inside.

After a visit in the dark, kerosene-scented kitchen, Miss Tuttle said she would take me to see the Ohio. Crossing the meadow behind the house, we struck into dense woods and slowly made our way through viburnum and alder thickets until we came to a little meadow. 'There it is,' she said.

I scanned the tall grass in the clearing but saw nothing. 'Where?' I asked.

'Right there.' She pointed with her cane. I went to the spot and nearly stumbled over a flywheel buried to its hub in the ground. I knew from my research that an 8 HP Ohio weighs 1,800 lbs. and has 40 inch flywheels; I had been standing within ten feet of it and, like a lion crouched in the grass, it had eluded me. Over the years the engine had settled into the earth with only the top of the cylinder and half of the flywheels visible.

The Ohio was missing its fly ball governor, and a Champion 'X' spark plug projected from the cylinder head where the igniter had been, yet it had weathered forty Nova Scotia winters without significant surface pitting and still showed traces of original burgundy paint. Miss Tuttle told me she had the brass oilers, grease cups and maker's tag packed in a box so they would not be stolen by 'the boys.' The engine was stuck the piston was rusted in place but, scooping out dirt and running my fingers along the bottom of the open cylinder, I could feel no deep pits. The ancient Ohio was eminently restorable.

Another winter passed. When I returned to Nova Scotia the following summer, I telephoned Marion Tuttle to discuss the purchase. Negotiations continued through the summer, the owner holding out for a strong price, and by early fall arrangements were completed. On a crisp morning, I joined a friend, Jim Bell, with a one ton Dodge truck and we drove to Amherst to claim the Ohio.

After the requisite visit upon arrival, we took to the woods with chain saws and cut a narrow road back to the engine. At noon Miss Tuttle served a meal of ham steak, potatoes and carrots, and an hour later a backhoe tractor, accompanied by a pickup with two observers, arrived on schedule. Four men, Miss Tuttle and seven or eight cats followed the tractor along the new path through the woods.

I carefully wrapped chains around the engine and hooked them onto the tractor's bucket. As the chains went taut, the Ohio shuddered and broke free from the soft soil; the backhoe operator gingerly lifted it clear of the ground, then set it down a few feet away. The chains were adjusted to keep the engine level. I signaled the operator to pick it up and take it down the path. A few minutes later it was securely blocked in place in the bed of the Dodge. While settling up with the tractor driver, I watched Marion Tuttle approach the truck and pat the Ohio.

In the summer of 1994, I took an American friend, George Hartman, on a boat tour of the islands near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The shores of the islands are accessible from the water only by small, shallow boat, and few boaters venture close inshore because of rocks and ledges and the ever-present, hazardous swells in from the ocean. Discarded artifacts, years ago pushed over the bank, have remained undisturbed. Circumnavigating three islands, we had spotted engine parts, fishing and boat relics, and four iron objects that through binoculars proved to be one cylinder marine engines all duly noted for future investigation. Approaching the last unexplored stretch of the third island, we saw a jumble of russet iron on the beach below a fisherman's shed.

'Flywheel!' George exclaimed, looking through the binoculars. 'A big one spoked flywheel!' I eased the boat in closer to shore, avoiding the largest rocks beneath the boat. In the midst of oil barrels and modern engine blocks was a six-spoked flywheel about three feet in diameter.

'What are we looking at?' I asked. The boat nudged a rock; I put the motor in reverse. George handed me the binoculars. Studying the junk pile, I said, 'There's an engine under it, and a second flywheel almost buried in the sand looks like an upright hold on I see a flyball governor, it's a sideshaft!' We passed the binoculars between us, studying the extraordinary scene on the beach, then backed the boat out into deeper water and headed across the bay toward Lunenburg.

On a calm morning a few days later, I returned to the island to investigate the engine on the beach. I put into the only harbor and tied my skiff to the wharf at a safe distance from the slip where the government-run ferry docked twice daily. I walked along a dirt road until I recognized the building above the engine. As I approached, I saw two young men shingling the roof of an adjoining shed; I asked who owned the property and was told by one of them to see Steady in the yellow house at the top of the hill. The other fellow said, 'We'll run you up in the truck.'

'Thanks,' I said, 'I want to take a look at an engine on the beach, be right back.' I descended the bank and immediately recognized the engine; an early Ohio sideshaft. I rolled a barrel off the top of the engine. The cast bronze tag, still riveted to the cylinder, proclaimed in elegant script: The Ohio Motor Company, Sandusky, Ohio. This one was smaller than Tuttle's; I guessed it was a 4 HP, and older. But it was rough!

I climbed up the bank and saw that the shinglers were still on the roof. I turned to gaze at the engine. Another Ohio! It occurred to me that I might be witnessing one of the last such sights in the world; a treasure of this magnitude, in plain view, abandoned and unnoticed. This Ohio had been unceremoniously dumped like an old boat when it had outlived its usefulness.

I sat on the tailgate of the 70s vintage GMC pickup an unregistered, doorless, straight-piped island vehicle and hung on as we roared up the gullied road to the house. In a long workshop in the backyard we found Stedman Baker repairing gillnets. I told him I was interested in the old stationary engine on the beach. Steady never looked up from his work but smiled without moving the cigarette between his lips.

'Anything that's down there, you take it away,' he muttered. After a chat about the disappearing fisheries, I asked Baker how I might get the engine off the beach, down to the government wharf and onto the ferry.

'Lee Cross. He'll take care of you. got a backhoe. Works on the ferry, too.'

'He's cutting savory in his garden; we'll take you to him,' one of the shinglers said. You can't get away with anything on this island, I thought. I thanked Baker and said I would see him again. On my way out I noted a couple of empty Golden Wedding whiskey bottles on the floor.

Another breakneck ride, me choking from road dust swirling up through holes in the pickup's bed, took us across the island to Cross's house. I approached a fellow working on his knees in the middle of a large, thriving garden. 'Steady Baker said I should see you. He's given me an old engine that's on the beach by his fish store, and he said you could get it over to the ferry for me.'

'Can't do it today. Got to get the savory cut.'

'Oh, it doesn't have to be today; any time in the next couple of weeks would be fine.'

'Nope, couple of weeks is no good for me. 'Cross said. 'Too busy. Will have to be in the next day or two soon as I get in the savory.' He grasped one plant after another, cutting each root at the ground. I sensed a gentle, reassuring quality about the man despite his abrupt manner; the Ohio could actually be recovered and moved to the mainland.

'That would be good. Can you load it on the ferry?'

'Ferry has a hoist with a long boom. Pick it up off the pier.' He worked his way along the row of sweet-smelling herbs, never looking up.

'I appreciate the help,' I said. By reputation, island people were generous beyond their means. 'I would like to pay you for your trouble.' I pulled some bills from my pocket.

'I won't take money.'

'Let me at least pay you for your fuel.'

Cross was silent for a moment, then said, 'You can pay me ten dollars for the fuel.'

I held out a ten dollar bill. 'I'll pay you now because I might not see you after the engine is delivered.'

'I never take money before the work is done. I'll see you again maybe twenty years from now. I'll see you again.'

'What will it cost for the ferry?'

'No charge for freight.'

I left a scrap of paper with my name and telephone number with the understanding that Cross would call me when the engine was aboard the ferry.

Back at the sheds by the beach, the shinglers offered me a drink of rum and 7 Up. We talked about life on the island. One of the young men pointed to a small building in the middle of a meadow of tall grass. 'That's where that old engine was, before they got the one that's in there now. Want to see that one?' I had been so intent on the Ohio that I had not noticed what was clearly an engine house. Plastic cups in hand, we pushed through the grass to the shed. Inside reposed a 10 HP United, vintage about 1920, hooked up to the same winch that the Ohio had powered, well greased, oil in the lubricators, ready for work.

The telephone call came at 11:00 p.m. several nights later. He had just loaded the engine on the freight deck of the ferry, Cross said. She would leave at seven in the morning and arrive on the mainland at 8:10. Be there early, he advised, because her schedule varies by ten or fifteen minutes one way or the other and she leaves for the return trip as soon as she is loaded.

At 8:00 a.m. Jim Bell and I sat in his Dodge truck watching the ferry pull alongside the pier. As soon as a small group of passengers had filed down the gangplank, the captain stepped out of the wheelhouse and manned the winch. Several pallets bearing freight swung over to the pier in quick succession, then, suddenly, the Ohio was swinging in the air thirty feet overhead, a large clump of dry seaweed still clinging to it. It quickly descended and in a moment was set gently in the truck. Except for an old timer who witnessed the procedure from his car, no one paid any attention to the curious object hanging from the hoist. Ten minutes later, the ferry was gone and we were alone on the pier, securing the Ohio for the ride home.

Later, a close inspection of the engine revealed the ravages of salt air and seawater. the cast iron frame, cylinder and flywheels had fared best; all were intact and, after sandblasting and some surface restoration with body putty, would be perfectly serviceable. Steel parts were another story. Gears, valves, sideshaft and connecting rod were swollen with rust and crumbled to the touch. The piston had nearly rusted away. Miraculously, the cylinder and its water jacket were free of ice cracks. An ambitious undertaking, to be sure, and worth the effort only with such a desirable piece; yet, with a new sleeve in the cylinder, a scrounged piston and many hours of machining parts, the Ohio would run again.

One last early-morning run out to the island to settle accounts, and the Ohio was secure. I found Steady Baker in his yard burning trash in a barrel. I handed him a paper bag containing a litre of Golden Wedding whiskey and thanked him again for the engine. With a broad smile, Steady told me to come back and take anything I liked off the beach. I said I would bring him photos of the engine when it was restored. A quick stop at a snack bar run by Carolyn Cross to leave $10 in an envelope for her husband, and I was back in the skiff headed for home before the wind came up.